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George Gershwin

George Gershwin in 1937
Born Jacob Gershowitz
September 26, 1898(1898-09-26)
Brooklyn, New York
Died July 11, 1937 (aged 38)
Hollywood, California
Resting place Westchester Hills Cemetery
Nationality American
Occupation Composer
Partner Kay Swift
Children none
Relatives Frances, Arthur and Ira

George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist. Gershwin's compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known.

He wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works, including more than a dozen Broadway shows, in collaboration with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin.

George Gershwin composed music for both Broadway and the classical concert hall, as well as popular songs that brought his work to an even wider public. His compositions have been used in numerous films and on television, and many became jazz standards recorded in numerous variations. Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs.



Early life

Gershwin was named Jacob Gershowitz at birth in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898. His parents were Russian Jews. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed his family name to 'Gershvin' some time after immigrating to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1890s. Gershwin's mother Rosa Bruskin had already immigrated from Russia. She met Gershowitz in New York and they married on July 21, 1895.[1] (George changed the spelling of the family name to 'Gershwin' after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit.)

George Gershwin was the second of four children.[2] He first displayed interest in music at the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig's violin recital.[3] The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for lessons for his older brother Ira, but to his parents' surprise and Ira's relief, it was George who played it.[4] Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and housewife. She gave up her performing career, but settled into painting for another creative outlet — painting was also a hobby of George Gershwin.

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. Until Hambitzer's death in 1918, he acted as Gershwin's mentor. Hambitzer taught Gershwin conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestra concerts.[5] At home, following such concerts, young Gershwin would attempt to reproduce at the piano the music that he had heard. He later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell.

Tin Pan Alley

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At the age of fifteen, George left school and found his first job as a performer as a "song plugger" for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a publishing firm on New York City's Tin Pan Alley, where he earned $15 a week. His first published song was "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em." It was published in 1916 when Gershwin was only 17 years old and earned him a sum total of $5, although he was promised much more.

His 1917 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee" with words by Irving Caesar. In 1916, Gershwin started working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, recording and arranging. 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.[6]

In the early 1920s Gershwin frequently worked with the lyricist Buddy DeSylva. Together they created the experimental one-act jazz opera Blue Monday set in Harlem, which is widely regarded as a forerunner to the groundbreaking Porgy and Bess.

In 1924, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady Be Good!."[7]

This was followed by Oh, Kay! (1926),[8] Funny Face (1927),[9] Strike up the Band (1927 and 1930),[10] Show Girl (1929),[11] Girl Crazy (1930),[12] which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm"; and Of Thee I Sing (1931),[13] the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Classical music, opera, ballet, and European influences

In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra and piano. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premiered by 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. Boulanger, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him, however, afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style.[14] While there, Gershwin wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States.[15] Growing tired of the Parisian musical scene, Gershwin returned to the United States.

In 1929, Gershwin was contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the movie Delicious. Two movements were used in the final film, the five-minute "Dream Sequence" and the six-minute "Manhattan Rhapsody". Gershwin became infuriated when the rest of the score was rejected by Fox Film Corporation, and it would be seven years before he worked in Hollywood again.

His most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin called it a "folk opera," and it 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 the fictional all-black neighborhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. With the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, with a strong influence of Black music, with techniques typical of opera, such as recitative, through-composition and an extensive system of leitmotifs. Porgy and Bess contains some of Gershwin's most sophisticated music, including a fugue, a passacaglia, the use of atonality, polytonality and polyrhythm, and a tone row. Even the "set numbers" (of which "Summertime", "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" are well known examples) are some of the most refined and ingenious of Gershwin's output. (For the performances, Gershwin collaborated with Eva Jessye, whom he picked as the musical director. One of the outstanding musical alumnae of Western University in Kansas, she had created her own choir in New York and performed widely with them.)

After Porgy and Bess, Gershwin eventually was commissioned by RKO Pictures in 1936 to compose songs and the underscore for Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Gershwin's extended score, which would marry ballet with jazz in a new way, runs over an hour in length. It took Gershwin several months to write and orchestrate it.

