George Gershwin! His name conjures memories and nostalgic imaginings of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, flappers, musicals tumbling forth in glorious profusion from his creative, fertile imagination. Gershwin represented all this, of course, and so much more: his serious compositions, which confounded the critics at first performances, remain highly popular in the concert repertoire, and his stage and film songs continue to be jazz and vocal standards. Gershwin's music was his personal digestion of European, jazz, and black styles, characterized by melodies at once catchy and beautiful, accentuated by wonderfully complex rhythmic patterns. He was a bundle of energy, a school dropout at fifteen whose wrote the enormously successful Swanee at nineteen, a playboy who rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous of two continents, a natural athlete, a painter of considerable talent, a generous, gregarious man with an ego the size of a ballroom who helped promote the careers of other musicians such as Vernon Duke, Oscar Levant, and Arnold Schoenberg. He never experienced a dry spell or the composer's equivalent of writer's block, and he was equally adept at composing music to which words were added or fitting music to book and lyrics already written, as he did in Porgy and Bess. He loved nothing more than parties where he could (and did) monopolize the evening at the piano, playing and singing his own works for the friends who adored him.
George Gershwin (named Jacob Gershovitz at his birth September 26, 1898) was the second of four children born to Morris and Rose Gershovitz, Russians who had immigrated to New York and married in America. George's older (by two years) brother Ira was expected to be the musician in the family but George, who had discovered music at six listening to a piano roll of Rubinstein's Melodie in F and was overwhelmed at nine hearing a friend playing the violin, appropriated the piano his mother purchased when he was twelve and he, too, was given piano lessons. In 1912 he began studying with Charles Hambitzer, undoubtedly the strongest influence on the young student, who introduced him to the music of Debussy and Ravel, the early works of Arnold Schoenberg, and the classical piano literature. Gershwin admired Irving Berlin, and among his earliest musical heroes were Liszt and the great pianists then playing in New York, artists such as Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hoffmann, and composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni.
A poor scholar uninterested in intellectual pursuits, George left school at fifteen to join music publisher Jerome K. Remick as Tin Pan Alley's youngest-ever song-plugger for $15.00 a week, all the while trying his hand at composition. His first published song (in 1916) was When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, which did not catch on, but that same year Sigmund Romberg used another Gershwin song in a show. This was also the year in which Gershwin began making piano rolls (many under a pseudonym). George left Remick in 1917 to travel the vaudeville circuit as a pianist. Next he was hired to write songs for Max Dreyfus, head of the publishing house T.B. Harms, and he toured as accompanist for Nora Bayes.
Gershwin's first Broadway show, La, La, Lucille, ran for one hundred performances in 1919, the same year that Al Jolson heard Swanee (written in 1917) and added it to his touring show. Swanee was a tremendous hit which sold over two million records its first year, and George was well on his way to fame and fortune. For the next five years he wrote the music for George White's Scandals, and in the 1922 Scandals he included a one-act opera called Blue Monday. This opera lasted only a single performance, but it was the first serious music by the successful young composer (who by now had entered New York society and become an equally successful man about town).
Joined by his brother Ira (who wrote lyrics for several years as Arthur Francis,' a pseudonym which combined the first names of their younger brother and sister), George wrote successful musicals during the twenties for performers such as Fred and Adele Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, W.C. Fields, Jeanette MacDonald, Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice, Bob Hope, and many other notable figures of the American musical stage. Most of these musicals were characterized by inane plots which served only as vehicles for spectacular singing and dancing, but by 1930 both George and Ira had become interested in using satire in their musicals. Strike Up the Band, in that year, was a success. 1930 was also the year of Girl Crazy, which contains some of the Gershwins' most infectious melodies, and in which Ethel Merman introduced I Got Rhythm. (The cast included Ginger Rogers, and Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Red Nichols were in the orchestra.) Gershwin first went to Hollywood in 1930 to write his film score Delicious, and during the same year he made his conducting debut in a Lewisholn Stadium concert of his own music.
Of Thee I Sing, a brilliant political satire by the Gershwin brothers, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind, became in 1932 the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize (for drama there was no category for music at that time). This was, interestingly, Gershwin's last big success: two musicals premiéred in 1933 ran for less than a hundred performances each. However, by this time Gershwin's interest in serious music had increased and he wanted to write the full-length opera he had been contemplating for years. He had written several serious compositions before 1935, when his opera Porgy and Bess was first performed, all to mixed reviews.
In 1935, after Porgy and Bess, Gershwin turned his attention to films. He moved to California and wrote Shall We Dance for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and A Damsel in Distress for Astaire, Joan Fontaine, and Gracie Allen. Early in 1937 he began to experience headaches, dizzy spells, and blackouts. Examinations revealed no apparent cause, but his headaches increased in frequency and severity until July 9 when Gershwin collapsed into a coma, and a brain tumor was diagnosed. The White House sent two destroyers to bring one of the country's most prominent brain specialists from his yacht on Chesapeake Bay where he was vacationing. By the time Dr. Dandy reached Newark Airport on his way to Hollywood, however, local surgeons had found it necessary to operate and discovered the situation hopeless. George Gershwin never woke from his coma and died on July 11, 1937, two-and-one-half months short of his 39th birthday, silencing prematurely one of America's freshest, most creative musical voices. Novelist John O'Hara summarized the attitude of many Americans who refused to believe Gershwin was dead when he said, I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.'
Copyright © 1994, 1996 by Jane Erb. All Rights Reserved.