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."
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
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.
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.