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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 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 Bing Crosby, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Nina Simone, John Fahey, and Sting.
Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed the family name to Gershwin sometime after emigrating from St. Petersburg, Russia. Gershwin's mother, Rosa Bruskin, also emigrated from Russia; she married Gershowitz four years later.
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 a friend's violin recital. The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for his older brother Ira, but to his parents' surprise and Ira's relief, it was George who played it. Although his younger sister Frances was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and became a housewife, giving up her own singing and dance career—settling into painting, a hobby of George'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 Hambitzer's death in 1918. Hambitzer taught George conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestra 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.
His first job as a performer was as a "song plugger" for Remick's, a publishing company on New York City's Tin Pan Alley. 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 piano rolls. 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 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "The Man I Love."
This was followed by Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face in (1927); Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930); 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.
In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra and piano, which was arranged by Ferde Grofé and premiered 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. While there, he wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews. There are orchestral nods towards Ravel's piano concerto of the same period. Eventually he found the music scene in Paris supercilious, and returned to America. Though he hugely admired the French style of music—and did until the day he died—Gershwin remained thoroughly American.
His most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Called by Gershwin himself a "folk opera," the piece premiered 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 leit motifs.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. He had developed a brain tumor. In June, he performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with French maestro Pierre Monteux. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed and, on July 11, 1937, died following surgery for the tumor at the age of 38. Coincidentally, just a few months later in 1937, Gershwin's idol Ravel also died following brain surgery.
Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift and frequently consulted her about his music. Oh, Kay was named for her. Posthumously, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects. Gershwin also had an affair with actress Paulette Goddard.
Gershwin could be generous, warm, and a good friend, but he could also be vain and more than a trifle egotistical. His friend and champion, the concert pianist Oscar Levant once asked him: "George, if you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"
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. 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 expire 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, George whispered Fred's name before passing away.
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.
George Gershwin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The George Gershwin Theatre on Broadway is named after him.
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." 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, he 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).
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 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". (This quote may actually belong to Maurice Ravel, who is credited with essentially the same quote in 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.
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.
George Gershwin's 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.
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 1st, 2007, the first Gershwin Prize was awarded to Paul Simon.
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.
Many fans of George Gershwin have found it strange that, in comparison to the piano rolls, there are very few accessible audio recordings of his live playing. His very first recording was his own Swanee with the Fred Van Eps Trio in 1919. The record is heavy on 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. 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 someone realized they had not hired anyone to play the brief celeste solo, so they asked Gershwin if he would or could play the instrument, and he agreed. Gershwin can be heard, rather briefly, on the recording during the slow section. Gershwin also appeared on various radio broadcasts, some of which have been preserved on transcription discs.
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 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. 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 and been featured on www.youtube.com; presumably it was taken from an early 1930s newsreel. There are also silent home movies, some in Kodachrome, of Gershwin that have been 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 were issued on 2 CDs by Nonesuch Records through the efforts of Artis Woodhouse and is entitled "Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls"