Born Jacob Gershvin, September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Moshe (a businessman) and Rose (Bruskin) Gershvin; died of a brain tumor, July 11, 1937, in Beverly Hills, CA. Education: Studied music with Charles Hambitzer, Edward Kilenyi, Rubin Goldmark, Wallingford Reigger, Henry Cowell, and Joseph Schillinger.
Composer and pianist. Orchestral and classical works include Rhapsody in Blue, 1924; Concerto in F for Piano, 1925; An American in Paris, 1928; Second Rhapsody, 1931; Cuban Overture, 1932; Variations on I Got Rhythm for Piano and Orchestra, 1934; Porgy and Bess, a folk opera, with libretto by Dubose Heyward and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Hayward, 1935; and Three Preludes, 1936. Musical scores include The Passing Show, 1916; La La Lucille, 1919; George White Scandals, 1920-24; A Dangerous Maid, 1921; Blue Monday (operetta), 1922; The Rainbow, 1923; Sweet Little Devil, 1924; Primrose, 1924; Lady, Be Good!, 1924; Tell Me More!, 1925; Tip-Toes, 1925; Song of the Flame, 1925; Oh, Kay!, 1926; Funny Face, 1927; Strike up the Band, 1927 (revised 1930); Rosalie, 1928; Treasure Girl, 1928; Show Girl, 1929; Girl Crazy, 1930; Of Thee I Sing, 1931; Pardon My English, 1933; and Let 'Em Eat Cake, 1933. Film scores include Delicious, 1931; Shall We Dance, 1937; A Damsel in Distress, 1937; Goldwyn Follies, 1938; The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, 1946; and Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964. Composer of approximately 700 popular songs, including "Swanee," "The Man I Love," "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," "A Foggy Day," "I Got Rhythm," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "'S Wonderful," "Someone to Watch over Me," "Summertime," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me."
Pulitzer Prize (with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind), 1932, for Of Thee I Sing; honorary membership, St. Cecilia Academy, Rome, Italy, 1937; Academy Award nomination for Best Song (with Ira Gershwin), 1937, for "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance?
(With Ira Gershwin) The Songs of George and Ira Gershwin: A Centennial Celebration, two volumes, Warner (New York, NY), 2001.
George Gershwin was, as David Schiff wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, "a man without a past [who] created music that comes to life—and demolishes the distinction between serious and trivial." Bridging the worlds of classical music and popular jazz, Gershwin composed some seven hundred popular songs during the short career that preceded his early death, including such famous toe-tapping tunes as "Swanee," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Someone to Watch over Me," "'S Wonderful," and "I Got Rhythm." Such songs are, according to James A. Van Sant writing in the American Record Guide, "so memorable, so catchy and loveable, they survive almost any reasonable treatment."
While Gershwin's musicals—many written in collaboration with his brother Ira—packed houses on Broadway for two decades, with works such as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess, the composer proved he was equally adept at creating pieces for the orchestra hall and opera house. As music scholar Robert Kimball noted to Richard Jerome of People magazine on the hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth, "Gershwin had brought something electrifying to the concert hall. Rhapsody in Blue was to music very much what Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic was to aviation.… It was an extraordinary event that bridged the gap between classical and popular music." For Time reviewer Wilfrid Sheed, Gershwin succeeded in a threefold accomplishment: he took jazz "upmarket with his Rhapsody in Blue and his Piano Concerto in F Major," and then captured the imagination of the American public at large "by weaving it back into folklore with Porgy and Bess." For Sheed, "maybe Gershwin's greatest legacy" is his third: establishing "how to use jazz in songs." Through such talent, Gershwin quickly became one of the great American composers of the twentieth century. Whether writing for the musical stage or the opera hall, Tin Pan Alley or orchestras, Gershwin's music consistently achieved, as Stanley Green wrote in the Encyclopedia of the Musical Theater, an "agile wit, originality of phrases, and rhyming ingenuity." His premature death at age thirty-eight from a brain tumor left critics and fans alike stunned, and wondering "What if … ?"
Coming of Age in New York
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26, 1898, Jacob Gershvin was the second son of Russian immigrants whose family name morphed from Gershovitz to Gershvin, and finally became anglicized as Gershwin. Young Jacob was, according to William G. Hyland in his George Gershwin: A New Biography, "frankly, a bad child who might have become a gangster." A child of the streets, he became impressed with music when he heard a player piano rendition of Anton Rubinstein's Melody in F as a six year old. Jazz music filtering out of a Harlem club formed another early musical experience, and as a boy Gershwin returned again and again to the club, lingering outside and taking in the sounds. At school he befriended future concert violinist Maxie Rosenzweig, who taught Gershwin about serious music. Soon Gershwin was plunking out tunes on another friend's piano after school.
