Wednesday, April 8, 2015


George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1898. He had a normal kid's experiences in the New York tenements, until the age of ten years. Up until that time, born of Yiddish-Russian-Lithuanian emigré parents, he and his elder brother, by two years, Ira, had run with their boyhood friends, roller-skated and misbehaved.

This is just a bunch of random kids playing stickball in Hells' Kitchen, circa 1910

It is to be noted that up until he heard a friend, Maxie Rosenzweig's violin recital, that he cared nothing for music at all, but afterward, he decided he wanted to learn to play piano. His parents had bought a piano for Ira to practice his lessons on, but it was his sister Frances who initially earned money, and then left the music business to marry and raise a family. Another brother, Arthur, followed both Ira and George into the music business and began to play and compose songs.

I had forgotten about these until researching this article; the good ol' player piano!

George wanted to take formal lessons, but was frustrated in his endeavors to find a good teacher for himself for two years. He was finally introduced to Charles Hambitzer, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Until Hambitzer's death in 1918, he mentored Gershwin. Hambitzer taught Gershwin conventional piano technique, introduced him to European classical tradition and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. As a matter of course, Gershwin later studied with the classical composer Rubin Goldmark, who also taught Aaron Copland, and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell, thus formalizing his musical training.

When Gershwin left school at age 15, he became a “song plugger” in Tin Pan Alley, working for the publishing firm Jerome H. Remick and Company, 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” which sounds like either half the song, or the hook, right there. It was published in 1916, when George was 17 years old, and it earned him $0.50. His 1917 novelty song “Rialto Rag” was a commercial success and his third published song, “Swanee” was a certified hit, with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson, of the first “talkie”, “The Jazz Singer” and a famous Broadway singer, heard it and included it in one of his shows.                                    

You can listen to this on youtube. You can listen to EVERYTHING on youtube!

During several years working and recording piano rolls under his own name and several pseudonyms, George was collaborating with his brother Ira and they were turning out some wonderful hits: the stage musical comedy, “Lady Be Good” which contained the tunes “Fascinatin' Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good”. They also created “Show Girl” and “Girl Crazy”, which gave us “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” debuted by Ginger Rogers. In 1931, they wrote and produced “Of Thee I Sing” which won a Pulitzer Prize.

I've seen just about every movie that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever made together, and loved them. Not just because of the jazz, but because of the beauty of these two dancing.

But let's back up a few years. In 1924, Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody In Blue” a serious classical work 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.

In the mid-20s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a brief period, trying to persuade Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel to take him on as a pupil (Nadia Boulanger was still alive and teaching when I went to college; every composition student in university was trying to get a Fulbright to go and study with her!) but both declined. They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Ravel had the most perfect answer for Gershwin: “Why become a second-rate Ravel, when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?” Why indeed.

Maurice Ravel's (Composer of "Bolero") Birthday Party. Maurice is sitting at the piano. George Gershwin is far right.

While there, George wrote “An American in Paris” which opened to mixed reviews at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928. It did grow in popularity, however, and became a mainstay of both European and American orchestral repertoire. I've even heard a Russian interpretation of it. It sounded like a bunch of people who had never heard jazz in their lives, which is odd, because Shostakovich wrote jazz, although he got in trouble for it, so that may explain the rather stilted and cardboard-like interpretation that I heard, since this was in pre-glasnost days.

Nadia Boulanger, American composer, conducter and pedagogue. She taught Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass and other Americans. She is also one of the first women to have conducted the New York Philharmonic. She taught almost up to her death at age 92, in 1979. 

Of course, Gershwin's magnum opus “Porgy and Bess” remains one of the most popular in opera literature today. Although I've not played this opera, I've played most of the songs from it and they are heavenly. Everything from “Summertime” to “I Got Plenty O' Nuthin'” and “It Ain't Necessarily So”. Gershwin's influences crop up in Leonard Bernstein's compositions, most notable “West Side Story”. Bluesy and brooding, exuberant and hopeful, it is America.

Gershwin's "Concerto in F" for piano and orchestra. Enjoy

I have played the three “big” orchestral pieces by Gershwin and by far my favorite is the “Concerto in F”. Reminiscent of “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”, it is gritty, wrenching and soulful. The “Rhapsody in Blue” and the “Concerto” are abstractions, while “American in Paris” is more programmatic and is my least favorite to listen to and play. But, I defy anyone to not hold their breath, when they hear that lone clarinet opening, and that glissando that is the prelude to the entire orchestra joining in for “Rhapsody in Blue.”

I won't say much more about Gershwin's career; it is known that he died way too young of a brain tumor. He was 38. His many friends were devastated. The author John O'Hara said, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to”. That kind of sums it up for me as well.


Alyce Eccentrick said...

This was fascinating! I really enjoyed reading about George Gershwin, who is one of my most favorite composers. My mother told me that George Gershwin was known to be a hypochondriac. When he complained of not being well, no one listened. Unfortunately, by the time he got medical attention, it was too late. His tumor was inoperable. Who knows what he would have composed if he hadn't died so young.
Thank you very much for devoting G to Gershwin.

Pat Garcia said...

Thank you for this detailed article on George Gershwin's life. I love his music but have never taken the time to read anything about him.
I didn't know he was born in Hell's Kitchen and many of the other facts that you have written were unknown to me. So, I have had a good history class on Gershwin and enjoyed it.
Visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge 2015.
Patricia at Everything Must Change

Tamara Narayan said...

Educational G-blog. Nicely done. I never knew Gershwin died so young.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

What an amazing musical talent, and a tragically short life...

@TarkabarkaHolgy from
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