An American Icon of the Jazz Age
In 1928, with his fame rising steadily, Gershwin and his brother Ira went to Europe and settled in Paris at the Hôtel Majestic. Gershwin’s suite served as headquarters, studio (he was working on An American in Paris) and concert hall. He sought out the luminaries of the musical world who, he discovered, were admirers: Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Serge Prokofiev, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg. Berg, in Vienna, made the biggest impression. Gershwin studied Berg’s scores and returned to New York with an autographed photo, which he hung on his wall next to Jack Dempsey’s.
Gershwin had little left to learn, according to Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, though he continued to study. Adept at whole-tone, diatonic, blues, chromatic and other scales, and a master of rhythmic schemes, he was ready to work on a larger scale. Porgy and Bess, his most ambitious work, was already taking shape. (more ...)
Music from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway Stage and Hollywood Films
“Swanee” (1918, added to Al Jolson’s show Sinbad in 1919) – Male Quartet and Chorus
“Nobody But You” (1919, from La La Lucille, his first complete Broadway show) – Chorus
“Bidin’ My Time” (1930, from Girl Crazy) – Male Quartet
“Fascinating Rhythm” (1924, from Lady Be Good, his first Broadway success) – Chorus
“Isn’t it a Pity” (1933, from Pardon My English) – Mezzo-Soprano or Contralto
“Liza” (1929, from Show Girl) – Men of the Chorus
“Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926, from Oh Kay!,) – Women of the Chorus
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (1937, from the motion picture Shall We Dance) – Chorus
Prelude No. 2 – Piano Solo
Music from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway Stage and Hollywood Films
“Rose of Madrid” (from George White Scandals of 1922) – Tenor
A Gershwin Medley (arranged by Robert Page)
“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (1928, from Rosalie) – Chorus
“Somebody Loves Me” (from George White Scandals of 1922) – Chorus
“Mine” (1933, from Let Them Eat Cake) – Chorus
“A Foggy Day” (1937, from the motion picture A Damsel in Distress) – Mezzo-Soprano
“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (from George White Scandals of 1922) – Chorus
“I Got Rhythm” (1930, from Girl Crazy) – Mezzo-Soprano, Quartet, Chorus
Selections from the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), sung from the original score
“Summertime” – Soprano and Chorus Women
“It Ain’t Necessarily So” – Tenor and Chorus
“Gone, Gone, Gone / Overflow” – Soprano and Chorus
“My Man’s Gone” – Mezzo-Soprano and Chorus
“Headin’ for the Promised Land” – Soprano and Chorus
“I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’” – Bass and Chorus
“Bess, You Is My Woman Now” – Bass and Soprano
“A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” – Bass and Chorus
“O Lawd, I’m on My Way” – Chorus
More about George Gershwin
We highly recommend two recent books:
Wilfrid Sheed, The House That George Built (New York: Random House; 2007);
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2007).
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz (later Gershvin) in Brooklyn September 26, 1898. His Russian-Jewish parents, Moishe and Rosa Gershowitz, had immigrated from St. Petersburg in 1891 and married in New York. They were not musical people, but they raised their family (Ira, George, Arthur and Frances) on the Lower East Side in a rich multiracial stew of immigrant cultures. George heard his first live jazz when he was six and began formal study of the piano at age 12. (The Gershwins originally bought their piano for George’s older brother Ira.) His early teachers were musical émigrés who introduced him to the music of Debussy and Ravel and some of the musical ideas of Arnold Schoenberg.
George loved music. He attended as many concerts and recitals as he could and encountered everything from art music to jazz and the blues. In his mid-teens, he signed on as a “song plugger” for a sheet music publisher, playing piano reductions to sell music to customers. He met Fred Astaire, among many others, and soon began to attract the attention of Broadway producers.
While continuing his piano, theory and orchestration studies, he found work as a rehearsal pianist and accompanist and recorded about 140 piano rolls, many of them under assumed names, many of them now available on the Internet.
Gershwin wrote his first published song – “When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em” – in 1916. It was not a commercial success, but he was a prolific composer, and other songs of his soon found their way onto Broadway. He wrote “Swanee” in 1918 and played it for Al Jolson, who loved it, added it to his show Sinbad in 1919, and gave Gershwin his first blockbuster hit. Gershwin’s first complete Broadway show – La, La, Lucille – also came in 1919, and his meteoric rise to fame began.