Gershwin's interest in music became a secret passion that shielded him from the peripatetic lifestyle of his family: his father changed both jobs and family addresses more than once a year during Gershwin's youth. Meanwhile Gershwin's older brother Ira was becoming known as the studious, artistic son, reading all the time and staying close to the family nest. Younger brother George was, at the same time, out on the streets, learning about music firsthand. In 1910 the family acquired a piano, which was intended for Ira, but it was George who sat down at the keyboard and pounded out the first melody. Soon it became clear to his parents that George was music crazy, and lessons were arranged in 1912 with Charles Hambitzer. This instructor recognized his young charge's genius, and ensured that Gershwin learned not only the jazz tunes of the day, but also the classical repertoire of composers such as Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy. At the same time, Gershwin continued taking virtual lessons from the jazz greats of the day, imbibing their styles, riffs, and swinging rhythms. Another early influence was the musical theater of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern; George and brother Ira visited the musical theater weekly.
In 1913, at age sixteen, Gershwin dropped out of school to take a job in Tin Pan Alley, the area of New York City where most music publishers were located. Working for sheet-music publisher Remick, Gershwin became a "song plugger," someone who played the company's music for prospective customers. He also began writing his own music, and by 1916 had his first song published, "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em." Another of his early songs, "The Making of a Girl," appeared in a Broadway production. In 1917 Gershwin left Remick to work as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway, and within a year he had landed a job with Max Dreyfus, head of Harms Publishing, who hired Gershwin at the then high rate of thirty-five dollars a week to compose songs exclusively for his company. Gershwin was on his way.
Got Rhythm and Blues
Gershwin's first big hit was the 1919 song "Swanee," which became a signature tune for singer Al Jolson, who introduced it in the musical Sinbad. The song went on to sell a million copies in sheet music and made Gershwin's name as a songwriter not just of promise but of prominence. In that same year, Gershwin's first full musical, La La Lucille, opened on Broadway and ran for over a hundred performances, quite an achievement for a young man at age twenty-one.
The 1920s were a time of hectic creativity for Gershwin. From 1920 to 1924 he composed the music for the annual George White Scandals, producing songs such as "Stairway to Paradise," "Do It Again," and "Somebody Loves Me." In 1921 he and his brother Ira, who had quietly been working as a lyricist all the while, collaborated on their first show together, the unsuccessful Dangerous Maid. The following year Gershwin wrote his first opera, the jazz-inspired one-act Blue Monday, which he later retitled 135th Street. The show was introduced in one of the George White Scandals, but proved unpopular for its rather somber tone. Though not quite an opera, Blue Monday was an important and ambitious step for Gershwin, blending the popular with the highbrow. Meanwhile he continued to compose for the popular stage, scoring musicals such as Our Nell, Sweet Little Devil, The Rainbow, and The Primrose. He quickly established a name on Broadway similar to that of the famous Irving Berlin.
Gershwin became acquainted with the well-known jazz orchestra leader Paul Whiteman as a result of Blue Monday, which Whiteman conducted. So impressed with the young man's work was Whiteman that he invited Gershwin to contribute a piece to a concert of modern music to be performed in New York's Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924. Gershwin, forgetting the commission until the last moment, composed the jazz concerto Rhapsody in Blue in three weeks. Scored for orchestra by Whiteman's arranger, the piece features a clarinet solo, a trilling, jazzy glissando opening that caught the attention of music critics and classical musicians who had been invited to the concert and who had been, until that time, unimpressed with the evening's fare of jazz dance music. The reception to Rhapsody in Blue was immediate and positive; overnight Gershwin became famous as not simply a song writer, but also as a serious composer whose works deserved attention from the world of high art and culture. In its first decade the piece earned more than a quarter of a million dollars in recordings and performances and has become part of the standard American repertoire in concert halls around the world. Gershwin's blending of jazz techniques in a classical framework created a cross-over piece that revolutionized American composing, inspiring composers such as Kurt Weil, Maurice Ravel, Paul Hindemith, and Aaron Copland to try their own experiments mixing jazz with serious music. Rhapsody in Blue, even more than his songs and musicals, made Gershwin not only famous but wealthy.