Hollywood and early death

Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. Doctors discovered he had developed a type of cystic malignant brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme.[16] Although some tried to trace his disease to a blow on the head from a golf ball, the cause of this type of cancer is still unknown. This type of cancer occurs most often in males, accounts for 52% of all brain cancers, and is nearly always fatal.

The diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme has been questioned.[17] The surgeon's description of Gershwin's tumor as a right temporal lobe cyst with a mural nodule is much more consistent with a pilocytic astrocytoma, a very low-grade of brain tumor.[18] Further, Gershwin's initial olfactory hallucination (the unpleasant smell of burning rubber) was in 1934. It is highly unlikely that a glioblastoma multiforme would cause symptoms of that duration prior to causing death. Pilocytic astrocytomas may cause symptoms for twenty or more years prior to diagnosis. Thus, it is possible that Gershwin's prominent chronic gastrointestinal symptoms (which he called his "composer's stomach") were a manifestation of temporal lobe epilepsy caused by his tumor.[19] If this is correct, then Gershwin was not "a notorious hypochondriac," as suggested by his biographer Edward Jablonski.[20]

In January 1937, Gershwin performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux.[21] It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed. He died on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following surgery for the tumor.[22] John O'Hara remarked: "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." [23] A memorial concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8, 1937 at which Otto Klemperer conducted his own orchestration of the second of Gershwin's Three Piano Preludes.[24]

Gershwin received his sole Oscar nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 1937 Oscars, for "They Can't Take That Away from Me" written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film Shall We Dance.[25] The nomination was posthumous; Gershwin died two months after the film's release.

Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift and frequently consulted her about his music. Oh, Kay was named for her.[26] After Gershwin died, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with his brother Ira on several projects.[27]

George Gershwin's mausoleum in Westchester Hills Cemetery

Gershwin died intestate. All his property passed to his mother.[28] He is buried in the Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.[29] The Gershwin estate continues to collect 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 expired at the end of 2007 in the European Union.

According to Fred Astaire's letters to Adele Astaire, Gershwin whispered Astaire's name before passing away.[30]

In 2005, The Guardian determined using "estimates of earnings accrued in a composer's lifetime" that George Gershwin was the wealthiest composer of all time.[31]

Legacy and honors

Musical style and influence

"Much has been made of his debt to African-American music, and it is indeed a major source of his inspiration, but it's not the only one."[33] Gershwin was influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century. In turn Maurice Ravel was impressed with Gershwin's abilities, 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."[34] 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.

Gershwin asked to study with Ravel. When Ravel heard how much Gershwin earned, Ravel replied with words to the effect of, "You should give me lessons." (Some versions of this story feature Igor Stravinsky rather than Ravel as the composer; however Stravinsky confirmed that he originally heard the story from Ravel.)[35]

Gershwin's own Concerto in F was criticized for being related to the work of Claude Debussy, more so than to the expected jazz style. The comparison did not 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 Les Six, though the tunes are original."[36]

Aside from the French influence, Gershwin was intrigued by the works of Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg. He also asked Schoenberg for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, saying "I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin already."[37] (This quote is similar to one credited to Maurice Ravel during Gershwin's 1928 visit to France — "Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?")

Russian Joseph Schillinger's influence as Gershwin's teacher of composition (1932–1936) was substantial in providing him with a method to composition. There has been some disagreement about the nature of Schillinger's influence on Gershwin. 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. A third account of Gershwin's musical relationship with his teacher was written by Gershwin's close friend Vernon Duke, also a Schillinger student, in an article for the Musical Quarterly in 1947.[38]

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.

In 2007, the Library of Congress named their Prize for Popular Song after George and Ira Gershwin. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of popular music on culture, the prize is given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins. On March 1, 2007, the first Gershwin Prize was awarded to Paul Simon.[39]

Recordings and film

Early in his career Gershwin made dozens of player piano piano roll recordings, which were a main source of income for him. Many are of popular music of the period and others are of his own works. Once his musical theatre-writing career took precedence, his regular roll-recording sessions dwindled. He did record additional rolls throughout the 1920s, including a complete version of his Rhapsody in Blue.

