George Gershwin

George Gershwin

Infobox Person
name = George Gershwin

image_size = 200px
caption = George Gershwin in 1937
birth_name = Jacob Gershowitz
birth_date = birth date|mf=yes|1898|9|26|
birth_place = Brooklyn, New York
death_date = death date and age|mf=yes|1937|7|11|1898|9|26
death_place = Hollywood, California
resting_place = Westchester Hills Cemetery
resting_place_coordinates =
nationality = American
occupation = Composer
partner = Kay Swift
children = none
relatives = Frances and Ira

George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer. He wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works in collaboration with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. George Gershwin composed songs both for Broadway and for the classical concert hall. He also wrote popular songs with success.

Many of his compositions have been used on television and in numerous films, and many became jazz standards. The jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded many of the Gershwins' songs on her 1959 Gershwin Songbook (arranged by Nelson Riddle). Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, including Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Art Tatum, Bing Crosby, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin, Nina Simone, Maureen McGovern, John Fahey, The Residents, Sublime, and Sting.


Early life

Gershwin was born as Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed the family name to Gershvin sometime after immigrating from St. Petersburg, Russia. Gershwin's mother, Rosa Bruskin, having already immigrated from Russia, married Gershowitz four years later. (George changed the spelling of the family name to Gershwin after he became a professional musician, and other members of his family followed suit.)

George Gershwin was the second of four children. He first displayed interest in music at the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his boyhood friend's, Max Rosen's, violin recital. [.cite book |title= Gershwin, His Life and Music|last=Schwartz |first=Charles |year=1973 |publisher=Da Capo Press, Inc. |location=New York, NY |isbn=0-306-80096-9 |page=14] The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for his older brother Ira Gershwin, but to his parents' surprise and Ira's relief, it was George who played it. Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and became a housewife and mother, giving up her own singing and dance career—settling into painting, a hobby of George Gershwin's.

Gershwin tried various piano teachers for two years, and then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer by Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Hambitzer acted as George's mentor until his death, in 1918. Hambitzer taught George conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. (At home following such concerts, young George would attempt to reproduce at the piano the music he had heard.) He later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell.

Tin Pan Alley

At the age of fifteen, George quit school and found his first job as a performer was as a "song plugger" for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a publishing firm on New York City's Tin Pan Alley earning $15 a week. His first published song was "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em." It was published in 1916 when Gershwin was only 17 years old and earned him a sum total of $5, although he was promised much more. His 1917 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee." In 1916, he started working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, recording and arranging. He produced dozens, if not hundreds, of rolls under his own and assumed names. (Pseudonyms attributed to Gershwin include Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn.) He also recorded rolls of his own compositions for the Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos. As well as recording piano rolls, Gershwin made a brief foray into vaudeville, accompanying both Nora Bayes and Louise Dresser on the piano. [Slide, Anthony. "The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville." Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994. p. 111.]

In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, "Lady Be Good" which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Lady Be Good." [ibdb show|title=Lady, Be Good|id=5227]

This was followed by "Oh, Kay!" (1926), [ibdb show|id=6687 |title=Oh, Kay!] "Funny Face" in (1927), [ibdb show|ID=3749|title=Funny Face] "Strike Up the Band" (1927 and 1930), [ibdb show|title=Strike Up the Band|id=11031] "Show Girl" (1929), [ibdb show|title=Show Girl|id=10910] "Girl Crazy" (1930), [ibdb show|title=Girl Crazy|id=3873] which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm," and "Of Thee I Sing" (1931), [ibdb show|title=Of Thee I Sing|ID=6662] the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Classical Music, Opera, and European Influences

In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, "Rhapsody in Blue" for orchestra and piano, which was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premièred with Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.

Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period, where he applied to study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger, along with several other prospective tutors like Maurice Ravel, rejected him, however, afraid rigorous study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. [Jablonski, Edward,"Gershwin: A Biography." Double Day: New York, 1987. 155-170] While there, he wrote "An American in Paris". This work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928 but quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States. [Jablonski, Edward, "Gershwin, A Biography."Double Day: New York, 1987. pp.178-180] Eventually he found the music scene in Paris supercilious, and returned to America.

