Gershwin and Copland had a lot in common. Like Copland, Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Originally Jacob Gershvin, he first began his musical career at the age of 11, when his parents bought a secondhand piano for his older brother Ira.
George dropped out of school at fifteen and began playing piano in nightclubs for money. By his late teens, he was accompanying broadway performers and had already made a name for himself as a pianist. His first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em,” earned him five dollars, but he was hooked. Before long, he came up with a song called “Swanee” that became a blockbuster hit. Everybody knew Swanee! It was whistled everywhere, from the streets of New York to the cotton fields in Mississippi.
Gershwin was on fire! Over the next four years, he wrote 45 songs and a 25 minute opera called “Blue Monday.” In 1924, he began collaborating with his brother Ira and continued writing with him for the Broadway stage for many years. They wrote hit after hit after hit! But all the while, George was secretly writing serious musical compositions for the orchestra. When he finally revealed his work, it was remarkable. No one had ever blended jazzy contemporary music with orchestral music before. And when you heard it, you could feel the excitement or grief or joy or sorrow in this music without words.
One of Gershwin’s most famous works, Rhapsody in Blue, was written in under five weeks’ time in order to meet a premiere deadline, and Gershwin himself performed with the orchestra on the piano. Famous composers Serge Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky were in the audience. I wonder if he found that intimidating or exhilarating? One section of the piano solo was improvised on the spot and only later written down, so you’d have to guess how it originally sounded. Either way, it was fantastically well received. Up until this point jazz had been largely discounted within the realm of orchestral music, but Gershwin managed to blend the two seamlessly, leaving audiences hungry for more.
George composed for Broadway shows in a jazz-opera style. His brother Ira was lyricist for many of his most popular songs, and the Gershwin brothers share a legacy as a jazz duo. George would write a melody, and Ira would come up with a witty word-play to go along with it.
Then came Hollywood! George and Ira wrote for movie musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. George was in the middle of writing for a movie when he became ill. He planned to return to New York to write a string quartet, a ballet, and another opera, just as soon as he had surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Unfortunately, George never woke from the surgery. The world lost a gifted, brilliant composer, and he was only 38 years old when he left us. What a shame.
While he left many works unfinished, George left us with his Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess and countless other classics that are still well loved today.
Links to videos of Gershwin playing his own music (pretty cool!):
“I Got Rhythm”
1929 “Strike Up the Band” solo (and others)
Link to clips from the movie An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron:
I Got Rhythm:
Dance Scenes from the movie:
For $2.99, you can watch the whole movie here.