Compared to the piano rolls, there are few accessible audio recordings of Gershwin's playing. His first recording was his own Swanee with the Fred Van Eps Trio in 1919. The recorded balance highlights the banjo playing of Van Eps, and the piano is overshadowed. The recording took place before Swanee became famous as an Al Jolson specialty in early 1920.

Gershwin did record an abridged version of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1924, soon after the world premiere. Gershwin and the same orchestra made an electrical recording of the abridged version for Victor in 1927. However, a dispute in the studio over interpretation angered Paul Whiteman and he left. The conductor's baton was taken over by Victor's staff conductor Nathaniel Shilkret.[40]

In 1925, Gershwin sat down at the keyboard of an Aeolean Duo-Art Weber reproducing piano and created an exact record — note for note, pause for pause, inflection for inflection — of his famous Rhapsody in Blue. This piano and the recording survive today and can be heard several times per day at the Music House Museum[41] located near Traverse City, Michigan.

Gershwin made a number of solo piano recordings of tunes from his musicals, some including the vocals of Fred and Adele Astaire, as well as his Three Preludes for piano. In 1929, Gershwin "supervised" the world premiere recording of An American in Paris with Nathaniel Shilkret and the Victor Symphony Orchestra. Gershwin's role in the recording was rather limited, particularly because Shilkret was conducting and had his own ideas about the music. When it was realized no one had been hired to play the brief celeste solo, Gershwin was asked if he could and would play the instrument, and he agreed. Gershwin can be heard, rather briefly, on the recording during the slow section.

Gershwin appeared on several radio programs, including Rudy Vallee's, and played some of his compositions. This included the third movement of the Concerto in F with Vallee conducting the studio orchestra. Some of these performances were preserved on transcription discs and have been released on LP and CD.

In 1934, in an effort to earn money to finance his planned folk opera, Gershwin hosted his own radio program titled Music by Gershwin. The show was broadcast on the NBC Blue Network from February to May and again in September through the final show on December 23, 1934. He presented his own work as well as the work of other composers.[42] Recordings from this and other radio broadcasts include his Variations on I Got Rhythm, portions of the Concerto in F, and numerous songs from his musical comedies. He also recorded a run-through of his Second Rhapsody, conducting the orchestra and playing the piano solos. Gershwin recorded excerpts from Porgy and Bess with members of the original cast, conducting the orchestra from the keyboard; he even announced the selections and the names of the performers. In 1935 RCA Victor asked him to supervise recordings of highlights from Porgy and Bess; these were his last recordings.

A 74-second newsreel film clip of Gershwin playing I've Got Rhythm has survived, filmed at the opening of the Manhattan Theater (now The Ed Sullivan Theater) in August of 1931.[43] There are also silent home movies of Gershwin, some of them shot on Kodachrome color film stock, which have been featured in tributes to the composer. In addition, there is newsreel footage of Gershwin playing "Madamoselle from New Rochelle" and the title song from Strike Up The Band on the piano during a Broadway rehearsal of the 1930 musical production. The comedy team of Clark and McCullough are seen conversing with Gershwin, then singing as he plays.

In 1965, Movietone Records released an album MTM 1009 featuring Gershwin's piano rolls of the titled George Gerswhin plays RHAPSODY IN BLUE and his other favorite compositions. The flip side of the LP featured 9 other recordings.

In 1975, Columbia Records released an album featuring Gershwin's piano rolls of the Rhapsody In Blue, accompanied by the Columbia Jazz Band playing the original jazz-band accompaniment, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The flip side of the Columbia Masterworks release features Tilson Thomas leading the New York Philharmonic in An American In Paris. In 1976, RCA Records, as part of their "Victrola Americana" line released a collection of Gershwin recordings, taken from 78's recorded in the 20's and called the l.p., "Gershwin plays Gershwin, Historic First Recordings" (RCA Victrola AVM1-1740) and included recordings of "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Gershwin on piano, "An American in Paris", from 1927 with Gershwin on celesta; "Three Preludes", "Clap Yo' Hands" and Someone to Watch Over Me", among others.There are a total of 10 recordings on the album. In 1993, a selection of piano rolls originally produced by Gershwin for the Standard Music Roll Company[44] were issued by Nonesuch Records through the efforts of Artis Woodhouse. It is entitled Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls.[45]

Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, including Paul Posnak, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Percy Grainger, Art Tatum, Yehudi Menuhin, Bing Crosby, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Hiromi Uehara, Madonna, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin, Nina Simone, Maureen McGovern, John Fahey, The Residents, Kate Bush, Sublime, Sting, and Liquid Tension Experiment.

