George Gershwin

1898 1937

George Gershwin

Composer • Piano


George Gershwin is the archetypal American composer, a widely recognized genius who has left his mark equally on the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music. He is best known for his composing work for Broadway with his brother Ira as lyricist, and for his classical pieces.  

Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Upon receiving a piano at the age of 11 he impressed his parents with his ability to play many popular songs by ear. They quickly found him a teacher, Charles Hambitzer, who introduced the young Gershwin to the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg and proved to be and immense influence on his musical style. Gershwin’s skills progressed so quickly that he dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to devote more time to music. During this period he did many odd jobs including performing in nightclubs, working as a “song-plugger” in Tin Pan Alley and playing in the theatres of Broadway as a rehearsal pianist. While none of these were his ultimate goal they gave him a substantial amount of experience so that by the time he reached his 20s, Gershwin was already a formidable pianist and composer.

As he continued to hone his craft, Gershwin began to finally delve into the true work he was passionate about: writing for Broadway. In 1919 his songSwanee made it into the musicalSinbad. Singer Al Jolson’s famous rendition of this song was enough to make Gershwin an instant celebrity. Later that year Gershwin composed the entire score for the musicalLa, La Lucille, cementing his place in the upper echelon of Broadway composers. For the rest of his life Gershwin would weave in and out of Broadway, composing for numerous shows including Scandals (1922) and Girl Crazy (1930).

Gershwin was not content with the idea of living out the rest of his life as a show tune composer. He had also stated the goal of showing the world that jazz could become the basis for respectable concert music and transcend its reputation at the time for being sleazy and without true musical merit. He accomplished this in fantastic style with the now-infamousRhapsody in Blue, written in a mere three weeks for a concert entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which premiered in early 1924. Most of the piano parts were still improvised at this point, as Gershwin was unable to finish in time, but the piece was still a remarkable success. Gershwin was finally able to seamlessly integrate many of the hallmarks of jazz, such as syncopation and elements of the blues, into a coherent symphonic work. Additionally,Rhapsody afforded Gershwin the ability to sit down at the piano himself and demonstrate his impressive skills before a real audience.   

Speaking about his reasoning behind Rhapsody in Blue, he stated: “There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow…No set plan was in my mind, no structure to which my music would conform. The Rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not a plan.”

Even while working on his serious concert pieces, Gershwin never strayed far from the show tunes that had been his first exposure to music. He composed numerous Broadway scores during the 1920s and 30s and soon entered into an incredibly prolific partnership with his brother, the lyricist Ira Gershwin. The two of them formed the perfect songwriting team, complementing each other’s weaknesses, and together came up with dozens of songs that would later become immortalized as jazz standards. Some of these include "Someone to Watch over Me," "Embraceable You," "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off" and of course "I Got Rhythm."

In 1935 Gershwin completed his self-proclaimed “folk opera” entitled Porgy and Bess, which among his major works is rivalled only by Rhapsody in Blue in its popularity. Once again Gershwin was praised for his ability to synthesize European sensibilities with popular music to tell the story of a poor African American community in the South. The music fromPorgy and Bess has been performed and recorded countless times, perhaps most notably in the 1957 album of the same name featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald as the two protagonists. It is also the source of several jazz standards songs including It Ain’t Necessarily So and the memorable aria Summertime. Although it has been criticized for inaccuracies and stereotypes,Porgy and Bess still undeniably ranks highly among Gershwin’s masterpieces.

Gershwin accomplished an incredible amount in a life that was tragically cut short by brain cancer at the age of 38. He not only made valuable contributions to Broadway, he also accomplished his lifelong goal of showing that jazz can be a respectable music and the basis for valid forms of artistic expression. Although he was never one to tackle large-scale classical forms, he showed a supreme sense of melody, which promptedLeonard Bernstein to call him, “[the most] inspired melodist on this earth sinceTchaikovsky.” Many of his contemporaries in the classical field were huge admirers of Gershwin, including Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, and Arnold Schoenberg, and he is consistently ranked, along withAaron Copland, as one of America’s greatest composers.

Header photo courtesy of Library of Congress Small photos are part of the public domain

Above, from left: Oskar Fried; Éva Gauthier; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco; and George Gershwin.

Rhapsody in Blue kick-started Gershwin’s career as a composer of more classical-influenced concert music. In 1925 he was commissioned to write a concerto, which resulted in his Symphony in F, arguably the most popular American piano concerto. Three years later he wroteAn American in Paris, which delved even deeper into both the American and European musical traditions. This symphonic poem is famous for its hauntingly beautiful “Homesick Blues” in the middle section and for the many jazz-influenced techniques demanded of the orchestra, including growls and slides by many of the soloists.