The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, George Gershwin was a school dropout, but a genius, who began playing the piano professionally at age 15, and shockingly died before he was 40. And in this brief stay on the musical scene, Gershwin came to be acknowledged as one of the most significant and popular American composers of all time, known for popular stage and screen numbers as well as classical compositions–many of his works are now standards.
While the Broadway musical theatre was his forte, he was well-known for his orchestral and piano compositions in which he blended, in varying degrees, the techniques and forms of classical music with the stylistic nuances and techniques of popular music and jazz.
Born in 1898 in New York, Gershwin at the age of 18, composed his first published song, When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em. What made people sit up and notice Gershwin was Swanee which turned into a smash hit performed by entertainer, Al Jolson, when Gershwin was 21.
Rhapsody in Blue
The backdrop to Gershwin’s most notable work was interesting indeed. When he was about 25 years old, he was assigned the composition of a piece for an upcoming concert titled, ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ in New York. The story goes that Gershwin forgot about his assignment just a few days before the concert. Writing at a manic pace in order to meet the deadline, Gershwin composed what is perhaps his best-known work, Rhapsody in Blue, in three weeks’ time. And that since the work was somewhat unfinished at its premiere. Gershwin improvised much of the piano solo during the performance, and the conductor & bandleader, Paul Whiteman, relied on a nod from Gershwin to cue the orchestra at the end of the solo. Notwithstanding all these oddities, the success of Rhapsody in Blue brought Gershwin worldwide fame.
In 1924 when he was around 26, Gershwin teamed up with his older brother Ira to form the ‘Gershwins duo’; they emerged as prominent Broadway songwriters, creating infectious rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a ‘glove-like’ fidelity. The Broadway shows from the 1920s and ’30s featured numerous songs that became hits: Fascinating Rhythm; Oh, Lady Be Good; Sweet and Low-Down; Do, Do, Do; Someone to Watch over Me; Strike Up the Band; The Man I Love; ’S Wonderful; I’ve Got a Crush on You; Bidin’ My Time; Embraceable You; But Not for Me; Of Thee I Sing, and Isn’t It a Pity.
Gershwin also composed several songs for Hollywood films, such as Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off; They All Laughed; They Can’t Take That Away from Me; A Foggy Day; Nice Work if You Can Get It; Love Walked In; Love Is Here to Stay…
Porgy & Bess (excerpt)
It was at the age of 37 that Gershwin’s most ambitious composition was presented, Porgy and Bess; this was based on the novel Porgy by Dubose Heyward, with both popular and classical influences. Gershwin termed it his ‘folk opera’. Today it is considered to not only be Gershwin’s most complex and best-known work but also among the most important American musical compositions of the 20th century.
Porgy and Bess opened its Broadway run in 1935. The opera had major revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976 and 1983. In 1959 it was made into a major motion picture, while Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Opera production was taped for television in 1993.
Not much has been written in popular literature on the unique songwriting partnership of the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, where melodies usually came first—a reverse of the process employed by most composing teams. Due to his brilliant musical imagination, George often composed within a few minutes of improvisation; and Ira would then spend a week or more fitting words to the tune, polishing each line until he was satisfied.
One of the Gershwins’ best-known collaborations, was I Got Rhythm, whose later variations have since become one of Gershwin’s most-performed orchestral works. In fact, his piano score for I Got Rhythm was part of a larger project, George Gershwin’s Songbook; which was designed as a collection of his favourite hit tunes, and it featured the composer’s own adaptations for the above-average pianist. The Songbook, which offers unique insights into Gershwin’s use of rhythm and harmony, as well as his own piano style, have become concert staples for several noted pianists throughout the years and has occasionally been adapted into full orchestra arrangements.
Gershwin’s second-most famous orchestral composition, An American in Paris was inspired by the composer’s trips to Paris throughout the 1920s. But, ironically, the piece gained its most lasting fame, after his death, twenty-three years after its premiere, when it was used by Gene Kelly for the closing ballet sequence of the classic, eponymous film musical in 1951.
An American Paris
In 1937 at the height of his career, when he was just about 39 years old, Gershwin tragically died following a brain tumour. It was during this period that his symphonic works and three Preludes for piano were becoming part of the standard repertoire for concerts and recitals, and his show songs had brought him increasing fame and fortune. It was in Hollywood while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies that he died.
One year after his death, a heartbroken Ira Gershwin nurtured his brother’s legacy by overseeing the release of several unpublished Gershwin compositions, including several works for piano, the Lullaby for string quartet, and the Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess. Taking tunes from George’s notebooks, Ira set them to lyrics creating “new” Gershwin songs for the films, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Even today the works of Gershwin are performed with deeper intensity, and his songs and concert pieces continue to fill the pages of discographies and orchestra calendars. The Trustees of Columbia University recognized Gershwin’s influence — and made up for his not receiving a Pulitzer for Of Thee I Sing — by awarding him a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1998, on his birth centenary.
As the noted musicologist Hans Keller stated, “Gershwin is a genius, in fact, whose style hides the wealth and complexity of his invention. There are indeed weak spots, but who cares about them when there is greatness?”