George Gershwin was a 20th century American classical composer, popular songwriter and pianist. His contributions mark the entrance of America into the serious classical music world and were the first to integrate the rhythms and feel of African-American derived blues and jazz into the popular and classical genres. Many of Gershwin's hit melodies are universally familiar. Gershwin wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works - including more than a dozen Broadway shows - in collaboration with his elder bother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. He composed for both Broadway and the classical concert hall, as well as popular songs that brought his work to an even wider audience. His compositions have been used in numerous films and on television. Many have become jazz standards recorded in numerous variations. Countless singers and musicians have interpreted Gershwin songs.
Gravitating (at 12) to the piano intended for his brother Ira, Gershwin quickly absorbed the musical vocabulary, studying with Charles Hambitzer - who acted as Gershwin's mentor until Gershwin was 20. Hambitzer taught Gershwin conventional piano technique, introduced him to the European classical tradition and encouraged him to attend orchestra concerts. The young Gershwin would then attempt to reproduce the music he had heard - playing it at the piano. He later studied with the American classical composer Rubin Goldmark, avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger and the Russian-born composer and theorist Joseph Schillinger.
At 15 he was already a professional pianist, working as a "song plugger" for a Tin Pan Alley music publishing firm, Jerome H. Remick & Co., earning $15 a week. To supplement his income, on Saturdays, he recorded piano rolls under various pseudonyms, at $35 for six rolls. Gershwin scored his first big national hit in 1919 with his song "Swanee" - words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson put it into his already successful show "Sinbad" recording the the song in January 1920. "After that," said Gershwin, "'Swanee' penetrated all four corners of the earth." The song charted in 1920 for 18 weeks, holding the No. 1 position for nine, selling a million sheet music copies and an estimated two million records."Swanee" became the biggest-selling song of Gershwin's career. The money he earned from the song allowed him to concentrate on theatre work and films rather than writing further single pop songs. Arthur Schwartz said: "It's ironic that he never again wrote a number equaling the sales of "Swanee", which for all its infectiousness, doesn't match the individuality and subtlety of his later works."
In 1924 George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a musical comedy "Lady Be Good", which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady be Good". This was followed by "Oh, Kay!" (1926), "Funny Face" (1927), "Strike Up the Band" (1927 and 1930), "Show Girl" (1929), "Girl Crazy" (1930), which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm," and "Of Thee I Sing" (1931) - the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. Gershwin composed his first major classical work, "Rhapsody in Blue", for orchestra and piano in 1924. Traveling to Boston by train, he was inspired by the steely rhythm - immediately envisioning the Rhapsody's themes and construction. He told his first biographer - Isaac Goldberg - in 1931 : "I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness." "Rhapsody's" premiere by Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York - with Gershwin performing the piano solo - was well-received. Gershwin gave much of the credit for the compositions' later (and continued) success to the orchestration by Ferde Grofe. " Rhapsody in Blue" proved to be Gershwin's most popular work. Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period in 1928, applying there to study composition with Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel. Both refused, believing that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Gershwin also sought to study with Igor Stravinsky. When he approached the composer at a party, Stravinsky surprised him with the question : "How much money do you make a year?" Amazed by the figure Gershwin stated, the great master replied : "Perhaps I should study with you, Mr. Gershwin." Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (1925) shows considerable development in his compositional technique: The themes of the three movements--all heavily influenced by jazz--are all linked. Such an integrated approach--while not immediately apparent to the listener--is rooted in the classical tradition. In addition, Gershwin orchestrated the entire work himself, giving the piece an authentic and sonically rich execution. The concerto was very well-received by the public, but reviews were mixed: some could not decide whether it was classical or jazz. Among his contemporaries, Igor Stravinsky thought the work one of genius while Prokofiev disliked it intensely.
The European trip (1928) served as inspiration for "An American in Paris". Gershwin wished to capture not only the spirit of the city, but also the carefree attitudes of his fellow Americans on vacation. To add authentic colour to the work, Gershwin visited Parisian garages and purchased used taxi horns that he incorporated into the score. The work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall in December, 1928 but quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the U. S.
"Cuban Overture" was Gershwin's last attempt at a major serious orchestral success. Upon visiting Havana in 1932 for relaxation, he became very interested in Cuban music - especially the percussion. Gershwin was ahead of his time; the overture premiered a year or two before the popularization of Cuban rhythms by Xavier Cugat. Gershwin's most ambitious composition was "Porgy and Bess" (1935), although it did not find initial success. Gershwin called it a "folk opera," and it is now widely regarded as the most important American opera of the 20th century. Based on the novel "Porgy" by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in the fictional all-black neighborhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. With the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular sounds of the day with a strong influence of African-American music and techniques typical of opera. Even the "set numbers" of "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" are some of the most refined and ingenious of Gershwin's output. "Porgy and Bess" was revived on Broadway in 1942 and 1953, and made into a motion picture in 1959. The work is now considered to be Gershwin's masterpiece. At the height of his career at 38, Gershwin's life ended due to a brain tumor. He seldom made grand statements about his music. Gershwin described himself as a modern romantic, and said that, "True music…must reflect the thought and aspiration of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today."