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, the second of four children. George wrote most of his vocal and theatrical 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 on television and in numerous films, and many are recognized jazz standards; the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded many of the Gershwins' songs on her 1959 Gershwin Songbook (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and the very greatest singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, most notably John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Judy Garland, Nina Simone, John Fahey, and countless others.
In 1910, the Gershowitzes 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 Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra, 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 piano 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 1917 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee". 1916 was the year he started working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, recording and arranging piano rolls. He produced dozens if not hundreds of rolls under his own and assumed names (pseudonyms attributed to Gershwin include Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn.) He also recorded rolls of his own compositions for the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano 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. "I Got Rhythm", interestingly, was accepted as a Jazz Standard, and its chord progression has incredible significance in Jazz. These chord changes known as "Rhythm changes" have been frequently adopted in Jazz literature. In the same year, Gershwin composed his first classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra with piano, which was premièred with Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most famous work.
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 supercilious, and left for America. Though he hugely admired the French style of music - and did until the day he died - Gershwin remained thoroughly American.
Gershwin could be generous, warm, and a friend-in-need, but he could also be vain and more than a trifle egotistical. His friend and champion, the concert pianist Oscar Levant once asked him: "George, if you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches, and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. Unbeknownst to him, he had developed a brain tumor. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed and, on July 11, 1937, died following surgery for the tumour at the age of 38.
Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift, and frequently consulted her about his music. Oh, Kay was named for her. Posthumously, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects. Gershwin had also had an affair with Paulette Goddard.
Gershwin died intestate, and all his property passed to his mother. He is interred at the Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.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 criticized 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 apart 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.