George Gershwin (1898–1937)

George Gershwin, though dead more than 70 years, is very much an ongoing presence in American culture. His popular songs—“Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Foggy Day,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “The Man I Love,” and scores more—are performed daily, his classical works such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” played in concert halls, and his opera, Porgy and Bess, is staged frequently throughout the world.

In one sense, Gershwin epitomizes the great songwriters of the 1920s and 1930s, those who filled what is called The Great American Songbook—Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and others. In another, he transcended the song form to venture into concert hall music and provide sources for mid-20th-century jazz. His refusal to be categorized as a composer of one type of music serves as a prototype for artists who followed and who are comfortable with multiple forms.

Many have speculated on the creative possibilities that would have existed if Gershwin had not died of a brain tumor at the age of 38 on July 11, 1937, but had instead lived on. It is impossible to predict the innovations that would have emerged from his great talent, stimulated by his musical genius and inspired by the developments of others. For those familiar with Gershwin’s music when he began his career in the late teens of the 20th century, his achievements over the next two decades would have been beyond their imaginations.

Unlike other writers of popular songs who turned to classical composition after their careers were established, Gershwin worked in that genre throughout his career. As early as 1919, he wrote “Lullaby,” a meditative piece for string quartet as an assignment for a music theory class. But within a few years his compositions had moved from classroom exercises to now-famous works premiered in venues like Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall—“Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924, “Concerto in F” in 1925, “An American in Paris” in 1928, and “Second Rhapsody” in 1931.

At the same time, he was writing miscellaneous songs, scores for Broadway musicals, and songs for Hollywood films. Between 1919 and 1935, he wrote the music for 31 musicals, including Lady Be Good, Strike Up the Band, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and most notably, Of Thee I Sing, which in 1932 was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Unfortunately, Gershwin himself was not an award recipient; instead, his brother Ira and the book writers took home the awards.

In his songs, Broadway shows, and film scores, composer George Gershwin achieved unprecedented success through his mastery of jazz, classical, and popular music styles.

In his songs, Broadway shows, and film scores, composer George Gershwin achieved unprecedented success through his mastery of jazz, classical, and popular music styles. (Library of Congress)

Gershwin’s films were fewer than his musicals, with only five completed before his death and two finished posthumously with melodies from unpublished songs—The Shocking Miss Pilgrim in 1947 and Kiss Me Stupid in 1964. In his lifetime, he wrote the accompanying music for a silent film in 1923 and in the 1930s, when soundtracks existed, for Delicious, Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress, and Goldwyn Follies. Gershwin died during the work on that latter film; he had been suffering severe headaches and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, dying after surgery failed to remove it.

The lyrics for all of Gershwin’s movies were written by Ira Gershwin, as were those for most of his musicals, although Gershwin worked with other lyricists early in his career, including Irving Caesar and Buddy De Sylva. The first Gershwin brothers’ Broadway hit was Lady Be Good in 1924. Ira, older by two years, lived 46 years after George’s death. Not writing for three years after the loss of his brother, he then returned to team with composers like Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, and Arthur Schwartz. Ira’s lyrics complemented George’s music with great wit, colloquial wordplay, and emotional resonance. In many senses, the words and music of their songs are inseparable.

George Gershwin was born on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn as Jacob Gershowitz. His parents Morris and Rose had emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1891. They changed the family name to Gershwin while their sons were young.

Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he devoted himself to street sports and showed no interest in music until the age of 12, when his parents brought a piano to their apartment for Ira. George sat down and played from memory a song he had heard on a neighbor’s player piano. His parents paid for music lessons when he was 13, allowing him to study with composers Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, and Joseph Schillinger. At 15, he quit school to work on Tin Pan Alley as a pianist and song plugger, also recording player piano rolls for extra income.

In the late 1920s, Gershwin went to Paris with the goal of studying composition with Nadia Boulanger, but she refused to take him on, saying he needed no further instruction. He also wanted to study with Igor Stravinsky, whom he approached at a party. The story goes that Stravinsky asked him how much he earned in a year. When Gershwin told him the amount, Stravinsky said, “Perhaps I should be studying with you.”

Gershwin published his first song in 1916, but it was “Swanee,” written by the 20-year-old in 1918, that made him famous. Though meant for a revue in which it went unnoticed, when Al Jolson sang the tune in a show called Sinbad, it became Jolson’s signature song and Gershwin’s biggest hit. When Jolson recorded it for Columbia Records in 1920, it was number one on the popularity charts for nine straight weeks, selling two million records and one million sheet music copies. The income freed Gershwin to focus on musical theater rather than striving for more single song hits. He never had another work that equaled the sales success of “Swanee.” The songwriter Arthur Schwartz is quoting as saying: “It’s ironic that he never again wrote a number equaling the sales of ‘Swanee,’ which for all its infectiousness, doesn’t match the individuality and subtlety of his later works.”

