George Gershwin

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George Gershwin photograph by Edward Steichen in 1927.  This photo was said to be Ira's favorite[1]
George Gershwin photograph by Edward Steichen in 1927. This photo was said to be Ira's favorite[1]

George Gershwin (September 26, 1898July 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 elder brother lyricist 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 recognized jazz standards; the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded many of the Gershwin's songs on her 1959 Gershwin Songbook (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and the very greatest singers and muscians have recorded Gershwin songs, most notably Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and countless others.



George (left) and Ira Gershwin
George (left) and Ira Gershwin

In 1910, the Gershwins had acquired a piano for Ira's music lessons, but younger brother George took over, successfully playing by ear. He tried out various piano teachers for two years, then was introduced by Max Rosenzweig to Charles Hambitzer, who acted as George's mentor until Hambitzer's 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 keyboard the music he had heard). He later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell.

His first job as a performer was as a piano pounder for Remick's, a publishing company on Tin Pan Alley. 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 1916 he also recorded fourteen piano rolls including six pieces of his own compositions for the Welte-Mignon of M. Welte & Sons, Inc. of New York City, the inventor and first producer of reproducing pianos.

In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good. It included such future 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.

Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time where he wrote "An American in Paris". This work received mixed reviews. Eventually he found the music scene in Paris too supercilious and left for America to do more work.

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 at the age of 38. 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. He had also had an affair with Simone Simon.

Gershwin died intestate, and all his property passed to his mother. 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 was intrigued by the works 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)

What set Gershwin aside 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.

Partial list of classical works

Gershwin's works in the classical field include:

  • Rhapsody in Blue, (1924), his most famous work, a symphonic jazz composition for jazz band & piano, better known in the form orchestrated by Ferde Grofe. Featured in numerous films and commercials.
  • Concerto in F, (1925), three movements, for piano and orchestra
  • Three Preludes, (1926), for piano
  • Short Story, (1927), for violin and piano, an arrangement of two other short pieces originally intended to be included with the Three Preludes.
  • An American In Paris (1928), a symphonic tone poem with elements of jazz and realistic Parisian sound effects
  • Lullaby (1929), a meditative piece for string quartet
  • Second Rhapsody (1932), for Piano and Orchestra, based on the score for a musical sequence from Delicious. Working title for the work was Rhapsody in Rivets.
    • The form most commonly heard today is a re-orchestrated version by Robert McBride; most of Gershwin's orchestrations have been simplified. Also, eight measures not by the composer were added to the recapitulation. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a promulgator of Gershwin's original version.
  • Cuban Overture (1933), originally titled Rumba, a tone poem featuring elements of native Cuban dance and folk music; score specifies usage of native Cuban instruments
  • I Got Rhythm Variations (1934), a set of interesting variations on his famous song, for piano and orchestra
    • Includes a waltz, an atonal fugue, and experimentation with Asian and jazz influences
  • Porgy And Bess, a folk opera (1935) (from the book by DuBose Heyward) about African-American life, now considered a definitive work of the American theater.
  • Walking the Dog, (1937), a humorous piece for orchestra featuring the clarinet. Originally a musical sequence from the movie Shall We Dance.
    • Many other incidental sequences from Shall We Dance were written and (for the most part) orchestrated by Gershwin, among them: Waltz of the Red Balloons and a final extended 8-minute orchestral passage based on the title song with an intruiging coda hinting at Gershwin forging a new musical path. It is unknown why any of these compositions have not seen the light of day in the concert hall.
    • Most of the musicals Gershwin wrote are also known for their intrumental music, among them the March from Strike Up The Band and overtures to many of his later shows.
  • Impromptu in Two Keys, published posthumously in (1973), for piano
  • Two Waltzes in C, published posthumously in (1975), for piano

Musical theater credits

Musical films


Prelude No 2 (info)
from Three Preludes for Piano
Problems listening to the files? See media help.


  • 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) Cambridge University Press (August 24, 2000) ISBN 0521648564

External links

The World of Porgy and Bess

Creators: George Gershwin - Ira Gershwin - DuBose Heyward - Dorothy Heyward
Songs and adaptations: "Summertime" - "Catfish Row"
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