Article abstract: With a relatively untrained but intuitive sense of music techniques, Gershwin composed some of the most lasting popular and serious music of the twentieth century.
Jacob “George” Gershvin was born September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, the second son of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. Moishe Gershovitz had changed his name to Morris Gershvin upon immigrating to America just as his future wife went from Rosa Brushkin to Rose Bruskin. They named their son Jacob but called him George, and he later changed his last name to the more melodious Gershwin. By the time Gershwin was eighteen, the family, which eventually consisted of three sons and a daughter, had lived in twenty-five residences in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn because Morris preferred to live within walking distance of his business activities, which included restaurants, bakeries, Russian and Turkish baths, a cigar store and pool parlor, a rooming house, a summer hotel, and a bookmaking establishment.
Growing up, Gershwin was more interested in athletics than anything else and excelled at almost every sport he attempted while ignoring academics as much as possible. His skill at roller-skating helped his musical development since he became interested in jazz while skating outside Harlem nightclubs. His interest in the classics was stimulated by hearing one of his schoolmates, eight-year-old prodigy Maxie Rosenzweig, play the violin. Under the influence of Maxie (later known professionally as Max Rosen), Gershwin tried to play his friend’s piano. When Gershwin’s parents bought a piano for his older brother, Ira, George soon monopolized it. Gershwin’s first significant music teacher, Charles Hambitzer, improved his student’s technique and introduced him to the works of Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy and to the importance of harmony in musical composition.
Despite Hambitzer’s preferences for serious music, young Gershwin continued to be interested primarily in popular tunes and wrote his first songs in 1913. That summer, he worked as a pianist at a Catskill Mountains resort and made his professional debut as a composer-pianist in 1914 by playing a tango he had written at a social given by Ira’s City College of New York literary club.
At fifteen, Gershwin quit school to work as a pianist and song plugger for Remick’s, a prominent publisher of popular music. Through this job, he discovered the sometimes unscrupulous business practices of Tin Pan Alley while learning more about music and refining his performing skills.
In 1916, Gershwin’s first song, “When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em, When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em,” with lyrics by Murray Roth, was published, and another song, “Making of a Girl” (lyrics by Harold Atteridge), was performed in a Broadway show. Gershwin left Remick’s in 1917 hoping to become a composer as good and as successful as Jerome Kern. He soon had a contract with T. B. Harms, perhaps America’s most important publisher of sheet music, and by 1919, he had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, La, La Lucille. The most significant development in Gershwin’s early career was his writing, with lyricist Irving Caesar, “Swanee” in 1919. When Gershwin played the song at a party, Al Jolson heard it, put it into his Broadway show, and recorded it in 1920. The enormous success of “Swanee” clearly indicated Gershwin’s potential as a composer of popular songs.
One of the first indications of Gershwin’s ambition to combine serious and popular music came in 1922 with Blue Monday, a twenty-five-minute jazz opera about life in Harlem, with a libretto by G. B. “Buddy” De Sylva. Blue Monday (later retitled 135th Street) was considered a failure but showed Gershwin’s determination to write a black opera—a determination which eventually led to Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin realized part of his vast ambition in 1924 when bandleader Paul Whiteman asked him to compose a jazz concerto for an elaborate New York concert intended to display the diversity of contemporary popular music. Rhapsody in Blue was the hit of the concert, established that Gershwin was much more than a facile composer of popular tunes, and has remained the composition most associated with the Gershwin name.
That same year saw Gershwin’s first hit Broadway musical Lady Be Good, with his brother Ira as lyricist. Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) continued to write the words to accompany George Gershwin’s music for the remainder of his brother’s life as well as for some compositions unused at the time of the younger Gershwin’s death. George Gershwin established a pattern of alternating between writing for Broadway or films and the concert stage for the rest of his career.
The Gershwins wrote the scores of several Broadway musicals which flopped, but about half the shows they worked on succeeded either in their original productions or in revivals. The successes included Oh, Kay!(1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931). The most interesting of these are Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing, both with books by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, since they dared to present cynical political satire as musical comedy. The Gershwins also wrote the scores for such films as Shall We Dance (1937) and...
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