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George Gershwin
1898 - 1937

George Jacob Gershwin (26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist. Gershwin's compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

(b. New York, September 26, 1898; d. Hollywood, July 11, 1937)

American composer, pianist, and songwriter. With an unsurpassed melodic gift and a sure instinct for the rhythms of his nation’s musical vernacular, he created a body of works that has kept a hold on the public for more than three generations. Forever young, fresh, and American, his scores convey the assertive spirit and the charged emotions of the Jazz Age, and remain among America’s most popular musical exports.

Gershwin’s parents came to the United States from Russia sometime around 1891; they met in New York, got married in 1895, and settled in a poor Jewish neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Originally Gershovitz and then Gershvin, the family moved to Brooklyn, where George was born in 1898 (birth name Jacob; he was the family member who eventually decided upon “Gershwin,” with everyone else following his lead). Gershwin had little exposure to music until his 12th year, when the family bought an upright piano that he quickly taught himself to play; before then, he said, he had been a rowdy child both in and out of school, a “nuisance.” He subsequently studied with a number of teachers, but had acquired no more than a rudimentary knowledge of theory, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration by the time he went to work, at 15, for Remick & Co., plugging songs for $15 a week on Tin Pan Alley. He later worked as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway and an accompanist to pop singers; in 1918 he was hired as a staff composer by the music firm of T. B. Harms at $35 a week. He quickly made a mark as a songwriter, hitting the big time in 1919 with “Swanee,” which A1 Jolson recorded the following year.

From 1920 to 1924 Gershwin wrote the music for the annual revue George White’s Scandals. Subsequent Broadway shows included Lady Be Good!, Oh, Kay! (book by P. G. Wodehouse), Strike Up the Band, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932). His principal collaborator in these was his elder brother, Ira Gershwin (1896-1983). Their extraordinary partnership produced some of the greatest songs in the English language, including “’S Wonderful,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Embraceable You,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,”“They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “A Foggy Day.”

Key Works

George Gershwin, c. 1935

In light of their Broadway success, it was natural that George and Ira would be called to Hollywood to conjure up hit songs for the movie musicals that were fast becoming the Depression era’s number-one escape from reality. They spent the winter of 1930-31 there working on songs for the film Delicious, and in the summer of 1936 they returned under contract to RKO; in the space of a year, they provided numbers for Shall We Dance?, A Damsel in Distress, and The Goldwyn Follies. It would be a tragic year, however. While Gershwin settled easily into the California lifestyle— hobnobbing with the rich and famous, even playing tennis with Arnold Schoenberg (also painting his portrait)—in the winter of 1937 he began to experience symptoms of the brain tumor that would shortly kill him. With the Hollywood craze for psychoanalysis then in its initial full swing, his complaints of dizziness, headaches, despondency, and of the recurrent smell of burning rubber were dismissed as “hysteria brought on by the pressures and artificiality of Hollywood life.” In July, Gershwin abruptly fell into a coma, and, too late, his tumor was diagnosed. A five-hour operation ensued but he died the following morning, Ira at his bedside.

Gershwin’s reputation as a “serious” composer had been secured in 1924 with the creation of Rhapsody in Blue. Drawing on the dynamic language of jazz, the piece communicated an entirely new range of moods and emotions in a classical context. Among the impressed listeners at its premiere was Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony (soon to be amalgamated with the New York Philharmonic). He approached Gershwin with a commission for a full-blown piano concerto, which received its premiere December 3, 1925, at Carnegie Hall, with the composer as soloist. The work—which Gershwin thought of calling New York Concerto before settling on the more conventional-sounding Concerto in F—reflects the same jazzy influences that shaped the Rhapsody; if not as spontaneous or melodically memorable, it is formally more coherent.

George Gershwin in 1937

Gershwin returned to the tuneful manner of Rhapsody in Blue with his next big piece, the exuberant, colorfully rendered tone poem An American in Paris (1928). Brilliantly inventive, An American in Paris ranks second only to the Rhapsody in popularity among Gershwin’s works, and in scope and craftsmanship it can rightly be considered his symphonic masterpiece. Looking for a sequel to Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin fashioned another fantasy for piano and orchestra in 1931, which he premiered in 1932 with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. Glamorously scored and every bit as energetic as its predecessor, the Second Rhapsody might be more widely known today had the composer stuck with either of the titles he originally considered, Manhattan Rhapsody or Rhapsody in Rivets. Gershwin turned to a Latin sound in his next concert work, the Cuban Overture (1932), which makes colorful use of a rhythm section consisting of claves, guiro, maracas, and bongos. Still looking for another piano-and-orchestra hit, Gershwin strutted his stuff one more time with his “I Got Rhythm” Variations (1934), based on the wildly popular song he and Ira had written for Girl Crazy.

