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GEORGE GERSHWIN: the 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
George Gershwin, (b. Sept. 26, 1898, Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.—d. July 11, 1937, Hollywood, Calif.), born Jacob Gershvin, was one of the most significant and popular American composers of all time. He wrote primarily for the Broadway musical theatre, but important as well are his orchestral and piano compositions in which he blended, in varying degrees, the techniques and forms of classical music with the stylistic nuances and techniques of popular music and jazz.
Early Career and Influences
Gershwin was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Although his family and friends were not musically inclined, Gershwin developed an early interest in music through his exposure to the popular and classical compositions he heard at school and in penny arcades. He began his musical education at age 11, when his family bought a second-hand upright piano, ostensibly so that George’s older sibling, Ira, could learn the instrument. When George surprised everyone with his fluid playing of a
popular song, which he had taught himself by following the keys on a neighbour’s player piano, his parents decided that George would be the family member to receive lessons.
Gershwin continued to broaden his musical knowledge and compositional technique throughout his career with various mentors. After dropping out of school at age 15, he earned an income by making piano rolls for player pianos and by playing in New York nightclubs. His most important job in this period was his stint as a song plugger, working very long hours demonstrating sheet music for the Jerome Remick music-publishing company. Although Gershwin’s burgeoning creativity was hampered by his
three-year stint in “plugger’s purgatory,” it was nevertheless an experience that greatly improved his dexterity and increased his skills at improvisation and transposing.
While still in his teens, Gershwin worked as an accompanist for popular singers and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway musicals. In 1916 he composed his first published song, “When You Want ’Em You Can’t Get ’Em (When You’ve Got ’Em You Don’t Want ’Em),” as well as his first solo piano composition, “Rialto Ripples.” He began to attract the attention of Broadway luminaries.
These early experiences greatly increased Gershwin’s knowledge of jazz and popular music. He enjoyed especially the songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern and he was inspired by their work to compose for the Broadway stage. In 1919 entertainer Al Jolson performed the Gershwin song “Swanee” in the musical Sinbad; it became an enormous success, selling more than two million recordings and a million copies of sheet music, and making Gershwin an overnight celebrity. Also in 1919, Gershwin composed his first “serious” work, the Lullaby for string quartet.
Rhapsody in Blue
During the next few years, Gershwin contributed songs to various Broadway shows and revues. From 1920 to 1924 he composed scores for the annual productions of George White’s Scandals, the popular variety revue. For the Scandals production of 1922, Gershwin convinced producer White to incorporate a one-act jazz opera.
This work, Blue Monday was poorly received and was removed from the show after one performance. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, who had conducted the pit orchestra for the show, was nevertheless impressed by the piece. He and Gershwin shared the common goal of bringing respectability to jazz music. To this end, in late 1923 Whiteman asked Gershwin to compose a piece for an upcoming concert. Legend has it that Gershwin forgot about the request until early January 1924, when he read a newspaper article announcing that the Whiteman concert on February 12 would feature a major new Gershwin composition. Writing at a furious pace in order to meet the deadline, Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue, perhaps his best-known work, in three weeks’ time.
Owing to the haste in which it was written, Rhapsody in Blue was somewhat unfinished at its premiere. Gershwin improvised much of the piano solo during the performance, and conductor Whiteman had to rely on a nod from Gershwin to cue the orchestra at the end of the solo.
Nevertheless, the piece was a resounding success and brought Gershwin worldwide fame. The revolutionary work incorporated trademarks of the jazz idiom (blue notes, syncopated rhythms, onomatopoeic instrumental
effects) into a symphonic context. Arranged by Ferde Grofé (composer of the Grand Canyon Suite) for either symphony orchestra or jazz band, the work is perhaps the most-performed and most-recorded orchestral composition of the 20th century.
For the remainder of his career, Gershwin devoted himself to both popular songs and orchestral compositions. His Broadway shows from the 1920s and ’30s featured numerous songs that became standards, including: “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Sweet and Low-Down,”
“Someone to Watch over Me,” “Strike Up the Band,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” and “But Not for Me.” He also composed several songs for Hollywood films, such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Love Walked In.”
His lyricist for nearly all of these tunes was his older brother, Ira, whose glib, witty lyrics—often punctuated with slang, puns, and wordplay—received nearly as much acclaim as George’s compositions.
The Gershwin brothers comprised a somewhat unique songwriting
partnership in that George’s melodies usually came first—a reverse of the process employed by most composing teams. One of the Gershwins’ best-known collaborations, “I Got Rhythm,” was introduced by Ethel Merman in the musical Girl Crazy (1930).