Gershwin followed this concert-hall success up with the 1925 work Concerto in F for solo piano and orchestra. While this composition is much closer to the traditional concerto form and style than Rhapsody in Blue, its second movement displays jazz influence. Further works by Gershwin for the concert hall or opera house include Three Piano Preludes, from 1926; the tone poem An American in Paris, from 1928 and inspired by Gershwin's own time in the French capital; Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture, both from 1932; Variations on I Got Rhythm, from 1934; and the folk opera Porgy and Bess, from 1935. Of these, An American in Paris is easily Gershwin's second most popular piece, while Porgy and Bess has become part of the standard repertoire of many opera houses, with songs such as "Summertime" and "I Loves You, Porgy" transcending the stage to become popular standards in their own right. As Patrick J. Smith noted in Opera News, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess "is a sort of way-station between the musical and opera, but it is quite clearly an opera, and a grand one at that." However, at the time of its initial 1935 production, this opera about life among the black inhabitants of "Catfish Row" in Charleston, South Carolina, failed to play long enough to recover the investors' money. Thus, as Richard Crawford noted in Grove Music Online, "in spite of Gershwin's vaunted record of success, his last and most ambitious work for the stage was at first a financial failure."
King of Songs and Musicals
Such failures were rare occurrences amid Gershwin's many successes. For the musical stage he and his brother Ira had a string of successes, including Lady, Be Good!, Tell Me More!, Tip-Toes, Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, Rosalie, Treasure Girl, Show Girl, Strike up the Band, Girl Crazy, Pardon My English, and Let 'Em Eat Cake. Another musical from the early 1930s, Of Thee I Sing, earned the first Pulitzer Prize for a musical. Gershwin not only made himself famous, but also helped advance the careers of those who he and his brother wrote for. Featured in a production of Lady, Be Good!, Fred Astaire and his sister Adele became Broadway stars singing "Fascinating Rhythm." Much the same happened with Gertrude Lawrence when she sang "Someone to Watch over Me" in the 1926 hit, Oh, Kay! That same year the Astaires made another hit with tunes such as "'S Wonderful" and "How Long Has This Been Going On" from Funny Face, and the 1930 musical Girl Crazy thrust both Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers into stardom with their renditions of "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You" respectively.
Although the brothers also collaborated with others, their best work—Ira as lyricist and George as composer—was produced as a team. They approached life that way, also. Even after Ira married, George, the perennial bachelor and lady's man, continued to live with his brother and the new bride. Deena Ruth Rosenberg, writing in her Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, felt that the reason for the success of the brothers' teamwork was clear: "At this point, George, thirty-eight, and Ira, forty, were so deeply in tune with each other that in less than a year they produced one standard after another—a concentrated stream of songs written from a more mature sensibility and reflecting the sound and themes of the late thirties. In the twenties, the elements of the Gershwins' love ballads cohere to produce a sense of loneliness and longing; in the thirties, they cohere to produce a sense of tenuous celebration and affirmation of life amid a shifting and unstable world."
Writing in Commentary, William G. Hyland similarly attempted a partial explanation of George Gershwin's popularity. For one thing, Hyland noted, the composer was "helped immeasurably by [Ira's] witty and sophisticated lyrics." For another, as a pianist, Gershwin had a brilliant sense of harmony and rhythm. As Hyland further commented: his "abilities at the piano were truly extraordinary and were the secret of his success as a composer.… [He] reveled in rhythm, in part because he played the piano so well." Hyland went to call Gershwin a "superb manipulator of harmony" and one who "deliberately sought out the most advanced progression of chords" due to his "unusual feel for the blues." Crawford, writing for the Grove Music Online, reflected this view: "Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Gershwin's melodies is their reliance on blue notes. Sometimes they function as blatant dissonances.… At other times they soften the melodic contour with a sinuous grace." Crawford further noted that "throughout his professional life Gershwin was first and foremost a songwriter, composing hundreds of songs for Tin Pan Alley, the Broadway stage and Hollywood films.… [Gershwin] was also a leader among Broadway songwriters in exploring the possibilities of a rhythm that was at once relaxed, flexible and driving, showing the influence of black American dance."
A Career Cut Short
Gershwin began composing for Hollywood films in the 1930s, collaborating with his brother on Delicious, Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress, and The Goldwyn Follies. It was while working on that last-mentioned film that he began to experience health problems. Terrible headaches plagued him and he began to lose his balance and coordination. Initially it was thought that Gershwin's high-pressure lifestyle was causing too much stress, but finally it was discovered that he had a large brain tumor that had gone undiagnosed too long. On July 9, 1937, the composer fell into a coma. While emergency surgery was performed to remove the tumor, it failed, and Gershwin died on July 11, at the age of thirty-eight. "Few events in the history of American music were more shocking than Gershwin's death," wrote Crawford, noting that the composer was "on the threshold of new musical achievements." Indeed, Gershwin had plans for a new opera and concerto underway, as well as numerous songs and ideas for more musicals. The musical world and fans were shocked, but none were harder hit than Gershwin's brother, Ira, who stopped writing for the next three years. Ira Gershwin lived on until 1983, but his best work, most critics agree, was accomplished in collaboration with his brother.