His most ambitious composition was "Porgy and Bess" (1935). Called by Gershwin himself a "folk opera," the piece premièred in a Broadway theater and is now widely regarded as the most important American opera of the twentieth century. Based on the novel "Porgy" by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, and with the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, which was strongly influenced by black music, with techniques found in opera, such as recitative and leitmotifs. It also includes a fugue and "advanced" techniques such as polytonality and even a tone row.

Hollywood and Early Death

Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. He had developed a type of cystic malignant brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme. [ [ George Gershwin-illustrious American composer: his fatal glioblastoma. PMID: 231388] ] This can apparently be traced back to a blow on the head from a golf-ball, as observed by P.G.Wodehouse (a reliable judge, unlike his fictional characters). In June, he performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of "The Goldwyn Follies", that he had collapsed, dying on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following surgery for the tumor. Coincidentally, just a few months later, Gershwin's idol Ravel also died following brain surgery. A memorial concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl on 8 September, at which Otto Klemperer conducted his own orchestration of the second of Gershwin's "Three Piano Preludes".

Gershwin received his sole Oscar nomination, for the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 1937 Oscars, for "They Can't Take That Away from Me" written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film "Shall We Dance". [imdb title|0029546|Shall We Dance (1937)] The nomination was posthumous as he died two months after the film's release.

Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift and frequently consulted her about his music. "Oh, Kay" was named for her. [Hyland pp 108] After Gershwin died, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects. [ [ "Kay Swift biography" (Kay Swift Memorial Trust)] accessed 28 Dec 2007] Gershwin also had an affair with actress Paulette Goddard. [ [ "Paulette Goddard, 78, Is Dead; Film Star of 1930's Through 50's" Peter B Flint] 24 April 1990 "The New York Times" accessed 28 Dec 2007]

Gershwin died intestate, and all his property passed to his mother. He is buried in the Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. [ [ "George Gershwin" (Find-A-Grave)] accessed 28 Dec 2007] The Gershwin estate continues to bring in significant royalties from licensing the copyrights on Gershwin's work. The estate supported the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act because its 1923 cutoff date was shortly before Gershwin had begun to create his most popular works. The copyrights on those works were expired at the end of 2007 in the European Union and will expire between 2019 and 2027 in the United States of America.

According to Fred Astaire's letters to Adele Astaire, Gershwin whispered Astaire's name before passing away. [The featurette: "They Can't Take That Away from Me: The Music of Shall We Dance", on the "Shall We Dance" DVD released August 16, 2005 [ DVD link] ]

In 2005, The Guardian determined using "estimates of earnings accrued in a composer's lifetime" that George Gershwin was the richest composer of all time. [ [,3604,1558446,00.html "Gershwin leads composer rich list" Kirsty Scott] 29 August 2005, "The Guardian" accessed 28 Dec 2007] George Gershwin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The George Gershwin Theatre on Broadway is named after him. [ [ "The Gershwin Theater" (Theater History)] accessed 28 Dec 2007]

Musical style and influence

Gershwin was influenced very much by French composers of the early twentieth century. Maurice Ravel was quite impressed with the Gershwins' abilities, commenting, "Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin's works and I find them intriguing." [Mawer pp 42] The orchestrations in Gershwin's symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel's two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin. He also asked Ravel for lessons. When Ravel heard how much Gershwin earned, Ravel replied "How about you give "me" some lessons?" (some versions of this story feature Igor Stravinsky rather than Ravel as the composer; however Stravinsky himself confirmed that he originally heard the story from Ravel). [Arthur Rubinstein, "My Many Years"; Merle Armitage, "George Gershwin"; Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, "Dialogues and a Diary", all quoted in Norman Lebrecht, "The Book of Musical Anecdotes"]

Gershwin's own "Concerto in F" was criticized as being strongly rooted in the work of Claude Debussy, more so than in the jazz style which was expected. The comparison didn't deter Gershwin from continuing to explore French styles. The title of "An American in Paris" reflects the very journey that he had consciously taken as a composer: "The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though the tunes are original." [(Hyland pp 126)]

Aside from the French influence, Gershwin was intrigued by the works of Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg. He also asked Schoenberg for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, saying "I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin already". [Norman Lebrecht, "The Book of Musical Anecdotes"] (This quote is similar to one credited to Maurice Ravel during Gershwin's 1928 visit to France -- "Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?" See the Wikipedia article for Maurice Ravel.)