In Porgy and Bess (1935), which he called an American folk opera, Gershwin’s two talents as a composer for the musical stage and for the concert hall were united in a work of extraordinary accomplishment, which represented not only something new in American music but a new height in Gershwin’s artistic development. Though the action is discursive as Gershwin originally conceived the piece (he tightened it by making cuts to the score), the music of Porgy and Bess is rich and emotionally compelling. What Gershwin might have done after Porgy and Bess one can only speculate, but it is obvious that a rich vein in American music came into view with this work, only to be lost with Gershwin’s death.

Rhapsody in Blue

The premiere of this piece in 1924 propelled Gershwin into the history books as the man “who first brought jazz into the concert hall”. In many people’s eyes the idea that the “low”, socially disreputable popular music of African-Americans could fuse with Classical music was too shocking to contemplate.
Gershwin advertised the work as “an experiment in modern music”. The combined frisson of being fashionably new and risque drew a glittering audience to the premiere. The work has a sectional form, with a big slow central melody. The obvious jazzy elements in the score have obscured the distinctly Jewish tinge in the melodies, some of which recall synagogue chants.

"An American in Paris"

Gershwin said of this piece “my intention here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere”. An opening section of infectious gaiety leads to a slow reflective blues, showing perhaps an attack of homesickness. But cheerfulness returns, and at the end “the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant”.

Piano Concerto in F major 

Unlike the earlier Rhapsody in Blue, which was scored by an assistant, this concerto was scored by Gershwin himself. In the four years since composing Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin had made a close study of European modernist composers, so it is not surprising that, whereas the earlier rhapsody had relied on simple alternations of soloist and orchestra, the concerto makes use of thematic transformation (the recurrence of a main theme in different guises to lend unity to the piece). The result was the pinnacle of Gershwin’s achievement as a concert composer.

Cuban Overture

Lullaby For Strings

Three Preludes for Piano

Porgy and Bess suite

Given Gershwin’s love of African-American idioms, it is not surprising that his one “serious” music-drama should be on an African-American theme. The piece is criticized today for its cliched, folksy image of Americans, but Gershwin can hardly' be blamed for accepting the mindset of his time. The opera remains a riveting and profoundly moving work.
ACT ONE The action opens in Catfish Row, a poor fishing community. The drunken, brutal Crown kills a man during a craps game, then flees. The drug-dealer Sportin’ Life offers to take Bess, Crown’s woman, to New York with him. Instead Bess goes to stay with the crippled Porgy.

ACT TWO Porgy and Bess sing the love duet “Bess, you is my Woman now,”, then Bess leaves for a picnic on an island. Crown appears at the picnic to reclaim Bess and she stays on the island with him. Two days later she is found, delirious. She wants to stay with Porgy, but is afraid that Crown still has a fatal hold over her. The act ends with a hurricane starting to blow.
ACT THREE Porgy kills Crown, but nobody gives him away. However, he is jailed for a week and, while he is away, Bess is drugged by Sportin’ I ife, who takes her to New York. When Porgy is freed, he vows to find her and prepares to leave on his quest.

The Best of Gershwin

Prelúdios para piano
1. Prelúdio Nº 1
2. Prelúdio Nº 2
3. Prelúdio Nº 3

18 peças para piano
4. The man I love
5. Swanee
6. Nobody but you
7. I´ll build a stairway
8. Do it again
9. Fascinating rhythm
10. Oh, Lady be good
11. Somebody loves me
12. Sweet and low down
13. Clap yo'hands
14. Do do do
15. My one and only
16. 's wonderful
17. Strike up the band
18. Who cares
19. That certain feelin
20. Liza
21. I go rhythm

Da ópera (Porgy and Bess)
22. Abertura
23. It ain't necessarily so

Gershwin's mausoleum in Westchester Hills Cemetery

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