Who was George Gershwin? Today, most people would answer that question by saying that he was the composer of the song that’s in the airline commercial. Although that is true, he was much more than that. Gershwin was the most celebrated and wealthiest American composer who expressed the dreams of every American citizen of the 1920’s. He achieved this by mixing different styles of music like Jewish, black, jazz, classical, blues and put them into one genre and created absolute music.
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898. He had the childhood of any average kid growing up in the early 1900’s. His father Morris, a Russian Jewish immigrant, had many different jobs so George was forced to move around a lot and learn how to fight for his survival. Many people say that he was a very wild and robust child who was not interested in any type of school work (Schwartz 11).
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In the neighborhood where Gershwin grew up, anyone who was interested in music was known as a sissy. So after passing by a penny arcade and discovering a mechanical piano, George would go to homes of friends who had pianos and secretly tap out the popular tunes of the day (Peyser 21). One day his parents purchased a piano for Ira, the eldest, and as soon as it was moved in George sat down and began to play. The family was flabbergasted! They had no idea he was interested in music or where he learned how to play the piano (Adam
George’s parents immediately sought a teacher for him. They found a lady named Ms. Green from the neighborhood who, for fifty cents an hour, taught him all of the scales and modes. He then moved on to Mr. Goldberg who, for one dollar and fifty cents an hour, had him progress to opera overtures and arias. When his skill was matched to his teacher’s, he was introduced to Charles Hambutzer who taught him proper techniques, lyricism, harmony and most importantly opened up the worlds of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Schoenberg (Ewen 58-60).
Under Hambutzer’s guidance, Gershwin was faithful to his practicing and musical studies and in May of 1914 he was offered a job at Remick’s Music Publishing House in Tin Pan Alley. Gershwin jumped at the chance to become the youngest pianist ever employed at the popular music capital of the world. So at the age of fifteen, he quit school and became a song plugger (Schwartz 21).
The purpose of a song plugger was to make a song become a hit. Everyday hundreds of singers and actors came to Tin Pan Alley looking for fresh new materials. The song pluggers could improvise and transpose a song on the spot to fit a particular singer or actor. Soon, everyone was going to Gershwin’s booth because he could “. . . make you hear a song as it really is.” Gershwin was happy at his new job but he wanted more so he began to compose (Gojowy 303).
In 1916 Gershwin had his first song printed, When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Have ‘Em, When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.” Sophie Tucker, a famous singer, was responsible for it’s publication. She heard him playing it one night in a bar and arranged for it to be printed because she liked his use of unusual forms and rhythms (Adam 20:22). It was the publication of this song that led to him meeting famous lyricist, Irving Caesar.
Gershwin and Caesar decided to work on a Broadway musical. In May 1919, it was completed and La La Lucille made it’s debut. It featured the tunes Nobody But You and There’s More to the Kiss than the Sound (Schwartz 45-46). It was billed as “. . . a brilliant, up to the minute musical comedy of class and distinction” (Adam 32:19). This put his name out on the streets and it also brought in a few new
After the huge success of La La Lucille, Gershwin and Caesar began to work on another project together. It took them ten minutes to compose a song called Swannee (Ewen 73). Al Jolson heard the tune at a party and he liked it so much that he incorporated it into his show Sinbad at New York’s Winter Garden. It was a huge success selling over two million copies of sheet music world wide and earning Gershwin and Caesar each over ten thousand dollars (Gojowy 303)!
From 1920-1924 Gershwin signed on to write the music for a new Broadway musical, The George White Scandals. This production featured twenty-five Gershwin tunes including Somebody Loves Me, and Stairway to Paradise. He had also written a miniature opera that lasted twenty minutes but after the first performance it was taken out because it did not fit in. What it did do was to foreshadow developments that would be used in future composition (Schwartz 47).
Paul Whitman, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all times, was the conductor for Gershwin’s failed attempt at an opera. He had been impressed with Gershwin’s use of jazz in the melody, harmony and rhythms so he suggested to him to write a piece that consisted solely of jazz. George set out to write a concerto for two pianos but soon got sidetracked and forgot about it. One morning he picked up a paper and read that in two days, his newest piece would be premiered at a concert in Aeolian Hall so he got to work and finished it in two hours (Adam 35:19).
On February 12, 1924 the concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music was presented featuring jazz in “. . . all of it’s various facets” (Schwartz 73). The audience was packed with an array of formidable social and aristocratic figures like Stravinsky, Chrysler, Rachmaninoff and Stakowsky. The program was very long and boring (Smith Lecture). By the end of the twenty third composition the audience had become irritable and restless. Then George Gershwin strolled up to the piano and the clarinet proceeded with the infamous first opening whale of Rhapsody in Blue. That caught their attention and it received a standing ovation. With this performance Gershwin had just opened the doors to concert halls everywhere for American composers. No one ever took an American seriously until Gershwin used his unique style of composing to produce this piece (Smith Lecture).
As Gershwin’s fame and wealth spread, so did his social status. He began to appear on everyone’s guest lists for dinner parties. After all, “An evening with Gershwin was a Gershwin evening” (Peyser 151). He became associated with elite stars like Gertrude Lawrence, Maurice Ravel and the Astaires. He began to change the way he dressed and talked and his manners so he could fit in with his new class of friends. One friend in particular was Kay Swift. No one knows exactly how close they were but they spent every moment they possible could together and he eventual composed a song for her (Adam 6:19).
