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George Gershwin: Overview

George Gershwin: George Gershwin, original name Jacob Gershvin, (born September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.—died July 11, 1937, Hollywood, California), one of the most significant and popular American composers of all time. He wrote primarily for the Broadway musical theatre, but important as well are his orchestral and piano compositions in which he blended, in varying degrees, the techniques and forms of classical music with the stylistic nuances and techniques of popular music and jazz.

George Gershwin was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Although his family and friends were not musically inclined, George Gershwin developed an early interest in music through his exposure to the popular and classical compositions he heard at school and in penny arcades. He began his musical education at age 11, when his family bought a second-hand upright piano, ostensibly so that George’s older sibling, Ira, could learn the instrument. When George surprised everyone with his fluid playing of a popular song, which he had taught himself by following the keys on a neighbor’s player piano, his parents decided that George would be the family member to receive lessons. He studied piano with the noted instructor Charles Hambitzer, who introduced his young student to the works of the great classical composers. Hambitzer was so impressed with George Gershwin’s potential that he refused payment for the lessons; as he wrote in a letter to his sister, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”

George Gershwin continued to broaden his musical knowledge and compositional technique throughout his career with such disparate mentors as the idiosyncratic American composers and , the distinguished traditionalist Edward Kilenyi, and Joseph Schillinger, a musical theorist known for his mathematically grounded approach to composition. After dropping out of school at age 15, George Gershwin earned an income by making piano rolls for player pianos and by playing in New York nightclubs. His most important job in this period was his stint as a song plugger (probably the youngest in Tin Pan Alley), demonstrating sheet music for the Jerome Remick music-publishing company. In an era when sheet-music sales determined the popularity of a song, song pluggers such as George Gershwin worked long hours pounding out tunes on the piano for potential customers.

Although George Gershwin’s burgeoning creativity was hampered by his three-year stint in “plugger’s purgatory” (as George Gershwin biographer Isaac Goldberg termed it), it was nevertheless an experience that greatly improved his dexterity and increased his skills at improvisation and transposing. While still in his teens, George Gershwin was known as one of the most talented pianists in the New York area and worked as an accompanist for popular singers and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway musicals. In 1916 he composed his first published song, “When You Want ’Em You Can’t Get ’Em (When You’ve Got ’Em You Don’t Want ’Em),” as well as his first solo piano composition, “Rialto Ripples.” He began to attract the attention of some Broadway luminaries, and the operetta composer Sigmund Romberg included one of George Gershwin’s songs in The Passing Show of 1916.

These early experiences greatly increased George Gershwin’s knowledge of jazz and popular music. He enjoyed especially the songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern—referring to Berlin as “America’s Franz Schubert” and stating that Kern was “the first composer who made me conscious that most popular music was of inferior quality, and that musical comedy was made of better material”—and he was inspired by their work to compose for the Broadway stage. In 1919 entertainer Al Jolson performed the George Gershwin song “Swanee” in the musical Sinbad; it became an enormous success, selling more than two million recordings and a million copies of sheet music, and making George Gershwin an overnight celebrity. That same year, La, La Lucille, the first show for which George Gershwin composed the entire score, premiered; its most popular songs included “The Best of Everything,” “Nobody but You,” and “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo.” Also in 1919, George Gershwin composed his first “serious” work, the Lullaby for string quartet. A study in harmony that George Gershwin composed as an exercise for Kilenyi, Lullaby’s delicate beauty transcends its academic origins. Ira George Gershwin published the work several years after George’s death, and it has gone on to become a favourite with string quartets and with symphony orchestras, for which it was subsequently scored.

During the next few years, George Gershwin contributed songs to various Broadway shows and revues. From 1920 to 1924 he composed scores for the annual productions of George White’s Scandals, the popular variety revue, producing such standards as “(I’ll Build a) Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me.” For the Scandals production of 1922, George Gershwin convinced producer White to incorporate a one-act jazz opera. This work, Blue Monday (later reworked and retitled as 135th Street), was poorly received and was removed from the show after one performance. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, who had conducted the pit orchestra for the show, was nevertheless impressed by the piece. He and George Gershwin shared the common goal of bringing respectability to jazz music, which in 1922 was still being regarded, as evidenced in a New York American editorial, as “degrading, pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music.” To this end, in late 1923 Whiteman asked George Gershwin to compose a piece for an upcoming concert—entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”—at New York’s Aeolian Concert Hall. Legend has it that George Gershwin forgot about the request until early January 1924, when he read a newspaper article announcing that the Whiteman concert on February 12 would feature a major new George Gershwin composition. Writing at a furious pace in order to meet the deadline, George Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue, perhaps his best-known work, in three weeks’ time.

Owing to the haste in which it was written, Rhapsody in Blue was somewhat unfinished at its premiere. George Gershwin improvised much of the piano solo during the performance, and conductor Whiteman had to rely on a nod from George Gershwin to cue the orchestra at the end of the solo. Nevertheless, the piece was a resounding success and brought George Gershwin worldwide fame. The revolutionary work incorporated trademarks of the jazz idiom (blue notes, syncopated rhythms, onomatopoeic instrumental effects) into a symphonic context. George Gershwin himself later reflected on the work: "There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow…No set plan was in my mind, no structure to which my music would conform. The Rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not a plan."

