George Gershwin was a prominent member of the group of songwriters and music publishers who revolutionized American popular music during the era of “Tin Pan Alley.” Gershwin was born on the 26th of September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian immigrants Morris and Rose Gershovitz. Morris Gershovitz had changed the family name to “Gersh-vin” after arriving in New York, which George later changed to “Gershwin.” He worked on both classical and popular genres and later shifted to Hollywood, composing for numerous movies.
Geroge was named after his grandfather, who was an army mechanic. The Gershwin family had settled in the Yiddish Theater District. George and his brother Ira were regular at local Yiddish theaters, where George used to occasionally appear as an extra. George first became interested in music after hearing his friend’s violin performance and subsequently started spending more time on Ira’s piano. He received piano lessons under Charles Hambitzer and also learned composition under Joseph Brody, Henry Cowell, and Rubin Goldmark. Hambitzer remained his musical mentor until his demise in 1918, introducing him to European classical traditions and encouraging him to frequent orchestral concerts.
George Gershwin was heavily influenced by various French composers of the early 20th century, especially Maurice Ravel. His orchestrations, especially his symphonic compositions, often bear a resemblance to Ravel’s work. Simultaneously, two piano concertos crafted by Ravel also offer an influence of Gershwin. Geroge had personally asked to study and learn with Ravel.
Gershwin's “Concerto in F” also received criticism for being similar to Claude Debussy’s work. However, such detractions failed to deter him from exploring French music lore. His work in the movie “An American in Paris,” and especially its title truly reflects the path that he had consciously chosen as a music composer. Gershwin was equally intrigued by the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. He even requested Schoenberg to give him composition lessons but was refuted. George was also impressed by the compositions of Alban Berg, who had also given him a score of his famous “Lyric Suite.”
Joseph Moiseyevich Schillinger, a music theorist, and composer, also had a substantial influence on Gershwin's work, especially by teaching him a proper “method of composition.” However, there was some disagreement regarding this impact after the success of Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” which Schillinger claimed to have an influence on. This was later vehemently disproved by Ira Gershwin.
Gershwin started off as a song plugger but soon became involved in the theater. He even moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who refused his offer. He eventually returned to New York City and crafted “Porgy and Bess,” which later became his most successful work, in spite of being initially considered as a commercial failure.
During this time, he had also recorded more than 140 “player piano rolls,” using both his title and pseudonyms. These were the main source of his income, which later enabled him to concentrate on theatre music. In the 1920s, Gershwin had successfully established himself as a pioneer of musical theaters. He rose to fame after crafting 5 scores of “George White’s Scandals,” that too for successive editions. Soo, he started collaborating with Ira, who worked as a lyricist and churned out consecutive shoes like “Strike Up the Band,” “Rosalie,” “Tip-Toes,” “Primrose,” and “Lady, Be Good!”
After the 1930s, Gershwin shifted to Hollywood and went on to compose numerous movie scores. His compositions have been widely adopted in both television and film, while many became jazz standards that were covered and recorded in several variations.
His Best Works
Rhapsody in Blue
In 1924, Gershwin crafted “Rhapsody in Blue” for jazz band and solo piano, combining components of classical music with a pinch of “jazz-influenced” effects. Paul Whiteman had commissioned this piece.
In 1924, Gershwin crafted this popular song in collaboration with his brother Ira, who provided the lyrics. It was first recorded in London on the 19th of April, 1926, with George himself playing the piano.
An American in Paris
In 1928, he created another “jazz-influenced” orchestral piece that evoked the energy and sights of Paris in the 1920s. Gershwin was inspired by his time in the French capitals.
I Got Rhythm
Another famous piece where the lyrics were again crafted by Ira Gershwin. It was first published in 1930 and subsequently went on to become a jazz standard. The chord progression in this piece is popular as “rhythm changes,” which later became the foundation for other popular jazz numbers.
Porgy and Bess
“Porgy and Bess” is an opera crafted by George Gershwin, an American composer. Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward collaborated to craft the lyrics and the libretto, respectively. His score in “Porgy and Bess” utilizes multiple leitmotifs, the majority of which represented individual ‘characters.’ The remaining motifs are used to depict places and objects. The score gradually develops these leitmotifs using sophisticated techniques, most visible in the Arias. There is also a frequent usage of “reprise versions” of the numbers, with “Summertime,” the most popular one, alone offering 4 different versions.
Master of Both Worlds
Gershwin had created his own unique niche with an uncanny ability to manipulate different forms of music, albeit by incorporating his own voice. He took his jazz roots of “Tin Pan Alley,” spliced the tones and rhythms, and introduced them into the mainstream through popular songs of his contemporary era.
George Gershwin passed away in 1937 after suffering from a malignant brain tumor. He departed intestate, while his estate was subsequently passed on to his mother. The estate, to date, continues to earn a significant amount of royalties from the copyrights and licensing on his work. In 2005, George Gershwin was accorded the crown of being the “wealthiest composer” among all composers of all time. In 2007, the Gershwin brothers were duly recognized for their profound musical efforts by the U.S. Library of Congress, who named the award for “Popular Song” after them. This prize is given out annually to a performer or composer as a lifetime achievement award, epitomizing the high standard of excellence associated with George and Ira.
Gershwin’s best compositions ultimately became the most durable ones of his era. His work on classical music elevates his career to a different dimension, something none of his companions at “Tin Pan Alley” could achieve. His music offered a unique rhythmic vitality in combination with blues-tinged lyrics - a result of his admiration for African-American music. His works utilize Ira Gershwin’s sympathetic and trenchant verses to their full potential.
The overall package is unconventional, vigorous, and fresh, carving its own slot in the history of American theater music. Moreover, his exploits in popular music have also created a recognizable American stamp throughout the world. Gershwin believed that music that reflects the beliefs and aspirations of a composer and his time should be considered as true music. He truly became a master of both worlds.