In October of 2009, it was reported by Rolling Stone that Brian Wilson is completing at least two unfinished compositions by George Gershwin for possible release in 2010.[46]

Baseline Studio Systems announced in January 2010 that Steven Spielberg may direct a biopic about the composer's life, which is scheduled for release in 2012; 32 year-old American actor Zachary Quinto has been confirmed for the leading role of George Gershwin.[47]



Solo Piano

  • Preludes For Piano (1926)
  • George Gershwin's Songbook (1932) (piano arrangements of eighteen songs)


London Musicals

Broadway Musicals

Films for which Gershwin wrote original scores

  • Delicious (1931) (an early version of the Second Rhapsody and one other musical sequence was used in this film, the rest were rejected by the studio)
  • Shall We Dance (1937) (original orchestral score by Gershwin, no recordings available in modern stereo, some sections have never been recorded)
  • A Damsel in Distress (1937)
  • The Goldwyn Follies (1938) (posthumously released)
  • The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) (uses songs previously unpublished)

See also

  • List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s


  1. ^ Hyland, pp.1–3
  2. ^ Hyland, p.3
  3. ^ Schwartz, Charles (1973). Gershwin, His Life and Music. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc.. p. 14. ISBN 0-306-80096-9. 
  4. ^ Hyland, p.13
  5. ^ Hyland, p.14
  6. ^ Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994. p. 111.
  7. ^ Lady, Be Good at the Internet Broadway Database
  8. ^ Oh, Kay! at the Internet Broadway Database
  9. ^ Funny Face at the Internet Broadway Database
  10. ^ Strike Up the Band at the Internet Broadway Database
  11. ^ Show Girl at the Internet Broadway Database
  12. ^ Girl Crazy at the Internet Broadway Database
  13. ^ Of Thee I Sing at the Internet Broadway Database
  14. ^ Jablonski, Edward,Gershwin: A Biography. Double Day: New York, 1987. 155–170
  15. ^ Jablonski, Edward, Gershwin, A Biography, New York: Double Day, 1987. pp.178–180
  16. ^ USA. "George Gershwin-illustrious American composer: his fatal glioblastoma. PMID: 231388". Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  17. ^ Pollack p.214
  18. ^ Sloop GD. What caused George Gershwin's untimely death? Journal of Medical Biography 2001;9: 28–30.
  19. ^ Ljunggren B. The case of George Gershwin. Neurosurgery 1982;10: 733–6.
  20. ^ New York Times, October 25, 1998
  21. ^ Pollack, p. 353
  22. ^ Hyland, p.204
  23. ^ "Broad Street". 2007-02-27. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  24. ^ Pollack, p.392
  25. ^ Shall We Dance (1937) at the Internet Movie Database
  26. ^ Hyland pp 108
  27. ^ Kay Swift biography (Kay Swift Memorial Trust). Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  28. ^ Pollack, p.7
  29. ^ George Gershwin (Find-A-Grave). Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  30. ^ The featurette: They Can't Take That Away from Me: The Music of Shall We Dance, on the Shall We Dance DVD released August 16, 2005 DVD link
  31. ^ Gershwin leads composer rich list Kirsty Scott 29 August 2005, The Guardian'.' Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  32. ^ The Gershwin Theater (Theater History). Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  33. ^ "Classical Net - Basic Repertoire List - Gershwin". Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  34. ^ Mawer pp 42
  35. ^ Arthur Rubinstein, My Many Years; Merle Armitage, George Gershwin; Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary, all quoted in Norman Lebrecht, The Book of Musical Anecdotes
  36. ^ (Hyland pp 126)
  37. ^ Norman Lebrecht, The Book of Musical Anecdotes
  38. ^ Dukelsky, Vladimir (Vernon Duke), "Gershwin, Schillinger and Dukelsky: Some Reminiscences", Musical Quarterly, Volume 33, 1947, 102–115
  39. ^ "Paul Simon: The Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song", PBS article
  40. ^ Peyser, p. 133
  41. ^ "Music House Museum"". 2009-05-29. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  42. ^ Pollack, p. 163
  43. ^ Jablonski, Edward, Stewart, Lawrence D. The Gershwin Years. Doubleday: New York, 1973. 170.
  44. ^ George Gershwin and the player piano 1915-1927. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
  45. ^ (ASIN: B000005J1I)
  46. ^ Brian Wilson Will Complete Unfinished Gershwin Compositions
  47. ^ Holden, Stephen. "Gershwin". Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  48. ^ Jablonski, Edward and Lawrence D. Stewart. The Gershwin Years: George and Ira. Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday & Company, 1973. Second edition. ISBN 0-306-80739-4, pp. 25, 227–229.