The work, arranged by Ferde Grofé (composer of the Grand Canyon Suite) for either symphony orchestra or jazz band, is perhaps the most-performed and most-recorded orchestral composition of the 20th century. It is the only one of George Gershwin’s major works that George Gershwin himself did not orchestrate.

For the remainder of his career, George Gershwin devoted himself to both popular songs and orchestral compositions. His Broadway shows from the 1920s and ’30s featured numerous songs that became standards: “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Sweet and Low-Down,” “Do, Do, Do,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “Strike Up the Band,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me,” “Of Thee I Sing,” and “Isn’t It a Pity.” He also composed several songs for Hollywood films, such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “Love Walked In,” and “Love Is Here to Stay.” His lyricist for nearly all of these tunes was his older brother, Ira, whose glib, witty lyrics—often punctuated with slang, puns, and wordplay—received nearly as much acclaim as George’s compositions.

The George Gershwin brothers comprised a somewhat unique songwriting partnership in that George’s melodies usually came first—a reverse of the process employed by most composing teams. (When asked by interviewers, “Which comes first, the words or the music?”, Ira’s standard response was, “The contract.”) So facile was George’s musical imagination that quality songs were often composed within a few minutes of improvisation; other times, he dipped into his notebooks of song sketches that he accumulated over time (he once said, “I have more tunes in my head than I could put down on paper in a hundred years”) and embellished an old melody he had labeled “g.t.” (for “good tune”). Ira would then spend a week or more fitting words to the tune, polishing each line (to the extent that he was nicknamed “The Jeweller” by other songwriters) until he was satisfied. Songwriter Arthur Schwartz regarded Ira’s efforts to be “a truly phenomenal feat, when one considers he was required to be brilliant within the most confining rhythms and accents.”

One of the Gershwins best-known collaborations, “I Got Rhythm,” was introduced by Ethel Merman in the musical Girl Crazy (1930). The following year, George Gershwin scored a lengthy, elaborate piano arrangement of the song, and in late 1933 he arranged the piece into a set of variations for piano and orchestra; “I Got Rhythm” Variations has since become one of George Gershwin’s most-performed orchestral works. In addition, the 32-bar structure of “I Got Rhythm” has become the second-most frequently used harmonic progression in jazz improvisation, next to that of the traditional 12-bar blues.

George Gershwin’s piano score for “I Got Rhythm” was part of a larger project begun in 1931, George George Gershwin’s Songbook. A collection of George Gershwin’s personal favourites among his many hit tunes, it featured the composer’s own adaptations designed “for the above-average pianist.” Offering valuable insight into George Gershwin’s use of rhythm and harmony, as well as his own piano style, the Songbook selections have become concert staples for several noted pianists throughout the years and have occasionally been adapted into full orchestra arrangements.

In 1925 George Gershwin was commissioned by the Symphony Society of New York to write a concerto, prompting the composer to comment, “This showed great confidence on their part as I had never written anything for symphony before…I started to write the concerto in London, after buying four or five books on musical structure to find out what the concerto form actually was!” The resulting work, Concerto in F (1925), was George Gershwin’s lengthiest composition and was divided into three traditional concerto movements. The first movement loosely follows a sonata structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation, and it appropriates themes and rhythms from the popular “Charleston.” The second movement—the “high water mark of [George Gershwin’s] talent,” according to conductor Walter Damrosch, who conducted the work’s premiere performance—is a slow, meditative adaptation of blues progressions, and the third movement—“an orgy of rhythms,” according to George Gershwin—introduces new themes and returns, rondo-like, to the themes of the first. Although not as well received at the time as Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F eventually came to be regarded as one of George Gershwin’s most important works as well as perhaps the most popular American piano concerto.

An American in Paris (1928), George Gershwin’s second-most famous orchestral composition, was inspired by the composer’s trips to Paris throughout the 1920s. His stated intention with the work was to “portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere”; for this purpose, George Gershwin incorporated such touches of verisimilitude as real French taxi horns. It is this piece that perhaps best represents George Gershwin’s employment of both jazz and classical forms. The harmonic structure of An American in Paris is rooted in blues traditions (particularly the “Homesick Blues” middle section), and soloists are often required to bend, slide, and growl certain notes and passages, in the style of jazz musicians of the 1920s. The melodies that are repeated and embellished throughout the work, however, are never subject to alteration—the antithesis of the jazz philosophy that regards melody as a mere loose outline for imaginative decoration. With its varied rhythms and free structure (“Five sections held together more or less by intuition,” according to one critic), An American in Paris seemed more balletic than symphonic and, indeed, the piece gained its most lasting fame 23 years after its premiere, when it was used by Gene Kelly for the closing ballet sequence of the classic, eponymous film musical in 1951.

