26 September 1898
Brooklyn, New York, New York, United States
11 July 1937 (aged 38)
George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist. Gershwin's compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).
Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark and Henry Cowell. He began his career as a song plugger, but soon started composing Broadway theatre works with his brother Ira Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva. He moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, where he began to compose An American in Paris. After returning to New York City, he wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and the author DuBose Heyward. Initially a commercial failure, Porgy and Bess is now considered one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century. Gershwin moved to Hollywood and composed numerous film scores until his death in 1937 from a brain tumor.
Gershwin's compositions have been adapted for use in many films and for television, and several became jazz standards recorded in many variations. Countless celebrated singers and musicians have covered his songs.
He was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the second of four children. George wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works together with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. Among the many songs the two composed which are now considered jazz standards (widely performed and recorded by jazz musicians) are "But Not for Me," and "Embraceable You," as well as "The Man I Love," and "Someone to Watch Over Me." Undoubtedly, their song most recorded by other musicians is "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Willie Nelson are among the hundreds of artists who have recorded the song.) Gershwin composed successfully both for Broadway and for the classical concert hall. Perhaps most notably his epic works An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue have been featured on many classical music compilations, in Disney's animated film Fantasia 2000, and are roundly regarded as great music of the 20th century.
On leaving school at the age of 15, Gershwin found his first job as a "song plugger" for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a publishing firm on New York City's Tin Pan Alley, where he earned $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 $5. His 1917 novelty rag, "Rialto Ripples", was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song, "Swanee", with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer of the day, heard Gershwin perform "Swanee" at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows.
In 1916, Gershwin 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.
In the late 1910s, Gershwin met songwriter and music director William Daly. The two collaborated on the Broadway musicals Piccadilly to Broadway (1920) and For Goodness' Sake (1922), and jointly composed the score for Our Nell (1923). This was the beginning of a long friendship; Daly was a frequent arranger, orchestrator and conductor of Gershwin's music, and Gershwin periodically turned to him for musical advice.
In the early 1920s, Gershwin frequently worked with the lyricist Buddy DeSylva. Together they created the experimental one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, set in Harlem. It is widely regarded as a forerunner to the groundbreaking Porgy and Bess.
In 1924, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a stage musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady Be Good!".
They followed this with Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face (1927); Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930). Gershwin gave the song, with a modified title, to UCLA to be used as a football fight song, "Strike Up The Band for UCLA".
He and his brother created Show Girl (1929); Girl Crazy (1930), which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm"; and Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize (for Drama).
Europe and classical music
In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premiered by Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.
In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him. She was afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. While there, Gershwin wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States. Growing tired of the Parisian musical scene, Gershwin returned to the United States.
In 1929, Gershwin was contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the movie Delicious. Only two pieces were used in the final film, the five-minute "Dream Sequence" and the six-minute "Manhattan Rhapsody". Gershwin became infuriated when the rest of the score was rejected by Fox Film Corporation, and it would be seven years before he worked in Hollywood again.
Gershwin's first opera, Blue Monday, is a short one-act opera which was not a financial success and has only received limited performances. Gershwin's most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin called it a "folk opera", and it is now widely regarded as one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century. "From the very beginning, it was considered another American classic by the composer of 'Rhapsody in Blue'—even if critics couldn't quite figure out how to evaluate it. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical? 'It crossed the barriers,' says theater historian Robert Kimball. 'It wasn't a musical work per se, and it wasn't a drama per se – it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category."
Based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in the fictional all-black neighborhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. With the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, with a strong influence of Black music, with techniques typical of opera, such as recitative, through-composition and an extensive system of leitmotifs. Porgy and Bess contains some of Gershwin's most sophisticated music, including a fugue, a passacaglia, the use of atonality, polytonality and polyrhythm, and a tone row. Even the "set numbers" (of which "Summertime", "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" are well known examples) are some of the most refined and ingenious of Gershwin's output. For the performances, Gershwin collaborated with Eva Jessye, whom he picked as the musical director. One of the outstanding musical alumnae of Western University in Kansas, she had created her own choir in New York and performed widely with them. The work was first performed in 1935; it was a box office failure.