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Gershwin's work had a powerful influence on other composers, and his struggles to integrate audiences for jazz and serious music were also important in music history. But in the end, for a composer it is all about the music. And by those standards, it is clear that Gershwin's legacy will live on. Several posthumous movies were filmed using his music, including Rhapsody in Blue, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, An American in Paris, and Kiss Me Stupid. His compositions Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris continue to be concert-hall favorites, and have been recorded by musicians worldwide, while Porgy and Bess draws crowds whenever it is staged. His songs and serious music continue to be used on television advertisements and in movie scores. Thus, as Crawford declared in Grove Music Online, more than his bridging of popular and classical traditions, "it was the sheer musical satisfaction that his compositions—songs and concert works alike—still provide for listeners … that is [Gershwin's] legacy." For David Ewen, writing in the Dictionary of American Biography, Gershwin remains "one of the most significant creative figures, and one of the most potent influences, that American music has produced."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Armitage, Merle, editor, George Gershwin, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Carnovale, Norbert, George Gershwin: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 2000.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940, American Council of Learned Societies (New York, NY), 1944-1958.
Ewen, David, George Gershwin: His Journey to Greatness, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT) 1977.
Furia, Philip, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Green, Stanley, Encyclopedia of Musical Theater, Da Capo Press (Boston, MA), 1976.
Greenberg, Rodney, George Gershwin, Phaidon Press (London, England), 1998.
Hyland, William G., George Gershwin: A New Biography, Praeger Publishers (Westport, CT), 2003.
Jablonski, Edward, Gershwin: A Biography, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1987.
Johnson, John Andrew and Robert Wyatt, editors, The George Gershwin Reader, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Peyser, Joan, The Memory of All That, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
Reef, Catherine, George Gershwin: American Composer, Morgan Reynolds (Greensboro, NC), 2000.
Rosenberg, Deena Ruth, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, Dutton (New York, NY), 1991.
Schneider, Wayne, editor, The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Schwartz, Charles, George Gershwin: A Selective Bibliography and Discography, Harmonie Park Press, 1974.
Whiting, Jim, The Life and Times of George Gershwin, Mitchell Lane (Elkton, MD), 2004.
Wilder, Alec, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1972.
Wood, Ean, George Gershwin: His Life and Music, Sanctuary Publishing, 1998.
American Record Guide, September, 2001, James A. Van Sant, review of "Gershwin: Song Book; Rhapsody in Blue," p. 121.
Atlantic Monthly, April, 1984, William H. Youngren, "Gershwin's Genius," p. 132; October 1, 1998, David Schiff, "Music: Misunderstanding Gershwin," p. 100.
Commentary, October, 1990, William G. Hyland, "The Best Songwriter of Them All."
New Republic, March 18, 1985, Edward Rothstein, "George Gershwin's Heav'nly Lan'," p. 28.
Opera News, August, 1998, Patrick J. Smith, "George Gershwin at 100," p. 4, Steven Blier, "You Say Eether … and I Say Eye-ther," p. 16.
People, November 9, 1998, Richard Jerome, "Born 100 Years Ago, George Gershwin Set the Music World on Its Ear with a Rhapsody and Rhythms That Still Fascinate," p. 73.
Time, September 21, 1987, Stefan Kanfer, review of Gershwin, p. 76; October 5, 1998, Wilfrid Sheed, "Setting the Standards," p. 90.
FanFaire,http://www.ffaire.com/ (October 16, 2004), "George Gershwin: A Tribute to America's Greatest Composer."
GershwinFan.com,http://www.gershwinfan.com/ (October 16, 2004).
Grove Music Online,http://www.grovemusic.com/ (October 18, 2004), Richard Crawford, "Gershwin, George."
Official George & Ira Gershwin Web site,http://www.gershwin.com/ (October 16, 2004).*
Born September 26, 1898 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died July 11, 1937 (Hollywood, California)
Composer and pianist
"George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to."
John O’Hara, U.S. novelist and short story writer
George Gershwin was one of the best-known and most important figures in the musical history of the United States. He played a key role in the Roaring Twenties, for his music played an important part in this exciting decade. Writing for the Broadway stage, Gershwin (along with his brother Ira [1896–1983], who provided the lyrics) kept people humming along to such songs as "I Got Rhythm," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." In fact, many of the songs the Gershwins made popular in the 1920s are still sung and enjoyed today. Gershwin's more serious compositions, especially his most famous, the acclaimed Rhapsody in Blue, combined the older traditions of classical and operatic music with elements of the new musical forms of jazz and blues. Gershwin helped to establish and promote these uniquely American contributions to the world's musical heritage.