In 1924 George and Ira were commissioned to write a score for a musical called Lady Be Good. It was about a brother and sister act, played by Fred and Adele Astaire. It featured the songs The Man I Love and Fascinating Rhythms. They were described as being full of “. . . bold, brisk, inventive and original ideas” (Schwartz 119). This score brought a new sophistication to popular music and it established a firm partnership between George and Ira who were inseparable until George’s death.
Soon Enough, George and Ira were writing new songs everyday. The phonograph began replacing piano rolls and this was an added boost to George’s fame. With the sale of records came more money and commissions. It even enabled him and Ira to purchase a five story brick home for the entire family with it’s own elevator. George was also able to begin collecting serious art and he even painted his own (Peyser 200).
In 1925 George’s Concerto in F was premiered in Carnegie Hall by the New York Symphony Orchestra. It was his first serious work that consisted of the standard three movement form. This composition established his reputation as a serious composer and helped to spread his popular works to a larger audience . He became the most celebrated composer of the 1920’s (Ewen 201).
In 1926 Oh Kay was published and dedicated to Kay Swift (Erb). It was most likely George and Ira’s most outstanding success. It stared Gertrude Lawrence and featured the songs Someone To Watch Over Me, Clap Your Hands, and Do Do Do. In this production, George transformed ordinary musical material into witty and memorable songs (Adam 22:47).
March 9, 1928 George went to Europe for the first time. There George performed Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. With these performances he bought more fame and sophistication to the American composer(Peyser 217). Both compositions were well received and they led to his acquaintance with esteemed composers like Ravel, Poulenc and Prokofiev. He inquired about becoming a pupil of the infamous classical pianist Nadia Boulanger but she declined and George and Ira returned to America (Rowley).
Upon their return, Gershwin had sketched a few melodies that he eventually transformed into An American In Paris. He scored this piece for a standard orchestra and he added three saxophones and four taxi horns (Peyser 227). It was a score rich in color, texture, and jazz techniques. It was described as “. . reflecting the mood of the new world” (Adam 25:25). Serious critics did not care for it but the public loved it and they made it a success.
His next two musicals were political satires. Gershwin was not into politics, but he felt by doing a satire it would lift his work from being an ordinary musical comedy. Strike Up The Band was a cynical anti-war story trying to subside the national hysteria (Schwartz 177). America’s national cheese proprietors are at war with Switzerland over the cost of importing Swiss cheese. It was a wonderful score with whimsical text. Of Thee I Sing was another satire which gave a very harsh look at American life during the Great Depression and looked at the possibility of a dictatorship in the United States. The musical production received a Pulitzer Prize which is something that had never been done before (Adam 37:33).
In 1930 George and his brother traveled to Hollywood to score the music for the movie Delicious. After completing the score, Gershwin was discouraged because he had no more influence on it (Peyser 263). Still he wanted to be a successful film composer so he settled there and went on to write music for three more movies, Damsel In Distress, Galdwin Follies and Shall We Dance (Schwartz 219). In 1931, Gershwin returned to New York and wrote Second Rhapsody . It was premiered by the Boston Symphony with George as the soloist (Rowley). In his opinion, it was the best composition he had ever done (Smith Lecture). So, having an abundance of self-confidence, Gershwin decided to do the one thing he had not done yet, write a full length opera.
George had become interested in black culture through the study of jazz. And after reading the novel Porgy, about a black crippled beggar, he became very excited about the musical possibilities it possessed. So in 1934 he retreated to a small shack in South Carolina and after twenty-one months he had composed Porgy and Bess. (Adam 40:03). This was the first opera ever written encompassing black heritage, jazz and blues.
Offers from the Metropolitan Opera House came rolling in but Gershwin refused because they could not promise him a black cast (Gojowy 304). So it made it’s debut at Boston’s Colonial Theater on September 30, 1935 (Schwartz 257). The New York critics shunned his non-traditional use of jazz and blues in an opera but his audience raved and that was all he cared about. There were some mixed feelings about the black lifestyle being portrayed from a white man’s point of view, but it as a unanimous success musically (Adam 45:55). It contained all of the essential ingredients; drama, performance, excitement, communication and talent. The show’s future success was guaranteed from the fifteen minute standing ovation it received (Smith Lecture). It was Porgy and Bess that allowed Gershwin to combine his two most passionate loves, popular and serious music.
After the grand success of Porgy and Bess, George returned to California. He wanted to go there and relax in the sun and write music the way he wanted to and for no one but himself. But he was unhappy because the only songs he could write would not suffice for the big screen. He was making plans to return to New York after a series of performances when tragedy struck (Ewen 291).
In February, 1937 George was giving a recital in Los Angeles when suddenly his mind went blank. Then a couple of days later he was experiencing dizziness, headaches and he became listless (Schwartz 299). So he was taken to a hospital and shortly after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He called his family and friends and told them that he was going to have it removed and he would be home soon (Adam 50:53). On July 11, 1937 George Gershwin passed away in the middle of surgery to remove the tumor (Erb).
The world of music was shocked at the loss of one it’s greatest composers. He was the most successful composer that had ever come along. He had a passion in his soul that poured out through his music and into the hearts of his listeners. “Like a rare flower that blossoms once in a while, Gershwin represented an original and rare phenomenon.”–Leonard Bernstein
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