George Gershwin: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote popular songs, jazz, opera and Broadway shows as well as serious music for concert halls. Despite an untimely death, learn how he made a lasting mark on 20th century American music.

Early Life

Imagine two brothers born two years apart that were true opposites. The younger one was tall, handsome, dapper, never married, was gifted at writing music and died unexpectedly at age 38. The older brother was short, stout, rumpled, had a family, was gifted at writing lyrics and lived until age 86. The younger brother was George Gershwin and his life was intertwined with the life of his older brother, Ira Gershwin.

George and Ira Gershwin
George and Ira Gershwin

Rose and Morris Gershvin (originally Gershovitz) were Russian and Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, New York. Their first child was born in 1896 and was named Israel although he was known as Ira. Two years later, in 1898, Jacob was born. He was later known as George. Their father had changed the family name to Gershvin when he settled in the United States. When George's musical career took off, George changed his last name to Gershwin and then the rest of his family did the same.

In 1910, Rose and Morris bought a piano for Ira to take lessons. It was George who took over and quickly showed considerable talent and progress. Three years later at age 15, he landed a summer job as a pianist in a Catskills resort at $5.00 a week. Blues, jazz and ragtime music were quite popular and Gershwin quickly absorbed and played these styles. He idolized composer Irving Berlin and even applied to be Berlin's musical secretary.

Gershwin dropped out of high school in 1914 and began working in Tin Pan Alley, a street in New York City famous for its music publishers and composers. He worked there as a song plugger at the rate of $15.00 a week. A song plugger would play and sing newly published works to encourage sales of sheet music. While his piano skills steadily improved, Gershwin had no strong background in theory and composition. He began taking private composition lessons with teachers who eventually included Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger. From one of his assignments came a string quartet called Lullaby, which he later arranged for string orchestra. Even though intended as a more serious concert piece, Gershwin incorporated musical ideas from blues and jazz.

George Gershwin
George Gershwin

Gershwin's first song was published in 1916. He also began recording piano rolls of songs by other composers for player pianos. The following year he decided he wanted to be a Broadway composer. He stopped working in Tin Pan Alley and took jobs in uptown New York as a theater rehearsal pianist. In 1919 his first show, La La Lucille, was produced and in 1920 Al Jolson recorded Gershwin's first hit song 'Swanee.' Gershwin made $10,000 in royalties from 'Swanee.' The song quotes 'Old Folks at Home' by composer Stephen Foster. Already Gershwin showed his ability as a crossover composer by writing popular songs, Broadway shows and serious concert music. Gershwin also was on his way to becoming a virtuoso classical and jazz pianist.

More Success

From 1920 to 1924 Gershwin composed for an annual revue produced by George White. In doing so, Gershwin became friends with bandleader Paul Whiteman. Whiteman was interested in elevating jazz music to an orchestral level and had scheduled a concert for February 1924 to illustrate how this might be accomplished. In November 1923, Whiteman asked Gershwin to participate. Whiteman had asked for a piece that would feature Gershwin at the piano and the possibility of a concerto was discussed. Gershwin began work in January 1924 while on a train to Boston. Instead of writing a concerto, Gershwin decided to write a rhapsody which is more emotional music expressed by free-form or improvisation. He gave it the original title American Rhapsody and scored it for two pianos. Because Gershwin was still learning about theory and composition, the task of arranging the piece for orchestra fell to Ferde Grofe, the chief arranger for the Whiteman Band. When the composition premiered it was renamed Rhapsody in Blue.

In 1926 Gershwin presented five piano preludes to the public in a recital at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Only three of these preludes have survived although the circumstances are not entirely known. Some sources indicate that it was Gershwin who decided to have only three of them published. Like his earlier string quartet Lullaby, these piano preludes were intended as more serious pieces infused with musical ideas borrowed from blues and jazz.

Collaboration with Ira

Gershwin worked together regularly with his brother Ira beginning in 1924. Ira was the lyricist--the person who writes the words--and George composed the music. They produced 24 scores for Broadway and Hollywood including Lady, Be Good! and Of Thee I Sing along with memorable songs such as 'S'Wonderful,' 'Embraceable You,' 'Fascinating Rhythm,' and 'I Got Rhythm.'

Between 1934 and 1935 Gershwin created a set of variations for piano and orchestra of his song 'I Got Rhythm' as another example of a more serious work. He wrote other concert works for orchestra and piano such as Concerto in F, An American in Paris and Second Rhapsody. He would often appear as the piano soloist.

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