The talented child of immigrants
Part of what makes George Gershwin's story so interesting is his status as the child of immigrant parents who came to the United States in search of better lives for their children. Gershwin
is a shining example of how such dreams can come true. His parents were Russian immigrants who settled on New York City's Lower East Side. They named their second son Jacob, but everybody called him George. His father ran a number of businesses, including a stationery store, several restaurants, a bakery, a pool hall, and a boardinghouse. The family was well-off.
Gershwin enjoyed playing games and roller-skating with his friends in the city streets. He much preferred sports to academics, and he was not particularly interested in music either. When he was ten years old, he happened to hear some violin music coming out of the window of a school building. Entranced, he learned that the music was coming from the violin of his classmate Maxie Rosenzweig (who would later perform under the professional name Max Rosen). Gershwin befriended Maxie, who introduced him to classical music.
When Gershwin was twelve, his parents bought a piano, mostly because their oldest son, Ira, had expressed an interest in playing. But the younger brother also had an inclination to play; he learned quickly and soon began putting his own tunes together. Gershwin's parents arranged for him to take music lessons. He studied with a teacher named Charles Hambitzer, who recognized his talent, taught him about technique and harmony, and guided him to the work of classical composers like Frederic Chopin (1810–1849) and Franz Liszt (1811–1886).
Working as a "song plugger"
At the same time, however, Gershwin was an enthusiastic admirer of popular music, which included romantic ballads and comedy songs as well as occasional jazz music. At this time jazz was in its infancy. Born out of a rich blend of influences—including African rhythms and instruments brought by slaves to the United States, and elements of the folk music sung and played by the nation's earliest settlers, who came from Great Britain—jazz first took the form of ragtime piano tunes with a unique, syncopated rhythm pattern (created when the weak beat is stressed in place of the usual strong one).
Gershwin started writing his own songs in 1913. That summer he worked as a pianist in a resort in New York's Catskills Mountains. Determined to make a career for himself in music, the fifteen-year-old Gershwin dropped out of school and became a song plugger (someone who tries out new songs on the piano) on Tin Pan Alley. This was the name for an area in New York City, running along Twenty-Eighth Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, where many music publishers were turning popular songs into a big, profitable business.
Gershwin worked first for the Remick publishing house, at a salary of fifteen dollars a week. In 1916, he published his first song, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Have 'Em," with lyrics by Murray Roth. Next Gershwin went to work forT.B. Harms, the nation's leading publisher of sheet music,
Irving Berlin: A Beloved Songwriter
Irving Berlin was one of the most prominent composers of popular songs during the Roaring Twenties and the mid-twentieth century. Though he had no formal musical training and could not read sheet music, over the course of his career Berlin wrote more than nine hundred songs, as well as scores for eighteen films and nineteen Broadway musical plays. His work is still being heard in the early twenty-first century.
Berlin was born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Russia, in 1888. He arrived in the United States at age five and settled with his family in New York City. After his father's death Berlin worked to help support the family, making money as a street singer and, in 1905, as a singing waiter in a saloon. It was in this job that Berlin wrote his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy," to compete with a bartender at a rival bar. When Israel Baline's name was misspelled as Irving Berlin on the sheet music, he thought it sounded more American and he kept it. In 1911 he wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band," the song that propelled him to fame.
Between 1912 and 1916 Berlin wrote more than 180 songs. After composing tunes for the 1911 Ziegfeld Follies, he started writing entire Broadway musicals, including Watch Your Step (1914) and Stop! Look! Listen! (1915).
When World War I broke out, Berlin decided to become a U.S. citizen. He was drafted into the army and completed basic training near the town of Yaphank on New York's Long Island. While there he wrote one of his most popular songs, "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!"
Once out of the army Berlin returned to writing songs. When new technology allowed movies to incorporate sound in the 1920s, he wrote scores for films, including Puttin' on the Ritz (1929); Cocoanuts (1929); and Top Hat (1935). Perhaps his best known film score was for Holiday Inn (1942), which featured the classic Berlin song "White Christmas." In 1954 this song and several other Berlin favorites would be included in the movie White Christmas.
When World War II began in Europe in the late 1930s, Berlin revived a peace-oriented song he had written during World War I and never used. "God Bless America" was sung by Kate Smith on a radio broadcast that aired on November 11, 1938. It became an immediate favorite of the U.S. people.
Berlin continued to write popular songs throughout his career. Annie Get Your Gun (1946), which was loosely based on the life of western figure and entertainer Annie Oakley, was the most successful of his Broadway shows. It featured a number of popular songs, including "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." Berlin who died in 1989, was acclaimed as a towering figure in American music.
making an impressive thirty-five dollars a week. Two years later Gershwin's career took an upward leap when he wrote the complete score (all the musical numbers) for a Broadway show called "La La Lucille."