Despite the immediate popularity of the great majority of Gershwin’s work throughout his lifetime, the one many consider his greatest achievement, his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, did not receive acclaim until Broadway revivals and a film made after his death. The book is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, and the play of the same title was written with Heyward’s wife, Dorothy. Heyward collaborated with the Gershwin brothers to convert that story into an opera.

Gershwin called the work an “American folk opera” and cast all the characters with classically trained African American performers, using another African American, Eva Jessye, as choral director. Given the racial attitudes of the 1930s, that may have played a significant role in the work’s lukewarm reception.

Porgy and Bess did not receive recognition as a legitimate opera until it was performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976. The first Metropolitan Opera production took place in 1985. It is now an established part of the international opera repertoire.

Even today, Gershwin’s standing as a classical composer is debated. For example, a 2009 exchange on a Web site called “Talk Classical—Classical Music Forum” includes the following statement: “I don’t think you can put him in the same class as Copeland, Bernstein or Barber but if you are happy with that OK, to me he was a musical show writer a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber [sic].” A response notes Gershwin’s studies and sophisticated compositional techniques, including harmonic elements influenced by Alban Berg.

Gershwin’s connection with jazz is much less controversial. He was one of the first songwriters to include the rhythms and melodic twists of jazz. Of course, early-20th-century composers like Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, and Maurice Ravel integrated jazz influences in their works. In Gershwin’s case, it is a two-way street. He took melodies and patterns from jazz just as jazz artists found and continued to find inspiration in his works.

Among jazz instrumentalists, “I Got Rhythm” is the archetypal Gershwin song, the source of many tunes of the bop era. Contributing to Wayne Scheider’s The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, C. Andre Barbera attributes its popularity to the simple regularity that gives space for improvisation and to its “jazz-friendly” key of B-flat major.

The song was introduced in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy by Ethel Merman with an orchestra that included a number of musicians who went on to become jazz legends—Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. Gershwin himself conducted at the premiere.

“I Got Rhythm” itself borrowed the rhythm changes of earlier 20th-century songs. To get around copyright restrictions, composers were encouraged to borrow the chord progressions of existing songs, emulating the harmonic formulas behind their appeal and success. In addition to swing versions, the changes used by Gershwin became the basis of bop tunes such as “Allen’s Alley,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Lester Leaps In,” and “Salt Peanuts.” Charlie Parker used the changes for works like “Kim,” “Dexterity,” “Anthropology,” and many others.

Beyond direct emulations of his songs, jazz musicians have made thousands of recordings of Gershwin standards as well as playing them before live audiences. Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Quartet have albums based on Porgy and Bess, Ella Fitzgerald and Chris Connor albums in which they sing only Gershwin songs. It’s a rare jazz musician who has not performed Gershwin.

While Gershwin’s contemporaries, like Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, and Cole Porter, are also a source for jazz artists and are arguably his equals as writers of popular songs, they do not share Gershwin’s achievements in the same range of musical forms. In that he prefigures the ability of more contemporary composers and musicians to move back and forth among categories and even to blur the borders between them.

Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic and provided the scores for the musicals West Side Story, Candide, and Wonderful Town, as well as works for orchestras, chamber ensembles, ballets, and choruses. Trumpeter Winton Marsalis, who directs the Lincoln Center jazz series, won a Grammy for his performance of a Haydn trumpet concerto, as Benny Goodman recorded Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in a Major with the Budapest Quartet and went on to commission and perform classical work by Bela Bartok, Morton Gould, and Aaron Copland. Not only has jazz pianist Keith Jarrett recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Works by Handel, Mozart, and Shostakovich, he writes classical compositions like “In the Light,” “Ritual,” and “The Celestial Hawk.”

Andre Previn is both a jazz pianist and a conductor of classical music. Pulitzer Prize–winning saxophonist, trumpeter, and violinist Ornette Coleman began playing rhythm and blues, became an initially controversial innovator of free jazz and later avant-garde jazz, worked with electronic music and musicians like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and also composed chamber music like “The Sacred Life of Johnny Dolphin” for double string quartet, trumpet, and percussion. Often it is difficult to determine the distinction between his “jazz” compositions and his “classical.” What do these artists have in common? George Gershwin is an inspirational springboard for creativity.

In so many ways George Gershwin, while recognized as a major musical figure by his contemporaries, was decades ahead, with a remarkable ability to master the music of his time while prefiguring much of that to come. It is no doubt that if he had lived into his sixties or seventies, today’s music would have been different in ways we can never know.

—Walter Cummins


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Saipal. “Keith Jarrett Classical Music Discography.” Last modified August 28, 2009.

Talk Classical. “George Gershwin.”