George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer. He was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. George wrote most of his works together with his lyricist brother Ira Gershwin. 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 in cinema, and many are famous jazz standards; songbooks have been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald (memorable 3 discs recording for Verve, with Nelson Riddle's orchestra), Herbie Hancock and several other singers or players.
George (left) and Ira Gershwin
In 1910, the Gershwins had acquired a piano for Ira's music lessons, but George took over, successfully playing by ear. He tried out various piano teachers for two years, then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer, who acted as George's mentor until Hambitzer's death in 1918. Hambitzer taught George conventional piano technique, introduced him to the music of the European masters, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. (At home following such concerts, young George would attempt to reproduce at the keyboard the music he had heard). He later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark.
His 1916 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1918 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee".
In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good. It included 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 & 1930); 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.
It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that George Gershwin collapsed and, on July 11, 1937, died of a brain tumour. He was interred in the Westchester Hills Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
Gershwin had a ten-year affair with composer Kay Swift. Swift was a frequent consult of Gershwin; he named the musical Oh, Kay after her. Posthumously, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects.
Gershwin died intestate and all his property passed to his father. 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 in 2007 in the European Union and between 2019 and 2027 in the United States of America.
Musical style and influence
Gershwin was influenced very much by French composers of the early twentieth century. Upon meeting composer Maurice Ravel, Gershwin asked him of the possibility of becoming a student of composition under the master. Ravel is said to have replied, "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" Ravel was already quite impressed with the ability of Gershwin, 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." (Mawer 42) 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 Igor Stravinsky for lessons; when Stravinsky heard how much Gershwin earned, he replied "How about you give me some lessons?"
Gershwin's own Concerto in F was criticised 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)
Gershwin also was intrigued with the an eclectic set of works as those of Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg. Russian Joseph Schillinger's influence as his teacher of composition was substantial in providing him with a method to his composition. 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. In analysis, Schillinger's student Vernon Duke found that while many of Gershwin's works certainly were reviewed by Schillinger, Porgy does not seem to be one of them. The indirect influence of his study with the teacher was apparent in the opera's even more clear orchestrations but it is characteristically Gershwin in ways that Schillinger would not have approved of. (Hyland 167)
Gershwin's works in the classical field include:
Rhapsody in Blue, (1924), a symphonic jazz composition for jazz band, piano, and orchestra
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925)
An American In Paris (1928), a tone poem with elements of jazz and realistic sound effects
2nd Rhapsody (1932)
Cuban Overture (1933)
Porgy And Bess, a folk opera (1935) (from the book by Dubose Heyward ) about African-American life
- Contains the famous aria "Summertime", in addition to hits like "I Got Plenty of Nothin" and "It Ain't Necessarily So".
Three Preludes, (1936), for piano
- 1919 - La La Lucille (lyrics by Arthur Jackson and B. G. DeSylva)
- 1920 - George White's Scandals of 1920 (lyrics by Arthur Jackson)
- 1921 - George White's Scandals of 1921 (lyrics by Arthur Jackson)
- 1922 - George White's Scandals of 1922 (lyrics by E. Ray Goetz and B. G. DeSylva)
- 1922 - Our Nell (lyrics by Brian Hooker )
- 1923 - The Rainbow (lyrics by Clifford Grey ). Premiered in London.
- 1923 - George White's Scandals of 1923 (lyrics by E. Ray Goetz and B. G. DeSylva)
- 1924 - Sweet Little Devil (lyrics by B. G. DeSylva)
- 1924 - George White's Scandals of 1924 (lyrics by B. G. DeSylva)
- 1924 - Primrose (lyrics by Desmond Carter ). Premiered in London.
- 1924 - Lady, Be Good! (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1925 - Tell Me More! (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and B. G. DeSylva)
- 1925 - Tip-Toes (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1925 - Song of the Flame (lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, and musical collaboration by Herbert Stothart)
- 1926 - Oh, Kay! (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- Includes the famous song, "Someone to Watch Over Me"
- 1927 - Funny Face (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1927 - Strike Up The Band (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1928 - Rosalie (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1928 - Treasure Girl (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1929 - Show Girl (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn)
- 1930 - Girl Crazy (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1931 - Of Thee I Sing (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1933 - Pardon My English (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1933 - Let 'Em Eat Cake (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1935 - Porgy and Bess (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward)
- 1931 - Delicious (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1937 - Shall We Dance (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1937 - A Damsel in Distress (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1938 - Goldwyn Follies (lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
- 1947 - The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (Kay Swift adapted a number of unpublished Gershwin melodies and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics.)
Anecdotage: Gershwin Gershwin Anecdotes (with sources noted)
- Hyland, William G.George Gershwin : A New Biography Praeger Publishers (August 30, 2003 ISBN 0275981118
- Mawer, Deborah (Editor). Cross, Jonathan (Series Editor). The Cambridge Companion to Ravel (Cambridge Companions to Music) Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 24, 2000) ISBN 0521648564