A promising young composer
Another break came for Gershwin in 1919, when he wrote a song called "Swanee" (with lyrics by Irving Caesar). The Broadway singer and actor Al Jolson (1886–1950) heard Gershwin perform the song at a party, and he subsequently included it in his show Sinbad. A year later, Jolson recorded the song. This success helped to bring Gershwin into the spotlight as a promising young composer.
Between 1920 and 1925, Gershwin wrote the scores for each yearly edition of George White's Scandals, popular productions that featured spirited singing and dancing. It was during this period that Gershwin's grounding in classical music, his interest in jazz, and his talent for popular music began to come together. The cultural explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance—when African American writers, artists, intellectuals, and musicians made New York City's black community a center of cultural achievement—was in full bloom. Gershwin was often seen in Harlem's nightclubs, speakeasies (establishments where alcohol, made illegal by the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, was sold and entertainment offered), and rent parties (informal gatherings in private homes). He was fascinated by the innovative jazz and blues being played in so many venues, by so many talented musicians.
Their influence is evident in Blue Monday, a twenty-five-minute jazz opera that Gershwin wrote in 1922. Although the piece was not successful (it was considered too gloomy for the lighthearted Scandals), it represented Gershwin's first attempt to incorporate African American musical influences and characters into his work. A little over a decade later, Gershwin would develop this idea more fully in Porgy and Bess (1935).
Rhapsody in Blue
Gershwin was not the only white musician of the period who was interested in the new musical forms coming out of African American culture. One of these was bandleader Paul Whiteman (1891–1967), who would later be incorrectly labeled the "King of Jazz" (the label is more appropriately applied to some of the true founders of jazz and blues, such as Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton [1885–1941] or W.C. Handy [1873–1958]).
Determined to show off the wide range of popular music, Whiteman planned a major concert to be held at New York City's Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924. He asked Gershwin to contribute a jazz concerto that would serve as the show's centerpiece. The result was Rhapsody in Blue, which was an immediate hit and which has since become one of the most familiar, beloved, and frequently performed American compositions. This work firmly established Gershwin's position as a serious composer.
Rhapsody in Blue marked the first time that jazz rhythms and blues-tinged melodies had been blended with classical elements. Though some critics fault the piece as cliche-ridden and repetitive, most agree that it is infused with an inspiration and openness deeply rooted in U.S. culture. Rhapsody in Blue helped to increase international respect for U.S. musicians and musical forms. Further, it freed other classical composers, such as Aaron Copland (1900–1990) of the United States and Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) of France, to follow Gershwin's lead and incorporate elements of jazz and blues into their own works.
Later in 1924 Gershwin scored his first hit Broadway musical, Lady Be Good. Gershwin's brother Ira, with whom he would collaborate frequently over the next two decades, wrote the lyrics for the show's songs, which included such classics as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "The Man I Love." Some of the most famous shows they scored were Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930). Of Thee I Sing (1931) was especially notable for its unusual element of political satire, and it was the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize (a prestigious yearly award for literature and writing of various kinds).
Music both serious and lighthearted
For the rest of his life, Gershwin alternated between writing music for the Broadway stage and composing serious pieces for the concert stage. The latter category includes Piano Concerto in F (1925), Three Preludes (1926), and An American in Paris (1928). In 1932 Gershwin produced both Second Rhapsody for Piano (1932), which he hoped would be as successful as his first Rhapsody, and Cuban Overture. Neither work was particularly well received. During the 1930s he also wrote film scores for several popular movies, including Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance? The latter starred the renowned screen dancers Fred Astaire (1899–1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) and featured such memorable songs as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (which the two stars performed on roller skates).
In 1925 Gershwin had read the best-selling novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, which was set in the poor black community of Charleston, South Carolina. He was immediately interested in turning this story into a jazz opera, especially after the 1927 stage adaptation of the book became a huge hit. Gershwin finally realized this dream in 1935 when Porgy and Bess premiered. Amid complaints that it was an overly long, awkward blend of jazz, opera, and popular music, the show flopped. Some critics also noted that Porgy and Bess contained numerous stereotypes of black people. Nevertheless, the composition that Gershwin called a "folk opera" was one of the first attempts to portray African American life for mostly white audiences.
Gershwin's belief in the value of Porgy and Bess never wavered, but it was not until 1942 (five years after Gershwin's death) that a revival of the show became a Broadway hit. It has since been performed often in the United States and other countries and is considered a classic work of U.S. musical theater. In addition, many songs from Porgy and Bess, such as "Ol' Man River" and "Summertime," continue to be widely recognized and enjoyed.