Russian Joseph Schillinger's influence as his teacher of composition (1932-1936) was substantial in providing him with a method to his composition. There has been some disagreement about the nature of Schillinger's influence on Gershwin. After the posthumous success of "Porgy and Bess", Schillinger claimed he had a large and direct influence in overseeing the creation of the opera; Ira completely denied that his brother had any such assistance for this work. A third account of Gershwin's musical relationship with his teacher was written by Gershwin's close friend and another Schillinger student, Vernon Duke, in an article for the "Musical Quarterly" in 1947. [Dukelsky, Vladimir (Vernon Duke), "Gershwin, Schillinger and Dukelsky: Some Reminiscences" Musical Quarterly Volume 33, 1947, 102-115]

What set Gershwin apart was his ability to manipulate forms of music into his own unique voice. He took the jazz he discovered on Tin Pan Alley into the mainstream by splicing its rhythms and tonality with that of the popular songs of his era.

In 2007, the Library of Congress named their Prize for Popular Song after George and Ira Gershwin. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of popular music on culture, the prize is given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins. On March 1, 2007, the first Gershwin Prize was awarded to Paul Simon. [ [ PBS article, Paul Simon: The Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song] ]


Early in his career Gershwin made dozens of player piano piano roll recordings and these were a main source of income for him. Many of these are of popular music of the period and many other are of his own works. Once his theatre-writing career took precedence his regular roll recording sessions dwindled as he was otherwise occupied. He did however record further rolls throughout the 1920s including a complete version of his "Rhapsody in Blue".

In comparison to the piano rolls, there are few accessible audio recordings of his playing. His very first recording was his own "Swanee" with the Fred Van Eps Trio in 1919. The recorded balance highlights the banjo playing of Van Eps, and the piano is overshadowed. The recording took place before "Swanee" became famous as an Al Jolson specialty in early 1920.

Gershwin did record an abridged version of "Rhapsody in Blue" with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1924, soon after the world premiere. Gershwin and the same orchestra made an electrical recording of the same abridged version for Victor in 1927. However, a dispute in the studio over interpretation angered Paul Whiteman and he left. The conductor's baton was taken over by Victor's staff conductor Nathaniel Shilkret. Gershwin made a number of solo piano recordings of tunes from his musicals, some including the vocals of Fred and Adele Astaire, as well as his "Three Preludes" for piano.

In 1929, Gershwin "supervised" the world premiere recording of "An American in Paris" with Nathaniel Shilkret and the Victor Symphony Orchestra. Gershwin's role in the recording was rather limited, particularly because Shilkret was conducting and had his own ideas about the music. Then it was realized no one had been hired to play the brief celeste solo, so Gershwin was asked if he could and would play the instrument, and he agreed. Gershwin can be heard, rather briefly, on the recording during the slow section.

He appeared on several radio programs, including Rudy Vallee's program, and played some of his compositions, including the third movement of the "Concerto in F" with Vallee conducting the studio orchestra. Some of these performances were preserved on transcription discs and have been released on LP and CD.

In 1934, in an effort to earn money to finance his planned folk opera, he hosted his own radio program titled "Music by Gershwin" in which he presented his own work as well as the work of other composers. Recordings from this and other radio broadcasts include his "Variations on I Got Rhythm", portions of the Concerto in F, and numerous songs from his musical comedies. He also recorded a run-through of his "Second Rhapsody", conducting the orchestra and playing the piano solos. Gershwin recorded excerpts from "Porgy and Bess" with members of the original cast, conducting the orchestra from the keyboard; he even announced the selections and the names of the performers. RCA Victor asked him to supervise recordings of highlights from "Porgy and Bess" in 1935, which were his last recordings.

A 33-second film clip of Gershwin playing "I've Got Rhythm" has survived, possibly taken from an early 1930s newsreel. There are also silent home movies of Gershwin, some of them shot on Kodachrome color film stock which have featured in tributes to the composer.

In 1975, Columbia Records released an album featuring Gershwin's piano rolls playing the "Rhapsody In Blue", accompanied by the Columbia Jazz Band playing the original jazz-band accompaniment of conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The flip side of the Columbia Masterworks release features Tilson Thomas leading the New York Philharmonic in "An American In Paris."