After the commercial failure of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin moved to Hollywood, California. He was commissioned by RKO Pictures in 1936 to write the music for the film Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Gershwin's extended score, which would marry ballet with jazz in a new way, runs over an hour in length. It took Gershwin several months to write and orchestrate it.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. On February 11, 1937, Gershwin performed his Piano Concerto in F in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux. Gershwin, normally a superb pianist in his own compositions, suffered coordination problems and blackouts during the performance. He was at the time living with his brother Ira and Ira's wife Lenore in a rented house in Beverly Hills while they worked on other Hollywood film projects. Lenore Gershwin began to be disturbed by George's mood swings and seeming inability to eat without spilling food at the dinner table. She suspected the onset of mental illness and she insisted he be moved out of their house to lyricist Yip Harburg's empty quarters nearby where he was placed in the care of his valet, Paul Mueller. The headaches and olfactory hallucinations continued and on June 23rd, after an incident in which Gershwin tried to push Mueller out of the car in which they were riding, Gershwin was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles for observation. Tests showed no physical cause and he was released on the 26th with a diagnosis of "likely hysteria". His troubles with coordination and mental acuity worsened, and on the night of July 9, Gershwin collapsed in Harburg's house where he had been working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies. He was rushed back to Cedars of Lebanon where he fell into a coma. Only at that point did it become obvious to his doctors that he was suffering from a brain tumor. An immediate call was made to pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing in Boston who, retired for several years by then, recommended Dr. Walter Dandy, who was on a boat fishing in Chesapeake Bay with the Governor of Maryland. Dandy was quickly brought to shore by the Coast Guard and sent on to Newark Airport to catch a plane to Los Angeles; however, by that time Gershwin's condition was judged to be critical and the need for surgery immediate. An attempt by doctors at Cedars to excise the tumor was made in the early hours of the 11th, but it proved unsuccessful, and Gershwin died on the morning of July 11, 1937 at the age of 38.
Gershwin's many friends and fans were shocked and devastated. John O'Hara remarked: "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." He was interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. A memorial concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8, 1937 at which Otto Klemperer conducted his own orchestration of the second of Gershwin's Three Piano Preludes.
Gershwin received his sole Academy Award nomination, 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. The nomination was posthumous; Gershwin died two months after the film's release.
Gershwin had a ten-year affair with composer Kay Swift, whom he frequently consulted about his music. The two never married, although she eventually divorced her husband James Warburg in order to make it possible. Swift's granddaughter, Katharine Weber, has suggested that the pair were not married because George's mother Rose was "unhappy that Kay Swift wasn't Jewish". Oh, Kay was named for her. After Gershwin's death, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed several of his recordings, and collaborated with his brother Ira on several projects.
Musical style and influence
Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel in New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oskar Fried; Éva Gauthier; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco; and George Gershwin.
Gershwin was influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century. In turn Maurice Ravel was impressed with Gershwin's 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." 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.
Gershwin asked to study with Ravel. When Ravel heard how much Gershwin earned, Ravel replied with words to the effect of, "You should give me lessons." (Some versions of this story feature Igor Stravinsky rather than Ravel as the composer; however Stravinsky confirmed that he originally heard the story from Ravel.)
Gershwin's own Concerto in F was criticized for being related to the work of Claude Debussy, more so than to the expected jazz style. The comparison did not 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 Les Six, though the tunes are original."
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." (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?")
Russian Joseph Schillinger's influence as Gershwin's teacher of composition (1932–1936) was substantial in providing him with a method of 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 Vernon Duke, also a Schillinger student, in an article for the Musical Quarterly in 1947.
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. Although George Gershwin would seldom make grand statements about his music, he believed that "true music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today."
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.
Recordings and film
Early in his career Gershwin recorded more than one hundred and forty player piano piano rolls both under his own name and pseudonyms, which were a main source of income for him. The majority are popular music of the period and a smaller proportion are of his own works. Once his musical theatre-writing income became substantial his regular roll-recording career became superfluous. He did record additional rolls throughout the 1920s of his main hits for the Aeolian Company's reproducing piano, including a complete version of his Rhapsody in Blue.
Compared to the piano rolls, there are few accessible audio recordings of Gershwin's playing. His 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 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. When it was realized that no one had been hired to play the brief celeste solo, 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.
Gershwin appeared on several radio programs, including Rudy Vallee's, and played some of his compositions. This included 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, Gershwin hosted his own radio program titled Music by Gershwin. The show was broadcast on the NBC Blue Network from February to May and again in September through the final show on December 23, 1934. 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. In 1935 RCA Victor asked him to supervise recordings of highlights from Porgy and Bess; these were his last recordings.
A 74-second newsreel film clip of Gershwin playing I Got Rhythm has survived, filmed at the opening of the Manhattan Theater (now The Ed Sullivan Theater) in August 1931. There are also silent home movies of Gershwin, some of them shot on Kodachrome color film stock, which have been featured in tributes to the composer. In addition, there is newsreel footage of Gershwin playing "Mademoiselle from New Rochelle" and "Strike Up the Band" on the piano during a Broadway rehearsal of the 1930 production of Strike Up the Band. In the mid-30s, "Strike Up The Band" was gifted to UCLA to be used as a football fight song, "Strike Up The Band for UCLA". The comedy team of Clark and McCullough are seen conversing with Gershwin, then singing as he plays.
