George Gershwin - Biography


George Gershwin was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn on September 26TH 1898 and died on July 11th 1937. Gershwin father Morris a Russian emigrant was in the garment trade. He and his wife Rose had another son a year older Ira who was to become George’s lyricist and a genius himself. Morris Gershwin eventually did well in the garment business and the family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. George unlike Ira was not very studious and left school at fifteen. Morris and Rose bought a piano for Ira but George became fascinated with it and wanted lessons. Once he became proficient enough on the piano he becomes a ‘song plugger’ with the publishing company Jerome Remick (someone who demonstrated sheet music of popular songs in big music stores) by the age of sixteen. With the money he earned and help from his parents he took advanced piano lessons with Ernest Hutcheson and Charles Hambitzer; a little later he was to study harmony and theory with Rubin Goldmark who was also Copland’s teacher. Gershwin started writing songs of his own and his first commercial success was a song entitled Rialto Rags that he wrote when he was eighteen. Around that time he got a job as an arranger with the Aeolian Company one of the largest makers of player piano rolls a thriving business at the time. Gershwin got a feel for the stage when he became an accompanist for big time vaudeville acts like Nora Bays. Gershwin got his big break when he wrote Swanee in 1919 that was to be incorporated into the act of the immensely popular Al Jolson (his brother who went on to college was not lyricist yet so Irving Caesar wrote the words). From 1920 on he was the composer for George White’s Scandals a Broadway review similar to Ziegfeld’s Follies (incorporated into the Scandals of 1922 was a one act opera Blue Monday).


Gershwin’s first big classical piece was to lead him to international celebrity, the Rhapsody in Blue which premiered at a symphonic jazz concert conducted by bandleader Paul Whiteman at the Aeolian Hall on February 12th 1924; Gershwin was at the piano and it was an immediate sensation.1924 was also the year that he was to write his first book show with Ira Lady be Good that had a huge hit Fascinating Rhythm. The following year he to write his full scale Piano Concerto in F which he premiered with the famed conductor Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. This work if put to musical analysis has short comings and is derivative of Rachmaninoff and Liszt but that analysis doesn’t account for one lovely melody after the other. Gershwin later that year went to Europe where he was already a celebrity. He met many eminent people including Ravel who was taken with Gershwin and his music. Gershwin was still sensitive about his lack of musical training offered a great sum to get lessons from Ravel who asked him what his income was and when Gershwin told him he suggested he should give him lessons. The Gershwin’s were turning out two Broadway shows a year the next hit was to be Oh! Kay from 1926 written for the great English star Gertrude Lawrence and had the hits Clap your Hands and the great standard Someone to Watch Over Me. Gershwin was to write a symphonic poem about his Parisian experience An American in Paris first performed again by Damrosch and the New York Symphony that rival’s the Rhapsody in its immense popularity.


Gershwin was a unique figure in the New York entertainment scene, good looking with a uniquely confidant and breezy personality; he was perhaps the leading personality of New York’s Jazz age. Many stories of his healthy ego come down to us from his young friend the pianist Oscar Levant (Levant once asked Gershwin if had to do it over again would he still fall in love with himself). In 1927 he wrote the show Strike up the Band (the big hit from the show was the torch song The Man I Love) and Funny Face for Fred and his sister Adele Astaire that was later to reach even greater fame when it was updated in 1957 for an Astaire/Audrey Hepburn movie. After two misfires Rosalie and Showgirl Gershwin was to have a huge hit with Girl Crazy which made Ethel Merman a star along with Ginger Rogers and had the standards I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You and But Not for Me.


Gershwin returned to concert compositions again with the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra which is a fine piece but has never caught on, the following year he wrote the Copland like Cuban Overture. His most acclaimed Broadway show was the political satire Of Thee I Sing that won the Pulitzer prize in 1932 but that is more of a tour de force for Ira then a source of hits from George. Gershwin still was not comfortable with his musical technique and started taking intensive lessons with the Russian born musical theorist Joseph Schillinger. He also kept up with advance trends in European music studying the scores of Milhaud, Stravinsky, Berg and Schoenberg who was to become a friend when they later lived in Los Angeles. He also took up a serious interest in painting.


Gershwin was acquiring this additional musical technique for a purpose, he was going to write his first full scale opera Porgy and Bess based on a novel and play by DuBoise Heyward Porgy deals with the poverty stricken black area of Charleston South Carolina’s Catfish Row (in real life Cabbage Row). Hayward a native of Charleston presents what to our modern sensibilities some cringing stereotypes but was by 1930’s standards compassionate. Gershwin wrote nearly three hours of music for Porgy. The Opera opens with Summertime and has hit after hit, but also some very complex ensembles. The critical reception was mixed the classical critics felt it was an overblown musical the theatre critics felt that it was to operatic for its subject. Though not a commercial failure initially it was not a major success. Shortly after Gershwin’s death it was heavily cut and presented as a traditional musical and became a success. It was not until the landmark Houston Opera production of 1975 that it was presented as the full scale opera that Gershwin had always intended it to be. His long intensive work on Porgy cut into his income and in order to keep up his lavish lifestyle he decided to write for Hollywood. George and Ira moved to Hollywood in 1936, their first project was the Astaire and Rogers musical Shall We Dance that had the standards Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off and They Can’t Take That Away From Me.

While Gershwin was working on his next movie score The Goldwyn Follies in mid 1937 he was suddenly becoming clumsy, experiencing severe headaches, accompanied with a constant burning rubber smell; his family and friends assumed that years of overwork caused a nervous breakdown, he eventually collapsed and malignant brain tumor was discovered and during a hopeless operation to remove the tumor Gershwin died; on the morning of July 11th 1937. His last two great songs were Love Walked In, and Our Love is Here to Stay. Gershwin’s death was a cause for national mourning a Memorial Concert from the Hollywood Bowl was on a nationwide wide hook up. Many of his close friends expressed the feeling that a part of them died along with him.


Gershwin is so difficult to access, since this article evaluates classical artists he is given the designation of Near Great, if one views him as a pop composer he would be the icon of icons. Gershwin for all his carefree bravado was a very serious man and he worked very hard to improve his skills if he didn’t die at the tragically early age of 38 it is unfathomable to contemplate what he would have accomplished. Though many great Gershwin recordings have been made by famed pop and classical artists a special place must be made for the recordings by his friend Oscar Levant.    

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