  • Rimler, Walter George Gershwin : An Intimate Portrait (2009), University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0252034449
  • Hyland, William G. George Gershwin : A New Biography (2003), Praeger Publishers, ISBN 0-275-98111-8
  • Jablonski, Edward Gershwin (1987), Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-19431-5
  • Kimball, Robert & Alfred Simon. The Gershwins (1973), Athenium, New York, ISBN 0-689-10569X
  • Mawer, Deborah (Editor). Cross, Jonathan (Series Editor). The Cambridge Companion to Ravel (Cambridge Companions to Music) (2000), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-64856-4
  • Peyser, Joan. The Memory of All That:The Life of George Gershwin (2007), Hal Leonard Corporation, ISBN 1423410254
  • Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin. His Life and Work (2006), University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-24864-9
  • Rimler, Walter. A Gershwin Companion (1991), Popular Culture ISBN 1-56075-019-7
  • Sloop, Gregory. "What Caused George Gershwin's Untimely Death?" Journal of Medical Biography 9 (February 2001): 28–30

Further reading

  • Carnovale, Norbert. George Gershwin: a Bio-Bibliography (2000. ) Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313260032 ISBN 0313260036
  • Alpert, Hollis. The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic (1991). Nick Hern Books. ISBN 1854590545
  • Feinstein, Michael. Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme (1995), Hyperion Books. ISBN 0786882204
  • Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin Remembered (2003). Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340438
  • Rosenberg, Deena Ruth. Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin (1991). University of Michigan Press ISBN 978-0472084692
  • Sheed, Wilfred. The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (2007). Random House. ISBN 0812970187
  • Suriano, Gregory R. (Editor). Gershwin in His Time: A Biographical Scrapbook, 1919–1937 (1998). Diane Pub Co. ISBN 075675660X
  • Wyatt, Robert and John Andrew Johnson (Editors). The George Gershwin Reader (2004). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195130197

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

My people are American, my time is today.

Jacob Gershowitz, better known as George Gershwin (1898-09-261937-07-11), was an American songwriter and composer who worked in both popular and classical styles. Most of his songs were written to words by his brother Ira Gershwin.



  • The European boys have small ideas but they sure know how to dress 'em up.
    • Remark quoted in Vernon Duke "Gershwin, Schillinger and Dukelsky: Some Reminiscences", The Musical Quarterly vol. 33 (1947).
  • I frequently hear music in the heart of noise.
    • Letter to Isaac Goldberg; published in Joan Peyser The Memory of All That (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993) p. 80.
  • My people are American, my time is today…music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the times.
    • Quoted in Merle Armitage Accent on America (New York: E. Weyhe, 1944) p. 292.
  • The composer does not sit around and wait for an inspiration to walk up and introduce itself…Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion. In composing we combine what we know of music with what we feel.
    • Isaac Goldberg Tin Pan Alley (New York: John Day, 1930) p. viii.
  • Jazz I regard as an American folk music; not the only one, but a very powerful one which is probably in the blood and feeling of the American people more than any other style of folk music.
    • "The Relation of Jazz to American Music", in Henry Cowell (ed.) American Composers on American Music (1933); reprinted in Gregory R. Suriano (ed.) Gershwin in His Time (New York: Gramercy, 1998) p. 97.