Gershwin was a handsome, athletic, energetic, and charming man, but his confidence in his own talent and his devotion to his art made him somewhat self-absorbed and occasionally arrogant. Although he was involved in a number of romances, he never married. In 1937 he began experiencing some troubling health symptoms. While performing his Concerto in F with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, his mind went blank, and he later suffered from frequent headaches. Medical tests revealed a brain tumor, and on July 11 he underwent surgery. He died five hours later, at the age of thirty-eight.
For More Information
Jablonski, Edward, and Lawrence D. Stewart. The Gershwin Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1973.
Kimball, Robert, and Alfred Simon. The Gershwins. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1973.
Rosenberg, Deena. Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin: His Life and Music. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.
"George." George and Ira Gershwin: The Official Web Site. Available online at http://www.gershwin.com. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
"George Gershwin." American Masters (PBS). Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/gershwin_g.html. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
George Gershwin. Available online at http://www.gershwinfan.com/biogeorge.html. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
Gershwin's melodic gift was phenomenal. His songs contain the essence of NY in the 1920s and have deservedly become classics of their kind, part of the 20th-cent. folk-song tradition in the sense that they are popular mus. which has been spread by oral tradition (for many must have sung a Gershwin song without having any idea who wrote it). His larger-scale works, melodically remarkable as might be expected, suffer from his haphazard mus. education and lack of grounding in counterpoint, theory, etc. (Rhapsody in Blue was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, but Gershwin himself scored the later works.) He went for lessons to Henry Cowell and Joseph Schillinger, and there can be little doubt that had he lived longer he would have progressed to considerable symphonic achievement. As it is, his mixture of the primitive and the sophisticated gives his mus. individuality and an appeal which shows no sign of diminishing. Prin. works:OPERAS: Blue Monday (1-act; item in George White's Scandals 1922 but withdrawn after 1 perf.; retitled 135th Street and revived Miami 1970); Porgy and Bess (1934–5).ORCH.: Rhapsody in Blue (pf. and orch.) (1924); pf. conc. in F major (1925); An American in Paris (1928); Second Rhapsody (pf. and orch.) (1931); Cuban Overture (1932); ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations (pf. and orch.) (1934).MUSICALS: The Passing Show of 1916; La La Lucille (1919); George White's Scandals (1920–4); A Dangerous Maid (1921); Sweet Little Devil (1924); Primrose (1924); Lady, Be Good! (1924); Song of the Flame (1925); Tell Me More (1925); Tip Toes (1925); Oh, Kay! (1926, lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse); Strike up the Band (1927, 2nd vers. 1930); Funny Face (1927); Rosalie (1928); Treasure Girl (1928); Show Girl (1929); Girl Crazy (1930); Of Thee I Sing (1931, lyrics by George F. Kaufman); Pardon my English (1933); Let 'em eat Cake (1933).FILMS: Delicious (1931); Shall We Dance?; A Damsel in Distress (1937); The Goldwyn Follies (1938); The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1946); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).PIANO: 3 Preludes (1926) (transcr. for vn. and pf. by Heifetz).SONGS: Among the best of hundreds of songs are Swanee; The Man I Love; Embraceable You; I Got Rhythm; Fascinating Rhythm; 'S Wonderful; Lady Be Good; and Love Walked In. The popular Summertime is from Porgy and Bess.
American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) was eminently successful in popular music, as well as in the classical field with several concert works and an opera that have become standards in the contemporary repertory.
George Gershwin played a prominent role in one of the most colorful eras of American popular music: the so-called age of Tin Pan Alley—roughly 1890-1930—when popular music became big business. In Tin Pan Alley (28th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York City) numerous music publishing houses poured forth popular songs each year. The musical theater and the private parlor rang with the sounds of ragtime, romantic ballads, and comedy songs. Talented composers such as Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern, among dozens of lesser figures, fed this lucrative music-making machine and flourished.
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in New York City on Sept. 26, 1898, the son of Rose and Morris Gershovitz, immigrants from Russia. After settling in New York's Lower East Side, his father changed the family name to Gershvin; when George entered the professional world of music, he altered the name to Gershwin.
When George was 12, the moderately well-off family purchased a piano; he soon showed a marked inclination for improvising melodies and was given piano lessons. Later he studied the theory of music and harmony. Though Gershwin was not interested in formal education and never finished high school, he continued to study music. Even after his success in musical comedy, he studied with composer Henry Cowell and with music theorist Joseph Schillinger.
When Gershwin was 15, he went to work for a large publisher of popular music as a try-out pianist (or "song plugger"). He began writing his own songs about this time (mostly with lyricist Irving Caesar), none of which his employer was interested in publishing. Finally, in 1916, his first song appeared: "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em."
