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George Gershwin

The Early Years

George Gershwin

"From Gershwin emanated a new American music not written with the ruthlessness of one who strives to demolish established rules but based on a new native gusto and wit and awareness. His was a modernity that reflected the civilization we live in as excitingly as the headline in today's newspaper."
Ira Gershwin, 1938

George Gershwin's early years demonstrated great potential for excellence in playing and composing music. It all started before George was born to Russian immigrants. As most people in the late 1800's did, Morris Gershovitz immigrated to the new world of New York, not knowing of the opportunities that would come to him and his family. His introduction to the new world was considered by many as very tough but typical of the common immigrant entering the United States. He lost his Uncle's address, his only contact in the new world. He had no where to go or sleep until he found him. He won food money in a card game that night, slept in a alley, and eventually found his Uncle. Morris allowed time to heal all troubles. He fell in love and married a friend Rose Bruskin, who came to the states sometime before; he would be a foremen in a factory that made fancy women's shoes. This would not be his only job. He would move the family through twenty-eight different homes, because he moved himself from nearly that many businesses. In this temporary home that could change at anytime four children were born: Ira on December 6, 1896, George on September 26, 1898, Arthur on March 14, 1900, and Frances on December 6, 1906. As the family changed, the last name changed as well. Everyone spelled it differently. Morris and Ira came to like Gershvin, as George would take even more drastic revisions. George chose the last name Gershwin, while his brother Ira kept his parent's last name Gershvin. In school George always seemed to be a trouble maker. His teacher Miss Smith would always have to talk to him about his "disciplinary problems". In his pre-piano days he said that "music never really interested me, and I really like to spend my time with the boys, making somewhat of a nuisance of myself in the streets".

By this time Morris's small chain of restaurants would not make it in the big city, sending the Gershwin family into bankruptcy. As a result of the small chain of restaurants not making it in the big city, the family moved to Coney Island in 1914 where they would look to a new beginning. The fights in the street would be just another sound as the Gershwin family grew up in the city. In the summer, George would fight because he could. Sometimes George would want to go to the movies and wouldn't have any money to do so. He would then act as a homeless person, and people would give him money. He would also steal fruit, pretzels, and bagels from local shops. But who could ever think that this tough New York kid would write music that would thrill the world?

George soon discovered the magic of music while walking the streets of the big city. He came upon a penny arcade and heard some sounds that he had never heard before. He went inside and found out that it was a mechanical piano. He put some money in the strange machine, and he listened to the sounds of Rubinstein's "Melody in F". George was amazed. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the music stopped. He went on his way, but the music in his soul never left him.

In the next few years, George would put that wonderful experience behind him. This musical exposure would soon join another major event that will start him on his path to stardom. While at school, he had a reputation as the worst student in his school district. He started to sneak out of a "stupid" assembly that he was required to go to, but no sooner did he leave his seat that Maxie Rosenzweig started playing his violin. He was again struck into a deep trance, just as before while in the penny arcade. One would think that someone had put a spell on him. George could not believe the beauty of this piece. Well, George thought to himself, I have to meet this fellow. So he waited about an hour in the pouring rain to meet little Maxie, but he never found him. Maxie had left through the teachers entrance. So he found out where he lived and went there, no luck. But, Maxie's family was impressed with George's interest that they set up a time the two boys could meet. George and Maxie met and became the best of friends. Maxie taught George everything that he knew about what went into making music. George would keep a musical scrapbook where he glued programs and sketches of his favorite musical things.