The Composer in the Machine Age (1933)

Gershwin's essay is cited here from Daniel Albright (ed.) Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

  • Modern European composers…have very largely received their stimulus, their rhythms and impulses from Machine Age America. They have a much older tradition of musical technique which has helped them put into musical terms a little more clearly the thoughts that originated here. They can express themselves more glibly.
    • Page 386
  • Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas.
    • Page 386
  • A skyscraper is at the same time a triumph of the machine and a tremendous emotional experience, almost breath-taking. Not merely its height but its mass and proportions are the result of an emotion, as well as of calculation.
    • Page 387
  • When jazz is played in another nation, it is called American. When it is played in another country, it sounds false. Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.
    • Page 387
  • An entire composition written in jazz could not live.
    • Page 388
  • I like to think of music as an emotional science.
    • Page 388


  • It was on the train,with its rattle-ty bang,that is often so stimulating to a composer that I suddenly heard the complete construction of the Rhapsody. Comment on his Blue Rhapsody composition.


  • The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together – with a thin paste of flour and water… I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky…but if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter.
    • Leonard Bernstein, "Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?", in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1955.
  • Gershwin's tragedy was not that he failed to cross the tracks, but rather that he did, and once there in his new habitat, was deprived of the chance to plunge his roots firmly into the new soil.
    • Leonard Bernstein, in Charles Schwartz Gershwin: His Life and Music (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973) p. xii.
  • If jazz should threaten to become a hampering stereotype, a "tradition" in its turn, George would go forward to the next fresh impulse that arose in him. You may call him the King of jazz and associate his name with the lifting of jazz into musical artistry. Very well, and his best thanks. But not on that account is he to be thrust into a pigeonhole. George Gershwin did not begin as a jazzer; he will not end as one.
    • Isaac Goldberg George Gershwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931) p. 289
  • Gershwin's melodic gift was phenomenal. His songs contain the essence of New York in the 1920s and have deservedly become classics of their kind, part of the 20th-century folk-song tradition in the sense that they are popular music which has been spread by oral tradition (for many must have sung a Gershwin song without having any idea who wrote it).
    • Michael Kennedy The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 251.
  • George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe that if I don't want to.
  • Porgy is…an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad setup. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has a considerable power.

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George Gershwin (September 26, 1898July 11, 1937) was an American composer.


Story of his life


His family immigrated to the United States. Gershwin, his two brothers and sister had a close, happy family life. George liked playing games on the streets of New York. He liked exploring the city, but he did not like school or studying.

While exploring the city, Gershwin heard jazz and blues music spilling out of public drinking places. However, he did not become seriously interested in music until he heard another boy playing the violin in a concert at his school. Gershwin began to take piano lessons. His teacher was a fine classical musician. He immediately recognized Gershwin's unusual ability. The teacher wrote about him to a friend: "I have a student who will make his mark in music, if anybody will. The boy is a genius, without doubt."

Younger days as a student

Gershwin studied classical piano, and he was a first-rate pianist,but his strongest interest continued to be jazz and popular music. At the age of fifteen, he left school and went to work in the music business. The New York City street where most music publishers had their offices was called "Tin Pan Alley."

The phonograph and radio had been invented in the late 1800s. But it would be many years before there were musical recordings or regular radio broadcasts. Tin Pan Alley publishers needed another way to sell new songs, so they employed people to play the piano to do this.

The piano players played the songs all day long to interested singers and other performers. Gershwin was one of the youngest piano players in Tin Pan Alley. Soon, he was considered one of the finest there. He was already writing his own songs. He succeeded in getting one published when he was only 18 years old. It had a long title: "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get ‘Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em. "

Success as a songwriter

Gershwin was now a real composer. The rest of his life was an unbroken record of success. He wrote song after song. His ideas were so endless that he was not even troubled when he once lost some music he had been writing. "There is plenty more where that came from," he said.

Gershwin had his first big hit in 1919, when he was twenty-one years old. It was a song called "Swanee." A popular entertainer, Al Jolson, sang the song. "Swanee" was made into one of the first musical recordings. Gershwin was suddenly famous.