George Gershwin’s other major orchestral compositions have grown in stature and popularity throughout the years. His Second Rhapsody (1931) began life under the working titles “Manhattan Rhapsody” and “Rhapsody in Rivets” and was featured, in embryonic form, as incidental music in the film Delicious (1931). Perhaps the most experimental of George Gershwin’s major works, it has been praised as his most perfect composition in terms of structure and orchestration. George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture (1932), which he stated was inspired by “two hysterical weeks in Cuba where no sleep was had,” employed rhumba rhythms and such percussion instruments as claves, maracas, bongo drums, and gourds, all of which were generally unknown at the time in the United States. It is a work frequently revived by symphony conductors, who find its brash, festival-like mood to be a rousing concert-opener.

Throughout his career, George Gershwin had major successes on Broadway with shows such as Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and, especially, the daring political satire Of Thee I Sing (1931), for which Ira and librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind shared a Pulitzer Prize. (Rules of the Pulitzer committee at the time did not allow for composers to share in a drama award. Ira objected that George was not a corecipient, but George insisted that the rules be obeyed. In protest, Ira hung his Pulitzer certificate in his bathroom.) These shows, smash hits in their time, are (save for George Gershwin’s music) largely forgotten today.

Ironically, his most enduring and respected Broadway work, Porgy and Bess, was lukewarmly received upon its premiere in 1935. George Gershwin’s “American Folk Opera” was inspired by the DuBose Heyward novel Porgy (1925) and featured a libretto and lyrics by Ira and the husband-wife team of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. In preparation for the show, George Gershwin spent time in the rural South, studying firsthand the music and lifestyle of impoverished African Americans. Theatre critics received the premiere production enthusiastically, but highbrow music critics were derisive, distressed that “lowly” popular music should be incorporated into an opera structure. Black audiences throughout the years have criticized the work for its condescending depiction of stereotyped characters and for George Gershwin’s inauthentic appropriation of black musical forms. Nevertheless, George Gershwin’s music—including such standards as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”—transcended early criticism to attain a revered niche in the musical world, largely because it successfully amalgamates various musical cultures to evoke something uniquely American and wholly George Gershwin.

Porgy and Bess received overdue recognition in the years 1952–54 when the U.S. State Department selected it to represent the United States on an international tour, during which it became the first opera by an American composer to be performed at the La Scala opera house in Milan. While it still raises political issues, contemporary attitudes towards the work are reflected in a statement by Grace Bumbry, who portrayed Bess in the Metropolitan Opera’s widely praised revival in 1985: “I resented the role at first, possibly because I really didn’t know the score, and I think because of the racial aspect. I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come too far to regress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it really was a piece of Americana, of American history.” Many now consider the score from Porgy and Bess to be George Gershwin’s greatest masterpiece.

George Gershwin was known as a gregarious man whose huge ego was tempered by a genuinely magnetic personality. He loved his work and approached every assignment with enthusiasm, never suffering from “composer’s block.” Throughout the first half of 1937, George Gershwin began experiencing severe headaches and brief memory blackouts, although medical tests showed him to be in good health. By July, George Gershwin exhibited impaired motor skills and drastic weight loss, and he required assistance in walking. He lapsed into a coma on July 9, and a spinal tap revealed the presence of a brain tumor. George Gershwin never regained consciousness and died during surgery two days later. He was at the peak of his powers with several unrealized projects ahead of him (among them, some sketches for a new string quartet and a new symphony, a proposed ballet score, and musical comedy collaborations with George S. Kaufman and DuBose Heyward). His death stunned the nation, whose collective feelings can be summed up in a famous statement from novelist John O’Hara: “George George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

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.

Ira George Gershwin, so devastated that he could not work for more than a year after George’s death, became the keeper of his brother’s legacy. In later years, he supervised the release of several unpublished George Gershwin compositions, including several works for piano, the Lullaby for string quartet, and the Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess (a work cobbled together after the show had closed and now considered to be the last orchestral work to be composed and scored by George Gershwin). Ira also put lyrics to tunes from George’s notebooks, creating “new” George Gershwin songs for the films The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). He had continued success with other collaborators, including , , and .

George Gershwin’s music remains a subject of debate among prominent international conductors, composers, and music scholars, some of whom find his works for orchestra to be naively structured, little more than catchy melodies strung together by the barest of musical links. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein summed up the feelings of many classical musicians, saying, “The themes are terrific—inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since . But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter.” Nevertheless, George Gershwin’s accomplishments are considerable: he ranks (along with , , and ) as one of the four greatest composers for the American musical theatre, as well as the only popular composer of the 20th century to have made a significant and lasting dent in the classical music world. He had great admirers in the classical field, including such luminaries as , , , , , and , all of whom cited George Gershwin’s genius for melody and harmony. His orchestral works, now performed by most of the world’s prestigious symphony orchestras, have attained a status for which George Gershwin longed during his lifetime. and may rival George Gershwin for the title of “great American composer,” but their works tend to be admired, whereas George Gershwin’s are beloved. As the noted musicologist Hans Keller stated, “George Gershwin is a genius, in fact, whose style hides the wealth and complexity of his invention. There are indeed weak spots, but who cares about them when there is greatness?”

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