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George Gershwin (1898 - 1937), composer


 

(Compiled February, 2000)

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George Gershwin was an American composer, whose compositions mark the entrance of America into the serious international classical music world. His musicals and popular songs are among the finest in those genres, and his art-music compositions are infused with jazz and popular music.

George Gershwin's parents emigrated from Russia to the U.S.A in 1891. He was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26, 1898. Early on he excelled at street sports in his poor lower east side Manhattan neighborhood and had no early musical contact. His first musical exposure came when a piano was brought to the Gershowitz home for his brother, Ira. George (age 12) took an immediate interest in the instrument and began to play a popular song he had memorized from a neighbor's player piano. His parents invested in lessons for George beginning at age 13. He studied with the American composers Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, and Wallingford Riegger and with the Russian-born composer and theorist Joseph Schillinger. At the age of 15 Gershwin had quit school and was a pianist and "song plugger" for a Tin Pan Alley music-publishing firm, Jerome H. Remick & Company, earning $15 a week.

To supplement his income, on Saturdays, Gershwin recorded piano rolls under various pseudonyms. For his efforts he received $35 for six rolls. He was a great admirer of the comedian Ed Wynn and it is at this time, in honor of him, that Gershwin changed the end of his last name.

Gershwin's first song to be published was When you want 'em, you don't get 'em, when you got 'em, you don't want 'em in 1916. It was the success in 1918 of his song Swanee brought him fame, established him as a composer, and marked the end of his systematic study of music. Swanee was originally written for a revue at the newly opened Capitol Theatre. It was not successful on that outing but when presented by Al Jolson in Sinbad it became the greatest hit of Gershwin's entire career.

Gershwin was one of the first to introduce into popular songs the rhythms and melodic twists of jazz. Among his best-known songs are The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, and Someone to Watch Over Me. The lyrics for nearly all his songs were written by his brother, Ira, who was also his collaborator in a series of revues and musical comedies that included George White's Scandals (1920-24); Lady Be Good (1924); Funny Face (1927); and the political satire Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

At the invitation of the bandleader Paul Whiteman, Gershwin wrote, in less than three weeks, his Rhapsody in Blue (1924) for piano and jazz band. The speed of writing was due in part to George having forgotten about the commission. It was when Ira read in the newspaper of the upcoming concert that George's memory was jogged. Much of the inspiration for the work came to him during a train journey to Boston, "with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang . . . I suddenly heard - and even saw on paper - the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America - of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness." The actual music was written in a week on his return to New York.

The night of the premiere at the Aeolian Hall, New York, George himself was the piano soloist. It is said that Gershwin received the inspiration for the rhythm of the piece from the rhythm of a train. The well-known clarinet glissando, which begins the work, was not originally conceived by Gershwin. Rather the clarinet soloist played it as a joke, Gershwin liked it and thus it became part of the score. The American composer Ferde Grofé, then a pianist and orchestrator for Paul Whiteman's Orchestra orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue, originally written for the smaller swing orchestra. The success of Rhapsody in Blue led Gershwin to write more pieces for piano and orchestra including the Concerto in F (1925). His very evocative tone poem An American in Paris (1928) takes the listener to the streets of Paris in the 1920s and calls for four car horns to reflect the traffic noise of the time. Gershwin had traveled to Paris in the hopes of studying with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger, but she refused him saying he was fine the way he was. Although he composed sketches of the work in Paris, it was completed on a farm in Connecticut.

Gershwin also sought to study with Igor Stravinsky. When he approached the composer at a party Stravinsky surprised him with the question "How much money do you make a year?" On hearing the answer Stravinsky said "Perhaps I should study with you, Mr. Gershwin."

His song The Man I Love was composed for the musical Lady, Be Good in 1924. The now famous chorus of the song was originally the verse. Gershwin found the verse more pleasing so changed it to the chorus and wrote a new verse for the song. The Man I Love was dropped from the show before it opened in New York. Three years later is was included in Strike Up the Band, but the entire show closed during tryouts. Once again it was to be included in Rosalie (1928) but vanished. The popularity of The Man I Love was assured when the torch singer Helen Morgan put it in her nightclub act.

An American in Paris was inspired by a trip that the Gershwins took in to Europe in the spring of 1928. George wished to capture not only the spirit of the city the work is named for but also the carefree attitudes of his fellow Americans on vacation. To add authentic color to the work Gershwin visited Parisian garages and purchased used taxi horns that he incorporated into the score. The piece premiered at Carnegie Hall December 13, 1928 and almost immediately transferred from the concert hall to the musical stage as it was incorporated into Show Girl as the ballet scene.

Girl Crazy (1930) was the last, and greatest, of the lighthearted Gershwin musicals. Despite a ridiculous plot it was a momentous production with an incredible line up of songs, Ginger Rogers was the star of the show, Ethel Merman made her stage debut in the show, and in the pit were such musicians as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa.

In 1932, Gershwin's musical Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Being an award for writing, the prize was awarded to George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryakind and Ira Gershwin. For his music, George Gershwin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously to mark the centenary of his birth.

Cuban Overture (first titled Rumba) was George Gershwin's last attempt at a major serious orchestral success. He visited Havana in 1932 for relaxation and became very interested in the Cuban music, particularly the percussion. Gershwin was ahead of his time, the overture premiered a year or two ahead of the popularization of Cuban rhythms by Xavier Cugat.

While most of his compositions met with success and he was considered one of the great composers of his day, Gershwin did not find initial success with his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Based on the novel Porgy by the American writer DuBose Heyward, and set among the poor of the South, Porgy and Bess was Gershwin's greatest undertaking. It was revived on Broadway in 1942 and 1953 and made into a motion picture in 1959. Today we consider the opera a work of unique character that is Gershwin's masterpiece.

In 1926 Gershwin began to collect contemporary art and the following year began to draw and paint as a hobby, a pastime that would become increasingly important to him.

Gershwin's life came to an early and tragic end at just 38 years old and at the height of his career. While working on the score of The Golden Follies he collapsed into a coma, and later died, in Beverly Hills, California, on July 11, 1937 from a brain tumor.

George Gershwin's music has been used in numerous films and was reprised to great success in the musicals My One and Only (1983) and Crazy For You (1992).

George Gershwin seldom made grand statements about his music. He described himself as a "modern romantic and said that "true music … must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today."

Notable Compositions Include:

Classical
Rhapsody in Blue
Piano Concerto in F
An American in Paris

Opera
Porgy and Bess
Instrumental Solo
Three Preludes

Popular Songs
Fascinating Rhythm
The Man I Love
Lady Be Good
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Someone To Watch Over Me
Foggy Day
I Got Rhythm
S'Wonderful
Swanee
Our Love Is Here To Stay
Embraceable You

Musicals
Lady Be Good
Funny Face
Girl Crazy
Of Thee I Sing
Let Them Eat Cake
Strike Up The Band
Pardon My English
My One And Only
Crazy For You

 

 

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