Music critics note that "Swanee" is not like most of Gershwin's music. Later, he wrote true love songs. Some were light and funny. Some were full of intense feeling. Many of these songs were written for the popular musical theater. One of his most emotional love songs never became part of a musical play, however. It is called "The Man I love."

His brother Ira

Gershwin's older brother, Ira, wrote the words to "The Man I Love". As George became famous, Ira wrote the words to more and more of his songs.

The two brothers were very different. Ira, the writer, was quiet and serious. George, the musician, was outgoing -- the life of any party. When they had to finish a new musical Ira locked George in a hotel room until it was done. But George wrote better songs with Ira than with anyone else.

Music of Gershwin

As a songwriter

One of many examples of the Gershwin's combined work is the song "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The Gershwins wrote the song for dancer and actor Fred Astaire for the film "Shall We Dance." That was George and Ira Gershwin's first movie musical.

Many of George Gershwin's songs were first written for musical plays performed in theaters in New York City. These comedies, with plenty of songs, were a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of Gershwin's musical plays, "Girl Crazy," introduced a young singer named Ethel Merman. She became one of the most celebrated performers in America. In the play, Merman sang a song George Gershwin wrote just for her. It was called "I Got Rhythm".

Many songs that George Gershwin wrote for musical plays and movies have remained as popular as ever. Over the years, they have been sung and played in every possible way -- from jazz to country.

One example is the song, "Someone to Watch Over Me." It was written for the 1926 musical "Oh, Kay!"

Jazz and his music

In the nineteen twenties, there was a debate in the United States about jazz music. Could jazz, some people asked, be considered serious music?

In 1924, jazz musician and orchestra leader Paul Whiteman decided to organize a special concert to show that jazz was serious music. Gershwin agreed to compose something for the concert before he realized how little time he had to do it. The concert was just a few weeks away. Gershwin got busy, and, in that short time, he composed a piece for piano and orchestra. He called it "Rhapsody in Blue."

Gershwin himself played the piano part of "Rhapsody in Blue" at the concert. The audience included some of the greatest classical musicians of the time. When they heard his music, they were electrified. It seemed to capture, for the first time, the true voice of modern American culture. Today, we can still hear Gershwin playing "Rhapsody in Blue." An old mechanical piano recording Gershwin created has been reproduced exactly. There are also very early versions of "Rhapsody in Blue" which feature Gershwin playing the piano with Whiteman's orchestra. Those recordings, because they are early, do not sound like modern recordings. But they are recordings of Gershwin at the piano. This makes those recordings important.

"Rhapsody in Blue" made George Gershwin famous all over the world. Several hundred thousand copies of the printed music sold immediately. Gershwin was satisfied that he had shown that jazz music could be both serious and popular.

Musical works and opera

Gershwin also wrote an opera, "Porgy and Bess. " It was based on a book by DuBose Heyward. It is a tragic love story about black Americans along the coast of South Carolina.

"Porgy And Bess" opened in Boston, Massachusetts in 1935. Audiences loved it. But most critics did not know what to think of it. It was not like any other opera or musical play they had ever seen.

Gershwin was not affected by the critics' opinions. He believed some of his greatest music had gone into the opera. He said he had created a new musical form -- an opera based on popular culture. Today "Porgy And Bess" is considered a masterpiece.

Another well-known Gershwin piece is "An American in Paris. " It is a long tone poem for orchestra. Its first public performance was by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1928.

Once again, opinion was mixed. Most people loved "An American in Paris," as they loved all of Gershwin's music. Some critics liked it, too. They called it happy and full of life. Others hated it. They called it silly and long-winded. Still, it remains one of his most popular works.

Last days

George Gershwin died in 1937, just days after doctors learned he had brain cancer. He was only thirty-eight years old. Newspapers all over the world reported his death on their front pages. Everyone mourned the loss of the man and all the music he might have written. Gershwin is still considered one of America's greatest composers. His works still are performed by many singers and groups. They are probably performed more often than any other serious American composer.

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the people who praised George Gershwin. Schoenberg said Gershwin was a man who lived in music and expressed everything through music, because music was his native language.

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