In 1965, Movietone Records released an album MTM 1009 featuring Gershwin's piano rolls of the titled George Gerswhin plays RHAPSODY IN BLUE and his other favorite compositions. The flip side of the LP featured 9 other recordings.
In 1975, Columbia Records released an album featuring Gershwin's piano rolls of the Rhapsody In Blue, accompanied by the Columbia Jazz Band playing the original jazz-band accompaniment, 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 1976, RCA Records, as part of their "Victrola Americana" line released a collection of Gershwin recordings, taken from 78s recorded in the 1920s and called the LP "Gershwin plays Gershwin, Historic First Recordings" (RCA Victrola AVM1-1740) and included recordings of "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Gershwin on piano, "An American in Paris", from 1927 with Gershwin on celesta; "Three Preludes", "Clap Yo' Hands" and Someone to Watch Over Me", among others. There are a total of 10 recordings on the album.
In 1998, two audio CDs featuring piano rolls recorded Gershwin were issued by Nonesuch Records through the efforts of Artis Woodhouse. It is entitled Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls.
Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, including Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Percy Grainger, Art Tatum, Yehudi Menuhin, Bing Crosby, The Moody Blues, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, Neil Sedaka, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Hiromi Uehara, Madonna, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin, Nina Simone, Maureen McGovern, John Fahey, The Residents, Kate Bush, Sublime, Sting, Amy Winehouse, and Liquid Tension Experiment.
In October 2009, it was reported by Rolling Stone that Brian Wilson is completing at least two unfinished compositions by George Gershwin for possible release in 2010. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin was released on August 17, 2010. The album consists of covers of ten George and Ira Gershwin songs, bookended by passages from Rhapsody in Blue, along with two new songs completed from unfinished Gershwin fragments by Wilson and band member Scott Bennett.
Baseline Studio Systems announced in January 2010 that Steven Spielberg may direct a biopic about the composer's life; 32-year-old American actor Zachary Quinto was named for the leading role of George Gershwin.
Rhapsody in Blue (for piano and orchestra, 1924)
Piano Concerto in F (1925)
An American in Paris (for orchestra, 1928)
Dream Sequence (for chorus and orchestra, 1929)
Second Rhapsody, originally titled Rhapsody in Rivets (for piano and orchestra, 1931)
Cuban Overture (for orchestra, 1932), originally entitled Rumba
March from Strike Up the Band (for orchestra, 1934)
Variations on "I Got Rhythm" (for piano and orchestra) (1934)
Catfish Row (for orchestra, 1936) a suite based on music from Porgy and Bess
Shall We Dance (1937 film) a movie score feature-length ballet
Preludes For Piano (1926)
George Gershwin's Song-book (1932) (solo piano arrangements of 18 songs)
Blue Monday, (1922) one-act opera
Porgy and Bess (1935) at the Colonial Theatre in Boston
George White's Scandals (1920–1924) (featuring, at one point, the 1922 one-act opera Blue Monday)
Lady, Be Good (1924)
Tell Me More! (1925)
Oh, Kay! (1926)
Strike Up the Band (1927)
Funny Face (1927)
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 (1992), a revised version of Girl Crazy, written and compiled without the participation of either George or Ira Gershwin.
Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012) (a musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin)
Films for which Gershwin wrote original scores
Delicious (1931) (an early version of the Second Rhapsody and one other musical sequence was used in this film, the rest were rejected by the studio)
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)
Gershwin died intestate, and his estate passed to his mother. The estate continues to collect significant royalties from licensing the copyrights on his 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 all Gershwin's solo works expired at the end of 2007 in the European Union, based on its life-plus-70-years rule.
In 2005, The Guardian determined using "estimates of earnings accrued in a composer's lifetime" that George Gershwin was the wealthiest composer of all time.
George Gershwin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
The George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award was established by UCLA to honor the brothers for their contribution to music and for their gift to UCLA of the fight song "Strike Up the Band for UCLA". Past winners have included Angela Lansbury (1988), Ray Charles (1991), Mel Torme (1994), Bernadette Peters (1995), Frank Sinatra (2000), Stevie Wonder (2002), k.d. lang (2003), James Taylor (2004), Babyface (2005), Burt Bacharach (2006), Quincy Jones (2007), Lionel Richie (2008) and Julie Andrews (2009).
The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to George and Ira Gershwin in 1985. Only three other songwriters, George M. Cohan, Harry Chapin and Irving Berlin, have had the honor of receiving this award.
The Gershwin Theatre on Broadway is named after George and Ira.
The Gershwin Hotel in the Flatiron District of Manhattan in New York City was named after George and Ira.
In Brooklyn, George Gershwin Junior High School 166 is named after him.
The 1945 biographical film Rhapsody in Blue starred Robert Alda as George Gershwin.
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