In 1910 the Gershwin's bought a piano that was intended for Ira. No sooner had the upright been lifted through the window to the 'front room' floor than George sat down and played a popular tune of the day. George started lessons with a neighborhood lady and he progressed quickly. His teacher could not teach him any more, so she referred him to Charles Hambitzer. George immediately responded to his new piano teacher's generosity. The teacher was very fond of George and his hidden talents. George always wanted to move on to jazz and all the modern stuff, but Charles would never let never allow it. Charles wanted George to have a classical base of music before he moved on. Hambitzer turned George over to Edward Kilenyi for additional lessons in theory. Between Hambitzer and Kilenyi, they encouraged George to pursue music experimentation. This is when George wrote his first ragtime songs within classical forms. The songs were entitled "Since I Found You" and "Ragging the Traumerei," rough in style, but they did show a merge between the two forms. George was a very busy young man. He worked long hours at one of his father's restaurants, and he hated it, even when he graduated from the kitchen to the cash register. George also held a summer job playing popular songs at a mountain resort. This did not make his mother happy. She didn't want to think of her son as a musician. She wanted him to be a bookkeeper or a lawyer, not a musician. George was also attending the High School of Commerce, but the only success he had there was playing the piano at morning assembly. There was only so much that George could handle and school was the thing he disliked the most. So one day after school he told his mother that he was dropping out of school altogether. He had met a man named Moses Gumble that worked for a music publishing house, Jerome H. Remick & Company. Moses said that he liked the way that George played the piano and especially how he could sight read so well. Moses offered him a job that paid fifteen dollars a week as a song plugger, one of the pianists who played new tunes in hopes of selling sheet music. George and his Mom argued over and over about this. He said it was better than the four dollars he was getting at his father's restaurant. Finally, his mother gave in, and at the age of fifteen George was going to drop out of school and become a musician.

In spite of his mother's wishes George was heading to his new career in music at Tin Pin Ally in New York City. George's job was simply to play over a tune and convince the performers that they wanted it for their acts. George was very good at his job, better than anyone else. He could change the song to a higher or a lower pitch so it would be easier on the singer. Actually, being a song plugger wasn't all bad, he got to see a lot of New York. He went to theaters, hotels, and restaurants, where singers performed. But George had much more in his mind than plugging songs, he wanted to be a song writer. He dreamed of writing songs that would become Broadway shows, or even operas and symphonies.

After a short time of working at the Remick, he grew tired of his piano plugging. So he would play the classics. People where amazed to hear this wonderful music coming out of a little cubicle. Most of his fellow employees were shocked because most of them couldn't ever read music let alone perform the classics. George finally started to compose music, he would stay late and write into the early morning. He had many songs that he wrote and he kept all of them in a notebook called "GT" good tunes. One day he brought some songs that he thought should be published. He played them and the executive listened carefully and said no. His only advice was to stick to piano pounding, Remick's already had enough composers on its list. In the next few years, George continued to write music and was greatly influenced by music and lyrics of other contemporary composers. Composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern were a major influence in George's musical composition life. George liked Kern's melodic lines and harmonies and Berlin's musical vitality. He continued to write for various Broadway musicals and jazz tunes. But, it wasn't until his brother Ira saw a small newspaper ad announcing that George had agreed to write a jazz concerto that would be performed by Paul Whiteman in his program "An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall." This work was to completed in one month, and George had not started it. The next day George sat on a train on his way to Boston and began to listen to the steady rhythms of the train wheels and its movements. This helped him start his composition. He continued to write at an upright piano at home. Later, at a party, he was seated at a piano again playing when suddenly his fingers moved into a broad, almost hymn like melody that simply came mysteriously from somewhere inside him-the very theme he had been looking for. The night of the concert arrived. George was nervous because he felt he might not have anything to offer to the audience. The program was very long and the audience was bored. George's Rhapsody in Blue was place second to last on the program. Gershwin appeared onstage, took his place at the piano and started. As the clarinet player let out the now famous, slowly ascending wail which begins the Rhapsody, the excitement in the audience could be heard. George played on improvising the notes he left out in haste during his composition. The band stayed with him. "Somewhere in the middle of the score I began crying," he recalled later. "When I came to myself I was eleven pages along and to this day I cannot tell you how I conducted that far". The audience rose to its feet and gave him and his work a wild ovation. Audiences have been rising to their feet and cheering it ever since.

George Gershwin's presence on the musical scene of the nineteen twenties and thirties was like a brilliant, dazzling star streaking through the ears and minds of the American people. As a high school dropout plugging other people's songs in Tin Pan Alley, he anticipated people humming his tunes everywhere. George Gershwin's early years truly demonstrated his excellence in playing and composing music that carried him throughout his later years in life. This excellence still lives in today's musical scores and continues to influence others. His love for jazz and blues has created a new style of American music to be loved by all.

"… true music… must repeat the thought and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is today… "
George Gershwin  1925

References:

  • The Gershwin Years by Edward Jablonski and Lawrence Stewart, Doubleday & Company, inc., 1973
  • An American Rhapsody: The Story of George Gershwin by Paul Kresh, Universe Books, 1987

Copyright © 1997, Eric Rowley.

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