Sound Ctrl

Logo Snabel K

Separator Christoffer Kofler©

George Gershwin


G. Gershwin 1

A Short Curriculum Vitae

George Gershwin's parents emigrated to the USA in the late 1800's just like thousands of other Jews discriminated in Russia. Leaving Russia George's father, Morris Gershovitz, was trying to avoid a likely death as a victim of one of the multiple pogroms of Jews in his native St. Petersburg. Morris and his wife Rose Bruskin americanised the family name and had three children: two boys Jacob (George) and Arthur (Ira) and a girl Frankie. The composer of Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York, September 26, 1898, dead July 11, 1937, was one of America's most versatile and popular songwriters.
With his brother Ira, born December 6, 1896, dead August 17, 1983, he was also the creator of the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Of Thee I Sing. A talented pianist, George left school at age 15 to become a "song plugger" in New York's Tin Pan Alley.
His brother Ira Gershwin, did poorly at the piano but showed up to be a talented poet. Ira compensated for his piano deficiency years later by writing the words to most of George's songs. Swanee (1919), popularized by Al Jolson, was George's first hit song. The sister Frankie was born in 1908.
From 1920 to 1924 George wrote songs for the George White's Scandals revues and met Paul Whiteman, who commissioned him to write a jazz piece for a concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City. The result, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), was orchestrated by Ferde Grofe and first performed, with Gershwin as piano soloist, with great success.
The conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, Walter Damrosch, asked Gershwin for a symphonic work, and the composer complied with his Piano Concerto in F (1925). After further studies in composition, Gershwin wrote other classical works such as An American in Paris (1928) and Second Rhapsody (1931). George's last concert piece was very colourful and "latin american" Cuban Overture (1932).
Meanwhile, with his brother Ira as lyricist, he had also composed the musical shows Sweet Little Devil (1924), Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike up the Band (1927), Show Girl (1929), Girl Crazy (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1931). There were made seven movies with George's music.
One of Gershwin's deepest ambitions was the creation of an American opera, and this ambition he achieved withPorgy and Bess(1935), based on the book by DuBose Heyward and with lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The opera was Gershwin's last major work.

George's big dream

Gershwin had a dream of becaming a leading American classic composer. Famous already in his lifetime, he wanted to be remembered mainly for his contribution to American classical heritage, rather than the "light" genre. This would not and could not come true. The reason was that George was per definition a talented song composer and was very foud of his swinging music style. Learning that Maurice Ravel, one of the milestones of the contemporary music, was on a tour in the USA, Gershwin did all his efforts to meet the maestro. This was by the way a mutual wish.
The 7th of March 1928, when Ravel celebrated his 53rd birthday in the USA, he was asked what his wish was for that day. Ravel, who was then a symbol of the French culture replied - "I'd like to taste a steak, that is not prepared the American way and . . . to meet Monsieur Gershwine . . ." So it happened.
Enjoying Ravel's company George tried very eagerly to convince the Grand Maestro to accept him as his pupil. Fortunately for us Ravel replied repeatedly - "I am sure that as a composer you should remain as you are and stick to the colourful style you have."

G. Gershwin 2

In September 1936 George signed a contract with the film studio RKO for production of two musical movies. The family moved to Beverly Hills, where George got close to Arnold Schönberg, the father of dodecaphony in music. The composers played tennis, exchanging not only the balls, but also opinions. It was there Schönberg who was very found of George, should say impatiently to one of the imprudent reporters, who asked whether he considered George to be a serious or non-serious composer - "Serious or not serious, this is not the point! What George did with the rhythm, harmonies and the melodies stays beyond the seriousness of the music. It is already a style! He is a discoverer!"

The smell of burnt rubber

The 11th and 12th of February 1937 Gershwin had a concert in Los Angeles, containing his own compositions only. He played his Piano Concerto with the local Philharmony Orchestra. After the concert he apologised the director, Alexander Smallens for several mistakes he made. "Do not mention it, the audience did not even noticed them" - Smallens replied. "This is not the point, Alex" - George said - "I had a strange experience. My concience just switched off for a while" - confessed George. "It did not last more than a few seconds when I lost the feeling of what I do and where I am. That's why I missed a couple of the moments when I was supposed to start my piano part . . . and . . . during my whole appearance I felt disturbed by a strange smell of burnt rubber . . ."

This was only a beginning. The loss of concioussness became more frequent and lasted longer. George complained often to Ira Gershwin about the smell of rubber. In the meantime George planned new hectic activities: new concerts, new compositions, new trip to Europe for an art shopping. There were even sketches of a new music work - a string quartet. Gershwin was preparing a new film comedy The Goldwin Follies for the Goldwin studio.
Then in June 1937 came the persistent headaches. George lost his legendary energy and enthusiasm. He became melancholic and even apathetic. The 20th of June George had to interrupt the dinner at the home of Irving Berlin and his wife. A couple of weeks later he went for a three days observation at the local hospital "The Cedars of Lebanon" in Beverly Hills. A group of well known specialists rejected categorically a suspicion of a brain cancer. "A temporary over-exertion" - sounded the diagnosis.
The 8th of July George fainted composing one of his new tunes. He was hospitalised at the "The Cedars of Lebanon" immediately. That day the doctors agreed about the diagnosis: brain cancer, a very malignant one. The 9th of July the surgeons opened his scull to find out the location and size of the tumour. They decided to operate the 11th of July 1937. After the surgery George did not recover his consciousness and died the same day 38 years old.

George's Heritage

A month after his death the world simply proclaimed George Gershwin a legend, a hero of our time. Later, as it usually happens came the counter-reaction. Gershwin was refused a place in the history of American music as too superficial, to epigonic. Today when the necessary number of years passed, we are able to evaluate his work.

Gershwin regarded jazz as a folk music. The music that he regarded as material that might be shaped into an American symphonic form. This idea obviously did not take hold the way he imagined since jazz has its own history and its own life. George however could be regarded as the father of a "symphonic jazz".

Do not make a mistake saying that George was the first composer, who introduced jazz to the classical works. Many make that mistake. He was however the one who found a good way of mixing those two music genres. He mixed them so that they seemed to be a natural part of each other. He was the first one who playing jazz did it in classic concert halls and made the listeners to accept jazz as a part of the classical music.

Above all he gave us many good musical shows containing hundreds of good melodies, that are hummed, sung and played by all of us. Asked if we know them, we usually, almost automatically reply - yes, this must be one of those Gershwin tunes. Georges popular tunes became material for unforgetable jazz improvisations by most of the jazz musicians for the remainder of the century. His popular tunes are today classic, just as classic as his classical works are. There are no other composers in the history of American music, who wrote classic pieces saturated by something so typically American - jazz harmonies, its swing and rhythm. The pulsing Piano Concerto in F, so charmingly American poem An American in Paris, the full of fantasy Rhapsody in Blue and the Afro-Cuban Second Rhapsody.

That is why George Gershwin is the soul of the American musical heritage.

Back to the top
Back to the "Text of the Month"
Further to the next text
Back to the Front page