George Gershwin

Selection from "Rhapsody in Blue"

George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershwin on Sept. 26, 1898 in what is now Brooklyn, New York. He died in Hollywood, California on July 11, 1937. He parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who had come to this country in search of a better life. The family name had been Gershovitz in Russia, but George anglicized it when he began school. He heard jazz first when he was six, and he was exposed to other forms of music as much as possible. When he was 12, George began to study piano.

Gershwin had a significant impact on American music. He wrote the scores for several Broadway musicals, but he was also able to blend different styles of music into something that became totally new. Even after he was a successful composer, George continued to study with people who had a different focus on composition.

In 1918, George began his professional career as a pianist/vocalist for the Jerome Remick music publishing company.

In 1916, he published his first song, When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em.

Sigmund Romberg, who was famous for his many operattas, included one of Gershwin's songs in The Passing Show of 1916. At this same time, Gershwin was employed as a rehearsal pianist while also continuing his studies of piano, harmony, and orchestration.

Several of Gershwin's songs were performed by the singer Al Jolson in 1918-1919, and from 1920 to 1924, he wrote many of the songs in the productions of George White's Scandals. In 1920, La La Lucille had only Gershwin's songs, and the music for the 1920 Scandals was written entirely by Gershwin. Paul Whiteman, a famous band leader, was so impressed with Gershwin's work that he commissioned a symphonic opus for the Whiteman orchestra. Rhapsody in Blue, one of Gershwin's most famous works, was written in 1924. It was originally scored for two pianos, but the composer Ferde Grofe, who was Whiteman's arranger, scored it for piano and orchestra, which is the way it is most often heard.

Gershwin wrote many songs that are still heard and enjoyed today. Some of them are Lady Be Good! (1924), Strike Up the Band (1927), Funny Face (1927), and Shall We Dance (1937). Gershwin also wrote instrumental music, including Lullaby for string quartet (1920), Piano Concerto in F (1925). the tone poem An American in Paris (1928), and the Cuban Overture (1932). His folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is still in the repertoire of many opera companies. This music contains classical styling, dramatic orchestration, jazz rhythms, and some popular song singing style.

Although George Gershwin was a friend of Arnold Schoenberg, he was not influenced by his style of composition. Gershwin's music was considered melodic and moving. He used a symphony orchestra to play jazz. This was the forerunner of the "Big Band" sound of groups like Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller and came to be known as "swing."

Want to learn more?