George Gershwin Biography
George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer. He wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works in collaboration with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. George Gershwin composed songs 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 became jazz standards. The jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded many of the Gershwins' songs on her 1959 Gershwin Songbook (arranged by Nelson Riddle). Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, including Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Art Tatum, Bing Crosby, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Nina Simone, Maureen McGovern, John Fahey, and Sting.
Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed the family name to Gershwin sometime after immigrating from St. Petersburg, Russia. Gershwin's mother, Rosa Bruskin, also immigrated from Russia; she married Gershowitz four years later.
George Gershwin was the second of four children. He first displayed interest in music at the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at a friend's, Max Rosen's, violin recital. The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for his older brother Ira Gershwin, but to his parents' surprise and Ira's relief, it was George who played it. Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and became a housewife and mother, giving up her own singing and dance career—settling into painting, a hobby of George Gershwin's.
Gershwin tried various piano teachers for two years, and then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer by Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Hambitzer acted as George's mentor until his 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
Tin Pan Alley
At the age of sixteen, George quit school and found his first job as a performer was as a "song plugger" for Remick's, a publishing company on New York City's 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." In 1916, 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 Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos. As well as recording piano rolls, Gershwin made a brief foray into vaudeville, accompanying both Nora Bayes and Louise Dresser on the piano.
In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Lady Be Good."
This was followed by Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face in (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930), Show Girl (1929), 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.
Classical Music, Opera, and European Influences
In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra and piano, which was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premièred with Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.
Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period, where he applied to study composition with Nadia Boulanger. While there, he wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews initially but quickly became part of the standard repertoire. Eventually he found the music scene in Paris supercilious, and returned to America.
His most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Called by Gershwin himself a "folk opera," the piece premièred in a Broadway theater and is now widely regarded as the most important American opera of the twentieth century. Based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, and with the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, which was strongly influenced by black music, with techniques found in opera, such as recitative and leitmotifs. It also includes a fugue and "advanced" techniques such as polytonality and even a tone row
Hollywood and Early Death
Gershwin received only one Oscar nomination for the song he co-wrote with his brother Ira, They Can't Take That Away From Me, from Shall We DanceEarly in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. He had developed a cystic malignant brain tumor. In June, he performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed and, on July 11, 1937, died at the age of 38 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following surgery for the tumor. Coincidentally, just a few months later in 1937, Gershwin's idol Ravel also died following brain surgery.
Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift and frequently consulted her about his music. Oh, Kay was named for her. After Gershwin died, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects. Gershwin also had an affair with actress Paulette Goddard.Gershwin died intestate, and all his property passed to his mother. He is buried in 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 were expired at the end of 2007 in the European Union and will expire between 2019 and 2027 in the United States of America
According to Fred Astaire's letters to Adele Astaire, Gershwin whispered Astaire's name before passing away. In 2005, The Guardian determined using "estimates of earnings accrued in a composer's lifetime" that George Gershwin was the richest composer of all time. George Gershwin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The George Gershwin Theatre on Broadway is named after him.