Gershwin also began to get a few songs set into current musical shows, a common practice of the day. By 1918 he had shown enough promise to be hired by Harms, Inc., as a songwriter at a weekly salary. Gershwin scored his first big success in 1919 with the song "Swanee" (words by Irving Caesar), introduced by Al Jolson in Sinbad. In the same year he composed his first complete score, for the successful musical La, La, Lucille.
Musicals of the 1920s
During the 1920s Gershwin established himself as one of the musical theater's most talented and successful composers. He wrote five scores for successive editions of George White's Scandals (1920-1924) and began a series of shows with his brother, Ira, as lyricist, which included Lady Be Good (1924), Primrose (1924), Tell Me More (1925), Tip Toes (1925), Oh Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), Rosalie (1928), Treasure Girl (1928), Show Girl (1929), and Strike Up the Band (1929).
In 1924 the prominent bandleader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to write an original "jazz" work for a concert. The result, Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band, was Gershwin's debut in the concert hall as pianist and composer, his first attempt at writing an extended piece, and the first time jazz rhythms and blues-oriented melodies were used successfully within a classical framework.
Reviewing the premiere, Olin Downes wrote that the "composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk…." These aims were demonstrated again in the Piano Concerto in F (1925), commissioned by Walter Damrosch for his New York Symphony; Three Preludes for piano (1926); and An American in Paris (1928), premiered by Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic. After Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin himself scored all his orchestral works.
In the 1930s Gershwin composed four more musicals with Ira: Girl Crazy (1930); Of Thee I Sing (1931), which was the first musical awarded a Pulitzer Prize; Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933); and Pardon My English (1933). He also wrote film scores, including Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance. He spent 2 years on his last major work, the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), based on a novel by DuBose Heyward about a ghetto in Charleston, S. C. The composer died of a brain tumor in Beverly Hills, Calif., on July 11, 1937.
Gershwin's best songs have proved to be some of the most durable of his era, and his classical works give his career a dimension shared by none of his Tin Pan Alley companions. His fondness for African American music is responsible in part for the rhythmic vitality and blues-tinged lyricism of all his works. His best scores, especially those utilizing Ira Gershwin's trenchant and sympathetic verses, are as fresh, vigorous, and unconventional as any written for the American musical theater. Moreover, Gershwin's music has a peculiar American stamp recognized the world over.
David Ewen, George Gershwin: His Journey to Greatness (rev. ed. 1970), is the most detailed and accurate of the biographies. Isaac Goldberg, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music (1931; new enlarged ed. by Edith Garson, 1958), the earliest biography, was written with Gershwin's cooperation and is of special interest. See also Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart, The Gershwin Years (1958). □
GERSHWIN, GEORGE (1898–1937), U.S. composer. Born in New York, he wrote his first songs while working as a pianist with a music publishing firm. His first revue, Half Past Eight (1918), was followed by the successful La La Lucille (1919) and in the same year his song "Swanee," sung by Al *Jolson in the revue Sinbad, caused a sensation. He was commissioned by Paul Whiteman to compose a jazz symphony. The resultant work, Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra, was first performed in New York in 1924, with the composer at the piano. It made jazz "respectable" for the American concert stage and made Gershwin famous. He composed the Concerto for Piano in F Major (1925), Three Preludes for Piano (1926), An American in Paris (1928), Second Rhapsody (1931), and Cuban Overture (1932). Gershwin had little formal training, and after the success of the Rhapsody in Blue, in which he had received the help of an orchestrator, he studied with Rubin *Goldmark and Joseph *Schillinger.
He continued composing music for films and Broadway shows, his most successful revues being Lady Be Good (1924), Oh Kay (1926), Strike Up the Band (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire. Most of the lyrics for his revues and songs were written by his brother Ira (1896–1983). His last and greatest work was the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), based on Du-Bose Heyward's play, Catfish Row, about the life of Southern blacks. Gershwin's musical style was rooted in the jazz idiom of his time, and stimulated by the traditions of Southern blacks. Influences of cantorial style may be discerned in certain wide-ranging phrases, notably the clarinet solo which opens Rhapsody in Blue.
On February 28, 1973, the U.S. government issued an 8-cent commemorative stamp in honor of George Gershwin as representative of musicians, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of his birth. It was the first stamp in the American Arts series of commemoratives, and the U.S. Postal Service issued a first day cover featuring him at the piano.
R. Rushmore, Life of George Gershwin (1966); I. Goldberg, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music (1931); M. Armitage (ed.), George Gershwin (1938); D. Ewen, A Journey to Greatness, The Life and Music of George Gershwin (1956); G. Chase (ed.), American Composer Speaks (1966), 139–45.