Gershwin and the Talmud

As a child, my parents encouraged me to read for pleasure. Being a mostly obedient sort, I happily obliged. I particularly enjoyed reading biographies, primarily those of famous athletes, but also those of non-sporting famous Americans, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.

I especially enjoyed reading the life story of George Gershwin, the famous composer, who was born in 1897 and died in 1938. He wasn’t a ball player or a president, but he was a Jew!  The account of his boyhood, his brother Ira, who himself became a noted lyricist, and his great works, such as Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, and An American in Paris, captivated me.

Recently, one of his most famous compositions was in the news again, 88 years after it was first performed. The New York Times reported that the sounds of French taxi horns, which were employed by Gershwin to convey the Parisian environment in An American in Paris, may have been played incorrectly in every performance since at least 1945.

What prompted the reexamination of the sounds of the French taxi horns? In a recently discovered recording of the piece made in 1929  that was made with Gershwin’s direction, the horns were played in an entirely different pitch.  The taxi horns in that recording, according to the Times, are being played in A flat, B flat, a higher D, and a lower A — all different from the more well-known recordings of the piece.

Gershwin’s original French taxi horns seem to have been lost, so no one knows their original pitch. To complicate matters further, there is some confusion as to what he intended in the original handwritten score. Gershwin marked the four taxi horns in his score with a circled ‘A’, a circled ‘B’, a circled ‘C’, and a circled ‘D’. For most of the past 7 decades, these letters have been understood to indicate the note each horn should play — A,B,C, and D. Now, though, a new critical edition posits that Gershwin’s circled letters did not indicate the notes to be played, but rather were labels indicating which horns to play, and not the specific notes.

The debate among musicians, musicologists, and music stores that rent out tuned French horns for the playing of An American in Paris is fierce. Which is the correct way to play the French taxi horns— the way they were played on the 1929 recording, or the way they have been played since 1945? What was Gershwin’s intent when he wrote A,B,C, and D?

In Judaism, debates about the proper reading and interpretation of texts have been going on for centuries. A striking example of how one word or phrase can make a difference can be found in the Mishnaic text in Tractate Sanhedrin (Chapter 4, Mishnah 5) . There, the text reads, ‘…Whoever destroys a single soul of Israel, is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single soul of Israel, is considered as if he has saved an entire world’. While most printed texts are written in this form, the majority of manuscripts do not contain the words ‘of Israel’. Thus, according to these original versions, the Mishnah is emphasizing the universal value of all human life, not only of the Jews.

Of course, arguments, and differing interpretations of the Mishnah and Talmud are nothing new. The two opposing schools of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel debated the correct interpretation of the laws and practices. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, Rava and Abaye — the list of argumentative rabbis is a long one. And the debates as to the correct interpretation don’t end within the Talmud text. Open a volume of the Talmud, and examine the page. In addition to the standard Mishnah and Talmudic text, one will find tiny notes arranged on the margins, written by various commentators, who made emendations to the printed text. Frequently, the classic commentators themselves, such as Rashi, had a different text than what we have today.  Variant readings, manuscripts, different understandings — all are part of the Talmud.

While in practical terms, the law was decided in accordance with Bet Hillel, and in most instances the law was decided in favor of Rava, Judaism values discussion, debate, and argument regarding the law, and not just its outcome. Elu V’elu Divrei Elohim Chayim, it is said of the disputes between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel– both opinions are the ‘words of the Living God’.

Yet, there are instances in the Talmud, when the law is not clearly decided in favor of one or another. In that case, frequently, the Talmud says, ‘Go see how the people practice’. In other words, sometimes, the law is decided according to the practices and customs of the people.

So, as for Gershwin and his French taxi horns — both practices are undoubtedly valid. Which musical notation will prevail? Let the music play and let the people decide:)

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Rosenbaum is the vice-president of Davka Corporation ( one of the world's leading developers of Jewish educational software. He has lived in Israel since 1996, and writes extensively about Jewish life in Israel for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and other publications.