The following year, Gershwin scored a lengthy, elaborate piano arrangement of the song, and in late 1933 he arranged the piece into a set of variations for piano and orchestra; “I Got Rhythm” Variations has since become one of Gershwin’s most-performed orchestral works. Gershwin’s piano score for “I Got Rhythm” was part of a larger project begun in 1931, George Gershwin’s Songbook, a collection of Gershwin’s personal favourite hit tunes, adapted “for the above-average pianist.”
Other Works for Orchestra
In 1925 Gershwin was commissioned by the Symphony Society of New York to write a concerto. The resulting work, Concerto in F (1925), Gershwin’s lengthiest composition, was divided into three traditional concerto movements. The first movement loosely follows a sonata structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation. The second
movement is a slow, meditative adaptation of blues progressions, and the third movement introduces new themes and returns, rondo-like, to the themes of the first. Although not as well received at the time as Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F eventually came to be regarded as one of
Gershwin’s most important works.
An American in Paris (1928), Gershwin’s second-most famous orchestral composition, was inspired by the composer’s trips to Paris throughout the 1920s. His stated intention with the work was to “portray the impressions
of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” It is this piece that perhaps best represents Gershwin’s employment of both jazz and classical forms. The harmonic structure of An American in Paris is rooted in blues traditions, and soloists are often required to bend, slide, and growl certain notes and passages, in the style of jazz musicians of the 1920s.
Gershwin’s other major orchestral compositions have grown in stature and popularity throughout the years. His Second Rhapsody (1931) was featured, in embryonic form, as incidental music in the film Delicious (1931). Gershwin’s Cuban Overture (1932), employed rhumba rhythms and such percussion instruments as claves, maracas, bongo drums, and gourds, all of which were generally unknown at the time in the United States.
Porgy and Bess
Throughout his career, Gershwin had major successes on Broadway with shows such as Lady, Be Good! (1924), Strike Up the Band (1930), and, especially, the political satire Of Thee I Sing (1931), for which Ira and librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind shared a Pulitzer Prize. These shows, smash hits in their time, are (save for Gershwin’s music) largely forgotten today; ironically, his most enduring and respected Broadway work, Porgy and Bess, was lukewarmly received upon its premiere in 1935.
Gershwin’s “American Folk Opera” was inspired by the DuBose Heyward novel Porgy (1925) and featured a libretto and lyrics by Ira and the husband-wife team of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Theatre critics received the premiere production enthusiastically, but highbrow music critics were derisive, distressed that “lowly” popular music should be incorporated into an opera structure.
Black audiences throughout the years have criticized the work for its condescending depiction of stereotyped characters and for Gershwin’s inauthentic appropriation of black musical forms. Nevertheless, Gershwin’s music— including such standards as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t
Necessarily So,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”—transcended early criticism to attain a revered niche in the musical world, largely because it successfully amalgamates various musical cultures to evoke something uniquely American and wholly Gershwin.
Aftermath Gershwin was known as a gregarious man whose huge ego
was tempered by a genuinely magnetic personality. He loved his work and approached every assignment with enthusiasm, never suffering from “composer’s block.” Throughout the first half of 1937, Gershwin began experiencing severe headaches and brief memory blackouts, although medical tests showed him to be in good health.
By July, Gershwin exhibited impaired motor skills and drastic weight loss, and he required assistance in walking. He lapsed into a coma on July 9, and a spinal tap revealed the presence of a brain tumor. Gershwin never regained consciousness and died during surgery two days later.
American Classic – George Gershwin
AMERICAN CLASSIC – GEORGE GERSHWIN
0:00– Sir Simon Rattle – Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (with Jazz Band) 16:16– Wayne Marshall / Aalborg Symphony – An American in Paris 35:33– Wayne Marshall/Aalborg Symphony – I got rhythm: Variations for piano and orchestra 44:12– Hélène Grimaud – Piano Concerto in F major : I Allegro
58:15– Hélène Grimaud – Piano Concerto in F major : II Andante con motto 1:09:56– Hélène Grimaud – Piano Concerto in F Major: III. Allegro agitato 1:16:51– New Princess Theater Orchestra / John McGlinn – A Damsel in Distress – Music from the film 1:22:45– New Princess Theater Orchestra / John McGlinn – Girl Crazy, Act I: No. 1, Overture 1:28:06– John McGlinn – Tip-Toes: Overture 1:32:52– John McGlinn – Oh, Kay!: Overture
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- Out of Africa – music by John Barry (piano solo)
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