Lady Be Good! (1924), his first Broadway success, was also the first full-scale collaboration with his lyricist brother Ira. (Because George was already a well-known rising star on Broadway, Ira wrote lyrics under the penname Arthur Frances in the early years, using the names of his younger brother and sister.) George wrote dozens of songs for the annual George White’s Scandals on Broadway from 1920 to 1924, and wrote the entire show for 1920. His work attracted the interest of bandleader Paul Whiteman, who conducted the Scandals. Whiteman was working on a concert project titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” and commissioned Gershwin to write a symphonic work. Gershwin produced his best-known piano work, Rhapsody in Blue, which was orchestrated by Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé – first for its première with jazz orchestra and later for full orchestra. The audience – including Leopold Stowkowski, Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninoff and other musical luminaries – roared its approval at the première February 12, 1924.
In July 1925, at the age of 26, George Gershwin made the cover of TIME.
In 1928, with his fame rising steadily, Gershwin took a trip to London, Paris and Vienna with Ira, Ira’s wife Leonore Strunsky, and their sister Frances. They settled in Paris at the Hôtel Majestic. Gershwin’s suite served as headquarters, concert hall and studio. (He was working on An American in Paris and visited French auto parts stores with the composer Alexander Tansman, shopping for taxi horns.) He sought out the luminaries of the musical world who, he was surprised to discover, were admirers: Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Serge Prokofiev, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg. Berg, in Vienna, made the biggest impression, offering new ideas and new musical areas to explore. Gershwin studied Berg’s scores and returned to New York with an autographed photo, a prize he hung on his wall next to Jack Dempsey’s.
Gershwin had little left to learn, according to Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, though he continued to study. Adept at whole-tone, diatonic, blues, chromatic and other scales, and a master of rhythmic schemes, he was ready to work on a larger scale. Porgy and Bess, his biggest and most ambitious work, was already taking shape.
Back in the States for the 1930s, Gershwin and his brother Ira secured their place as one of most famous song-writing teams on Broadway. Their political satire, Of Thee I Sing, was the first Broadway show to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (There was no Pulitzer for music in 1931, so the prize went to Ira and two other writers. In 1998, his birth centennial, George received a posthumous Pulitzer for lifetime achievement, accepted by his sister Frances.) Their songs began to appear in motion pictures, including the 1937 films Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress, and their West Coast residence became a significant social and musical center, including weekly tennis matches with Arnold Schoenberg. But it was the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935) that would become Gershwin’s signature work.
Gershwin had found the story in DuBose Heyward’s 1924 novel, Porgy, and immediately saw its potential as an opera. He traveled to South Carolina and lived for two months among the Gullah People – Porgy’s people – then spent 20 months composing the score, with Ira working on the libretto.
The work received a modest reception, possibly because audiences could not decide what it was (too profound for Broadway, too popular for the Met). Gershwin himself, however, was very proud of Porgy and Bess. “I think the music is so marvelous,” he said, “I don’t believe I wrote it.”
Early in 1937, Gershwin experienced neurological symptoms – excruciating headaches and the sense he was smelling burnt rubber – of the brain tumor that would take his life that July. The loss of such a talent, particularly as he was turning to more ambitious projects, left the musical world wondering what Gershwin might have achieved. Wilfrid Sheed puts it this way:
“Gershwin is first and last a songwriter – which doesn’t mean we have to throw a drop cloth over his classical work. The two sides of George were exquisitely mixed and played into each other constantly. But classically minded writers on the subject have tended to assume that their kind of music in some sense ‘won’ because they consider it better music and more worthy of George’s ambitions, but this was never true. Every great concert work of his would be followed by a volley of new and better songs, clearly based on the same inspirations that gave him the longer work. ...
“Guesses as to what he would have done had he lived longer outnumber our conjectures about Jack Kennedy ... but what Gershwin did do was write songs, right up to the final day, when half of his brain was occupied with a tumor.”
— Wilfrid Sheed, The House that George Built