George Gershwin

Composer George Gershwin

Composer of some of the most beloved concert works of the 20th century, along with dozens of familiar jazz standards.

Vital Statistics
Sept. 26, 1898, Brooklyn, NY
July 11, 1937, Hollywood, CA
20th Century
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
American musical comedy developed and reached a first peak in the 1920s. The invention of the electric microphone changed music recording and performance styles. Commercial radio became staple entertainment. Movies with synchronized sound appeared and movie musicals became box office gold.
Biographical Outline
  • Immigrant experience: George is the second son of Moshe Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, both immigrants from Russia, who have their first child, Ira, in 1896. There are four children in all. In 1910, a piano is bought for Ira, but George shows the greater aptitude. About two years later, he becomes the pupil of a well-known pedagogue, Charles Hambitzer.
  • Tin Pan Alley, 1914-17: Gershwin drops out of school and takes a job at Jerome H. Remick and Co., as a "song plugger" on Tin Pan Alley. Song pluggers demonstrated the latest sheet music for prospective buyers. In 1915, he cuts his first piano rolls and begins to compose songs.
  • Broadway ambitions, 1917-19: Gershwin quits Remick's for a job as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway. He works his way up by getting songs interpolated into shows, and by winning a publishing contract from Max Dreyfus of T.B. Harms Co. In 1919, he writes his first complete Broadway musical, La La, Lucille.
  • The Big Time, 1920: Gershwin and Irving Caesar write Swanee, which is recorded by Al Jolson, one of the great singers and comedians of the period, in January. It sells one million sheet music copies and an estimated two million records, and it earns the composer $10,000 in royalties in the first year alone. It is the biggest song hit of Gershwin's entire career.
  • Teaming with Ira, 1924: Having already written some songs to Ira's lyrics, George and his brother produce their first smash hit musical comedy with Lady Be Good. The pair go on to write the scores to some of the most successful musicals of the period. One of their last, the political satire Of Thee I Sing (1931), becomes the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
  • Celebrity, 1924: Commissioned by the bandleader Paul Whiteman to write a piece for his "Experiment in Modern Music" concert at New York's Aeolian Hall, Gershwin composes Rhapsody in Blue and plays the piano part in its premiere, on February 12. The piece cements Gershwin's fame and leads to a second concert work, the Concerto in F, again with himself as soloist at the premiere in Carnegie Hall. He is feted on a trip through Europe, in 1928, and meets a number of prominent European classical composers (Alban Berg, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Darius Milhaud). On his return he finishes his tone poem and first large-scale piece without piano, An American in Paris, a commission for the New York Philharmonic.
  • Magnum opus, 1935: Reading DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy in 1926, Gershwin recognizes its operatic potential, but it is not until 1933 that he and Ira and Heyward get down to work on Porgy and Bess. Gershwin travels to South Carolina in summer 1934, soaking up local dialect and musical traditions, some of which he incorporates into his score. The "American folk opera" opens on Broadway in 1935, presented by the Theater Guild. It runs for 124 performances but fails to recoup its investment.
  • Gone Hollywood, 1936: After an initial stay, to score the film Delicious (1931), the Gershwin brothers resettle in the Hollywood Hills, writing the songs for the RKO studio musicals Shall We Dance (1936), A Damsel in Distress (1937), and The Goldwyn Follies (1938). George shows the symptoms of illness, which turns out to be a brain tumor, in the beginning of 1937, but he continues to work and perform. On July 9, he falls into a coma and dies on July 11 after surgery.
Fun Facts
  • A little shy: Gershwin was elegant, athletic, a good dancer, and friendly. Yet he was also modest, ingenuous, and a little insecure, and would head to the piano at parties, where he would play for long stretches.
  • Playboy: Gershwin dated many women, and seduced quite a few, as well; he even proposed to one. But he never married, though he sometimes expressed a wish to do so.
  • Canvassing: Gershwin began painting as a hobby, but was good at it and he became more serious about it as he went along. His later paintings are well-regarded in the art world.
  • Both sides of the tracks: Gershwin has often been pegged as an unlearned Broadway composer, though the evidence tells a different tale. Although not conservatory educated, he spent about five years with good private teachers both in piano and in basic theory and composition. He continued to study throughout his life, despite a hectic schedule, learning conducting and doing advanced study with Joseph Schillinger in counterpoint and orchestration.
  • Odd friends: Arnold Schoenberg lived near Gershwin in Hollywood and the two got along well, not infrequently playing tennis together. Gershwin's last oil portrait was of Schoenberg.
  • Showbiz: Gershwin was not fazed by the realities of the theater. Nearly a quarter of Porgy and Bess was cut for the opera's Broadway run, yet he never complained.
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Explore the Music
  • Gershwin's musical style is a brilliant example of the melting pot that was New York City in the early 20th century: It mixes his European art music training with the main elements of popular songwriting of the time, plus jazz and blues.
  • He often attended classical music concerts and sought out contemporary music, ranging from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to Alban Berg. (Gershwin owned an autographed copy of the score of Berg's Lyric Suite as well as a rare early recording of it.)
  • Rhapsody in Blue remains Gershwin's most recognizable and popular piece of music. He recorded it twice; the first, with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, sold over a million copies. It has been used in movies, at the 1984 Olympics, and in airline commercials, and has been recorded dozens of times and arranged for everything up to and including a female barbershop quartet.
  • Among Gershwin's other orchestral works, the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Cuban Overture are commonly performed. An American in Paris is the centerpiece of the 1952 MGM film musical of the same name, starring Gene Kelly.
  • Porgy and Bess is perhaps the only American opera currently in the world's standard opera repertory.
  • A list of Gershwin song standards would include, just for starters: The Man I Love, Fascinating Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, S'Wonderful, My One and Only, I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, and Our Love Is Here to Stay.
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