Friday, September 26, 8898

George Gershwin (1898-1937) - Rhapsody

George Gershwin (Jacob Gershowitz, September 26, 1898, New York, NY - July 11, 1937) was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed the family name to Gershwin sometime after immigrating from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Gershwin's mother, Rosa Bruskin, also immigrated from Russia.

[Gershwin's birthplace in Brooklyn, New York]

"He was, frankly, a bad child who might have become a gangster."

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.

The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for his older brother

[George and Ira Gershwin]

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.

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 the composer was only 17 years old and earned him a sum total of $5, although he was promised much more.

At the age of 15, 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 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, 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 jazz band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.

Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Rhapsody in Blue is for solo piano and jazz band written in 1924, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. The composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé three times, in 1924, in 1926, and finally in 1942. The piece received its premiere in a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York, by Paul Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The version for piano and symphony, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé in 1942, has become one of the most popular American concert works.

As the most famous classical composition by Gershwin, it established his reputation as a "serious composer."

The composer recorded 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 recorded further piano rolls, including a complete version of Rhapsody in Blue.

Gershwin and the Whiteman band made another electrical recording of the same abridged version for Victor in 1927. However, a dispute in the studio over interpretation angered the conductor, who left the scene. The conducting was taken over by Victor staff director Nathaniel Shilkret.


In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good (that opened December 1 of that year), which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Lady Be Good."

Gershwin's own Concerto in F (1925) 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.

Gershwin 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.

Gershwin met composer Kay Swift in 1925 and had a 10-year affair with her, in which they frequently consulted each other about music. The musical Oh, Kay (1926) was named for her.

After Gershwin died, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects.

Three Preludes (1926)

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 recording his Three Preludes for piano, which may have been intended as the beginning of a cycle of twelve in the spirit of Chopin and Debussy.

[George Gershwin at 29 (1927)]

Funny Face in (1927)

Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930)

An American in Paris (1928)

Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period in 1928, 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.

Gershwin was influenced very much by French composers of the early 20th Century.

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, 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).

While there, he wrote An American in Paris.

The title reflected 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."

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.

Eventually he found the music scene in Paris supercilious, and returned to America.

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.

Show Girl (1929)

Girl Crazy (1930): I Got Rhythm

Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Russian Joseph Schillinger's influence as Gershwin's teacher of composition (1932-1936) was substantial in providing him with a method to his creativity.

[George Gershwin painting Arnold Schoenberg's portrait,1934)

Gershwin also asked Arnold 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?"

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.

Porgy and Bess (1935)


Catfish Row (Summertime)

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 an important American opera of the 20th 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.

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.

About this time, Gershwin also had an affair with

actress Paulette Goddard (she was married to Charlie Chaplin, and after Gershwin's death sequentially wed Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque, although she never had any children).

[Gershwin at 38, in the year of his death (1937)]

Gershwin received only one Oscar nomination, for "They Can't Take That Away From Me" written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film Shall We Dance.

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. 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 on July 11, 1937, dying at the age of 38 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following surgery for the tumor. Coincidentally, just a few months later in 1937, Gershwin's idol Ravel also died following brain surgery.

Gershwin died intestate (without a will), 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 were expired at the end of 2007 in the European Union and will expire between 2019 and 2027 in the United States of America.

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.

The George Gershwin Theatre on Broadway is named after him.

According to Fred Astaire's letters to Adele Astaire, Gershwin whispered Astaire's name before passing away.

Gershwin could be generous, warm, and a friend-in-need, 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?"

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 were issued by Nonesuch Records through the efforts of Artis Woodhouse and is entitled Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls.

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.

[8899 Belly Dancing / 8898 Gershwin / 8897 Deutsch]