There was no formal premiere of this work. Leonid Hambro made the first recording, which was put out on the Walden label, a project of Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski.
By the early 1920s George Gershwin was famous for his ability to sit at the piano and improvise variations on his own song themes. In 1929, representatives of Simon and Schuster asked him to put some of these impromptu works on paper but, although intrigued by the idea, three years passed before he got down to the task, composing solo piano arrangements of eighteen tunes. In May of that year there appeared a Random House limited edition signed by Gershwin and the illustrator, Constantin Alajalov, which contained these transcriptions as well as standard piano/vocal arrangements of the songs and, as a bonus, the first piano/vocal publication of his and Ira's party song “Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha” (which had some fun with the names of prominent violinists). The general edition (minus “Mischa”) was published by Simon and Schuster in September 1932.
Gershwin contributed an introduction to this book and in it fondly recalled the piano stylists who had influenced his own playing. These pianists included Lucky Roberts, Zez Confrey, duo-pianists Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, and Mike Bernard. The latter, Gershwin wrote, had a “habit of playing the melody in the left hand, while he wove a filigree of counterpoint with the right”--an effect that appears at the beginning of the “Somebody Loves Me” transcription.
The Songbook is dedicated to Kay Swift, who notated many of these pieces as Gershwin played them for her.
These transcriptions were the basis of George Balanchine's 1970 ballet Who Cares? (Balanchine had the pieces orchestrated).
Why eighteen? Maybe because in Judaism, the Hebrew word for life is “chai” and spelled with the letters Het (the eighth letter of the alphabet) and Yud (the tenth). Add eight and ten and you get eighteen, a number representing life and good luck.
In these variations, Gershwin treats only the refrains, not the verses. The songs appear in chronological order and have the following tempo markings:
1. “Swanee” - Spirited
2. “Nobody But You” - Capriciously
3. “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise” - Vigorously
4. “Do It Again” - Plaintively
5. “Fascinating Rhythm” - With agitation
6. “Oh, Lady Be Good!” - Rather slow (with humor)
7. “Somebody Loves Me” - In a moderate tempo
8. “Sweet and Low-Down” - Slow (in a jazzy manner)
9. “That Certain Feeling” - Ardently
10. “”The Man I Love” - Slow and in singing style
11. “Clap Yo' Hands” - Spirited (but sustained)
12. “Do-Do-Do” - In a swinging manner
13. “My One and Only” - Lively (in strong rhythm)
14. “'S Wonderful” - Liltingly
15. “Strike Up the Band” - In spirited march tempo
16. “Liza” - Languidly
17. “I Got Rhythm” - Very marked
18. “Who Cares?” - Rather slow.