George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin was one of the most important American composers of the 20th Century. His music spanned across Classical, popular, and jazz styles, as well as musical theater.

Born to Russian immigrant parents, Gershwin started studying piano as a boy. While still a teenager, he got a job working in Tin Pan Alley, helping sell sheet music. He eventually got some of his own pieces published. His first big hit with the song “Swanee”, later popularized by Al Jolson. Although he wrote songs with lyricists Irving Caesar and Buddy DeSylva, his most frequent collaborator was his older brother, Ira. In 1924, George & Ira wrote the songs for the musical Lady Be Good. Several songs became hits from this show, such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh Lady Be Good”. Several Broadway shows followed, including Funny Face, Strike Up The Band, and Of Thee I Sing, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

1924 was also the year that Gershwin wrote his most famous composition: “Rhapsody in Blue”. It was a landmark in combining classical structure with jazz harmony and popular melody. Gershwin recorded this and many other compositions on player-piano rolls. Recordings are still made from these performances. Gershwin went to France, hoping to further his study in composition with either Nadia Boulanger or Maurice Ravel. Both turned him down, feeling that his ability as a composer and popular song writer were already developed. (Arnold Schoenberg later refused on the same grounds in Hollywood, although he and Gershwin often played tennis together.) While in France, Gershwin wrote “An American In Paris”, which became another classic of the orchestral repertoire.

In 1935, Gershwin wrote his most advanced and ambitious work, the opera Porgy and Bess, based on the novel by DuBose Heyward. It is widely admired as the greatest American opera. Like Rhapsody in Blue, it combines classical forms and techniques with jazz and popular styles in a way that transcends both. Featuring an all-black cast, it was very advanced for its time and produced several hit songs, including the classic “Summertime”. Gershwin died just two years later from brain tumor that had probably been growing for years and was responsible for his frequent stomach problems. His impact on American music of all styles continues to felt, through the recorded legacy of artists as diverse as Oscar Levant, Fred Astaire, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, Leontyne Price, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, and Willie Nelson.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Glyndebourne Opera Company: Porgy and Bess

Suggested Reading:

Joan Peyser. The Memory Of All That: The Life Of George Gershwin.