Childhood & Family (1898-1916)
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. The son of immigrant parents, George became one of America's first premier composers and his compositions are still used today as tool of teachers everywhere as examples of the American entrance to the musical world of Stravinsky, Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart.
George had two brothers, Arthur and Ira, and one sister, Francis (Frankie). Although George is the most well known of the family, his brother Ira was also a succesful lyricist. In fact, if it weren't for Ira's interest in music, George's parents would not have purchased the family's first piano. Ira was going to study the piano when the instrument was brought into the family home, but it was George who took the immediate interest in it and immediately began to successfully play by ear. His parents invested some piano lessons in him and George began to study seriously at the young age of 12 years.
Early Professional Career (1916-1924)
George began his professional career in "Tin Pan Alley," a location in New York City where aspiring composers and song writers would bring their scores to a publisher in hopes of selling the tunes for a modest amount of cash. As a "song plugger" for the Jerome Remick Company, George was exposed to thousands of songs, which gave him a better idea for what songs had a successful quality.
Two years after he started work for Jerome Remick, George had his first song published. "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em" was not an instant hit for George, but it did begin to attract the attention of some of the Broadway composers of the day. During this time of professional growth, George kept his job as a rehearsal pianist and studied piano, theory and orchestration with masters.
George's first big hit was a song delivered by Al Jolson in the Broadway musical Sinbad. "Swanee" became an instant hit and propelled George's music before the Broadway audience regularly. In 1919, George composed the music for La, La Lucille, his first full musical score. From 1920 to 1924 he supplied producer George White with several songs for use in the emensely popular George White Scandals series.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
As a part of one of the Scandals
, George composed a brief operetta, entitled Blue Monday
. The music caught the ear of Paul Whiteman, one of the premier bandleaders of the early 1920's. Whiteman commissioned from his a symphonic jazz piece to be played at Aeolian Hall along with other premier works of the day under Whiteman's direction.
George completely forgot about writing the piece. Roughly three weeks before the composition was to premier, George noticed an advertisement which announced the premier of an exciting new composition by George Gershwin. In less than three weeks, George would compose the work which defined his career and elevated him to a level of greatness.
Rhapsody in Blue was the piece George composed. Although the orchestrations have been attributed to Paul Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofe, there is no dispute that George composed the original piece, which was originally scored for piano and jazz band. The opening of the composition features a clarinet solo, which trills at the beginning and scales up into a sliding reach through the atmosphere. Clearly a piece which should be played with emotion, indicative of the blues feel, Rhapsody is still one of the favorite pieces played in the United States and worldwide by orchestras and ensembles.
The Broadway Years (1924-1929)
Behind Rhapsody in Blue, George is mainly known for numerous songs which have become a part of the American songbook. Most of these were products of Gershwin's Broadway years. The full scale collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin as composer/lyricist began in 1924 with the musical Lady Be Good!. The musical featured songs such as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady, be Good" among others. One song, which was not included in the original production of Lady Be Good was the very popular ballad "The Man I Love."
After Lady Be Good, George teamed with Ira to create several musicals, including Tip-Toes, Oh Kay!, Strike Up the Band, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, & Of Thee I Sing. Songs featured from these musicals include "Clap Yo' Hands," "Strike Up the Band" and one which has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity, "Someone to Watch Over Me."
Despite his success on Broadway, George decided to follow his success of Rhapsody in Blue with a few more pieces for piano and orchestra as well as piano solo, including Concerto in F (1925), Preludes for Piano (1926), and An American in Paris (1928). An American in Paris, which was written after George took a trip to the French city, is a tone poem which transports the listener to the streets of Paris during the 1920's. In efforts to paint a realistic portrait of the "City of Lights," Gershwin's score calls for four car horns to reflect the noisy traffic of French capital. An American in Paris represents the second most popular work for orchestra written by George.