In 1993, a selection of piano rolls originally produced by Gershwin for the Standard Music Roll Company [ [ "George Gershwin and the player piano 1915-1927"] accessed 28 Dec 2007] were issued by Nonesuch Records through the efforts of Artis Woodhouse and is entitled "Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls". [(ASIN: B000005J1I)]


* "Rhapsody in Blue" (for piano and orchestra, 1924)
* "Piano Concerto in F" (1925)
* "An American in Paris" (for orchestra, 1928)
* "Second Rhapsody", originally titled "Rhapsody in Rivets" (for piano and orchestra, 1931)
* "Cuban Overture" (1932), originally entitled Rumba
* "Variations on "I Got Rhythm"" (for piano and orchestra) (1934)
* "Catfish Row" (1936) a suite based on music from "Porgy and Bess"Solo Piano
* "Preludes For Piano" (1926)
* "George Gershwin's Songbook" (1932) (piano arrangements of eighteen songs)London Musicals
* "Primrose" (1924)Broadway Musicals
* "George White's Scandals" (1920-1924) (featuring, at one point, the 1922 one-act opera "Blue Monday")
* "Lady, Be Good" (1924)
* "Tip-Toes" (1925)
* "Song of the Flame" (1925)
* "Tell Me More!" (1925)
* "Oh, Kay!" (1926)
* "Strike Up the Band" (1927)
* "Funny Face" (1927)
* "Rosalie" (1928)
* "Show Girl" (1929)
* "Girl Crazy" (1930)
* "Of Thee I Sing" (1931)
* "Pardon My English" (1933)
* "Let 'Em Eat Cake"(1933)
* "My One and Only" (1983) (an original 1983 musical using previously written Gershwin songs)
* "Crazy for You", a revised version of "Girl Crazy" (1992), written and compiled without the participation of either George or Ira Gershwin.

*"Porgy and Bess" (1935; this was, however, first presented on Broadway, rather than in an opera house)

Films for which Gershwin wrote original scores
* "Delicious" (1931) (portions of the "Second Rhapsody" were used in this film)
* "Shall We Dance" (1937) (original orchestral score by Gershwin, no recordings available in modern stereo, some sections have never been recorded)
* "A Damsel in Distress" (1937)
* "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938) (posthumously released)
* "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" (1947) (uses songs previously unpublished)


*YouTube|mtCZq5AHuyw|Classical Jam (Gershwin: Prelude No. 1) played by [ Classical Jam]
*YouTube|ip_gTdqNXVY|Musicians of the World Orchestra:Rhapsody in Blue performed by [ Musicians of the World]
*YouTube|6vg9Lh1WxlA|'84 Olympics - Rhapsody in Blue performed at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, on 84 grand pianos.

ee also

* List of notable brain tumor patients



* Hyland, William G. "George Gershwin : A New Biography" Praeger Publishers (August 30, 2003) ISBN 0-275-98111-8
* Mawer, Deborah (Editor). Cross, Jonathan (Series Editor). "The Cambridge Companion to Ravel (Cambridge Companions to Music)" Cambridge University Press (August 24, 2000) ISBN 0-521-64856-4
* Pollack, Howard "George Gershwin. His Life and Work" University of California Press, 2006, ISBN-13 978-0-520-24864-9
* Jablonski, Edward "Gershwin" Doubleday (1987) ISBN 0-385-19431-5
* Rimler, Walter "A Gershwin Companion" Popular Culture (1991) ISBN 1-56075-019-7

External links

* [ MusicalTalk Podcast on George Gershwin (part one of two)]
* [ MusicalTalk Podcast on George Gershwin (part two of two)]
* [ Official Site]
* [ Gershwin page]
* [ Anecdotage: Gershwin] Gershwin Anecdotes (with sources noted)
* [ - The Gershwin Educational Fanpage]
* [ George Gershwin] at the Internet Broadway Database
* at the Internet Movie Database
*George Gershwin Bio at [ Jewish-American Hall of Fame]
* [,%20george&query-join=and George Gershwin Collection] at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin
* [ George Gershwin and The Great American Songbook]
* George Gershwin WWI draft card at [ National Archives]

NAME= Gershwin, George
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American composer
DATE OF BIRTH= birth date|mf=yes|1898|9|26|mf=y
PLACE OF BIRTH= Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH= death date|mf=yes|1937|7|11|mf=y
PLACE OF DEATH= Hollywood, California, U.S.

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