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George Gershwin: George Gershwin (b. New York, 26 Sept 1898; d. Hollywood, 11 July 1937).
George Gershwin's father was a Russian Jew who left St Petersburg and emigrated to the United States of America in the early 1 890s - the exact date appears to be unknown. His name was Moishe Gershovitz which he had changed, by the time his sons were born, to Morris Gershvin. In 1895 he married Rose Bruskin, also an immigrant. At that time he was a foreman in a factory making the upper parts of lady's shoes. He was a restless, ambitious but mainly unsuccessful man who nevertheless managed to maintain his family in reasonable comfort; though it is recorded that by 1916 the family had moved house twenty-eight times while the head of the household had tried almost as many occupations.
Into this migratory establishment, the eldest son Ira (christened Israel and generally called Izzy) was born on the 8th December 1896; the second son George (christened Jacob) was born on the 26th September 1898; and a daughter Frances on the 6th December 1906. There seems to have been a rather casual attitude toward names in the Gershwin family. George changed his name to George Gershwin when he became a professional musician but other variants of it were used from time to time. George Gershwin described his father as an 'easy-going, humorous philosopher', his mother (generally known as Rosa) as 'nervous, ambitious and purposeful'.
In his early schooldays George Gershwin had no interest in music. Then one day in 1904 on 125th Street in Harlem he heard an automatic piano playing Rubinstein's Melody in F. It had a strange fascination for him. After this he heard all the music he could and was particularly attracted by the art of a ragtime pianist on Coney Island. The music was obviously sinking in, for on the day in 1910 that the family bought and installed a piano (intended for Ira), George sat down at it and immediately played some of the popular songs of the day. He had lessons with the local lady teacher, progressing to a more advanced tutor soon after, and learned all he could about music by attending regular concerts. He played with a local musical society and then, in 1913, went to the teacher whom he described as 'the first great musical influence in my life' - Charles Hambitzer. By 1913 he was studying with the possible intent of becoming a concert pianist but his real interest was in popular music and jazz and in May 1914 he left school, aged fifteen, and became a staff pianist with the Tin Pan Alley firm of Jerome H. Remick & Co. Accompanying song-pluggers was not a very satisfying task particularly as, when he started writing songs, the company turned them down. His first published song was the lengthily titled 'When you want 'em, you can't get 'em; when you've got 'em, you don't want 'em' which was issued by the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company in 1916.
Influenced by the music of composers like Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, George Gershwin gradually built himself a reputation as a composer for the theatre. His first successes were songs interpolated into other people's scores; his first full-scale musical was La La Lucille in 1919. His reputation was established with songs like 'Swanee' used in the Al Jolson show Sinbad, 'I'll build a stairway to Paradise' used in George White's Scandals of 1922 and 'Somebody loves me' in the Scandals of 1924. In January 1924, while George Gershwin was working on a show called Sweet Little Devil, he read in a newspaper an announcement by Paul Whiteman that George Gershwin was working on a jazz concerto for a forthcoming concert at the Aeolian Hall. In fact, he had discussed the possibilities with Whiteman but nothing further. However, Whiteman was persuasive and George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, Whiteman's arranger and first heard on the 12th February 1924), aroused tremendous interest and variable opinions. It was successful enough to lead to further 'serious' commissions and in 1925 he produced his Piano Concerto in F, which he orchestrated himself.
The show Lady Be Good starring the Astaires, coincided with a European trip, and he was in London for its British premiere. In spite of a now established reputation, George Gershwin never relinquished a desire to study music more deeply. He asked both Ravel and Nadia Boulanger to take him on as a pupil but both refused, believing that it was wrong to try to impose their ideas on his natural genius. In his last years he studied for a time with Joseph Schillinger.
Throughout his career George Gershwin maintained a remarkable partnership with his brother Ira who was one of the most talented lyric-writers in popular music. It was a true combination of talents rather than mere brotherhood and Ira's ingenious words were the obvious inspiration of many an intricate George Gershwin melody. They both went to Hollywood in 1930 and completed some excellent film-scores, starting with Delicious. In May 1931 he wrote his Second Rhapsody and in 1932, after a trip to Havana, he wrote his Cuban Overture. In Hollywood, in the last years of his life, he spoke of plans for a string quartet, a symphony, a ballet and a cantata based on the Gettysburg address. The brain tumour that cut short his life at thirty-eight robbed the world of many George Gershwin masterpieces - for surely he would have gone to greater heights. The final proof of this is to be found in his ambitious folk opera Porgy and Bess, written after many years of sporadic effort and first produced on the 30th September 1935. Its full acceptance was to come after George Gershwin's death. His last works of note were some fine songs for the films Shall We Dance and Damsel in Distress.
A proper assessment of George Gershwin's merits in terms commensurate with those applied to academic musicianship has always proved difficult to make. There is still an unwillingness to accept that anything written in a popular or jazz idiom can be taken seriously. It can be given a nod but cannot be wholeheartedly commended. So Rhapsody in Blue, in spite of unabating performances, is sneered at by the highbrow for its lack of form and serious development and by the jazz critic (who is full of blind prejudice) for not being jazz. It is, in fact, a well-contained and shapely rhapsody which exploits and widens the range of the popular song. Any one of its themes could have been a George Gershwin song; the composer gives them the strength to stand in purely instrumental terms. It is certainly memorable and effective if you accept the Tin Pan Alley idiom - even inspired. An American in Paris has even more to offer by way of rhapsodic ingenuity but, being more expansive, is less memorable. It has been pointed out that George Gershwin's Piano Concerto, which was commissioned by Walter Damrosch, is the most often played of any American concerto and its regular revival and the serious attention it gets from reputable players counters the condescending and uncomprehending sort of remarks that Eric Blom allowed George Gershwin in the 1954 Grove. The concerto's themes can stand comparison with those of the Rachmaninov concertos.
The potential ingenuity and imagination of George Gershwin is most clearly indicated in the very effective piano transcriptions of his songs, in the three Preludes and the / Got Rhythm variations. As a song-writer he came at the right time in America's history. Greatly inspired by Jerome Kern, whose music bridged the gap between the 'straight' and the 'jazz' ages of popular song, he showed to what heights of elegance and literacy the art of Tin Pan Alley could go, particularly when spiced with the preservative jazz idiom. In Porgy and Bess (whether it is accepted as an opera or not) he showed that his songs were capable of rising to much greater heights than usually achieved in musical comedy. It could be rated as at least the Die Fledermaus of American light opera.
There is no sign of any decline in George Gershwin's reputation; indeed it seems to improve steadily and he has been given more literary attention than any other American composer. The approval, once so reluctantly given, is now more or less universal.
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