The Hollywood Years (1930-1937)
When George and Ira packed their backs for Hollywood, leaving Broadway behind them, their music did not diminish. George and Ira composed numerous scores and songs for the Silver Screen, including short pieces for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. George's first work for film was for the motion picture "The King of Jazz," featuring music selected by George's old friend, Paul Whiteman. The film, which starred Bing Crosby, included Rhapsody in Blue
as one of its featured songs.
After "The King of Jazz" opened, George found himself preparing for another film, this one entitled "Delicious." "Delicious" featured one song whose title proved Gershwin's success wasn't to fancy lyric titles. "Blah-Blah-Blah" is a charming love song between two characters, portrayed by El Brendel and Manya Roberti. Subsequent motion pictures proved to be more successful for the Gershwin brothers. Harking back to their Broadway days, "Girl Crazy" was made into a motion picture and resurrected the popularity of songs such as "Bidin' My Time" and "But Not For Me."
In "Shall We Dance," Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers set George's music to beautiful foot work an enticed audiences for more of the same. In a change from the standard tap shoes, the duo dawned roller skates to perform the popular "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Astaire set the standard for vocalists to follow with his rendition of "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Perhaps one of the best dance features was set to a short piece entitled "Walking the Dog," which features a clarinet solo over a small orchestral setting.
During his time in Hollywood, George did return to the traditional music setting for a few pieces which received little acclaim at the time they premiered. The Second Rhapsody, which premiered in 1931 and the Cuban Overture, which premiered the subsequent season, neither enjoyed much of the public's fancy. In perhaps the greatest disappointment of George's career, his "American Opera" would close to dismal audiences.
The "American Opera," as George referred to it, was Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess dealt with the poverty of the ghettos and their daily lives and loves. Since the poor showing at the box offices couldn't take care of the show's cost, it was closed shortly after opening. Unfortunately, Porgy, which opened in 1935, became popular only after George's death in 1937. Today, Porgy and Bess represents one of the first efforts to reflect a minority culture in American life and also is the most successful opera ever written by an American composer. Porgy enjoys a great success today and has been made into motion pictures and television productions. Some of the songs from Porgy include "Bess You Is My Woman Now," "Summertime" and "I Got Plenty of Nuttin"
Influences on Today's Music (1937 - present)
George's life met a short and tragic end. What started as simple headaches became more serious and chronic. When George started to forget portions of his compositions while performing them, his friends and family encouraged him to see a physician. Doctors informed him that he had a brain tumor and suggested emergency surgery. Doctors who specialized in this form of cancer surgery were to be flown in to California to perform the potentially life saving operation. Unfortunately, George did not survive the surgery and died on July 11, 1937 in Hollywood.
Ira salvaged a great deal of George's work and shared it with younger people, including Michael Feinstein, whose recordings include a great deal of Gershwin pieces. The resurgence of interest in music from the Gershwin era has found George's music being played in mainstream media on a regular basis. Commercials feature George's music regularly. United Airlines used Rhapsody in Blue for years as its theme. H&R Block recently encouraged their clients to think of their services as "Someone to Watch Over Me." Visa got into the latest fray by using "I Got Rhythm" to inform the public that the Tony awards don't take another credit card.
But commercials aren't the only place to hear George's music. Motion pictures still use George's music as staples to their themes and plots. In Mr. Holland's Opus, a young student sings the love ballad "Someone to Watch Over Me" while her mentor, whose efforts to guide the beautiful girl border into feelings of love and compassion, conducts her performance. When Harry Met Sally featured numerous Gershwin songs, including "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off". The use of the song furthered the plot by exposing the differences between the two lead characters and why they should not become a couple. "But Not For Me" showed the pain that accompanys rejection my a mate and the depression which often follows. "Our Love Is Here to Stay" shows the power that love can have on two people.
George's music is studied today by students in grade school and graduate students learning orchestral arranging. His talents are still gracing the world and his memory lives on through his fans and admirers world wide.- by J. Clark Jolley
Look at http://www.soundfountain.com/gershwin/porgybess.html
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