George Gershwin; A Rhapsody in Blue (1898-1937)

By Jo Ann Vick

 

George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, was a musical prodigy who transcended the boundaries of classical and popular music. His life was a dynamic journey through the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties, leaving an indelible mark on American music. From the iconic "Rhapsody in Blue" to the timeless opera "Porgy and Bess," Gershwin's genius continues to resonate across genres and generations.

Early Life and Musical Roots

George Gershwin was the second of four children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Morris and Rose Gershowitz. Growing up in a modest household, young George showed an early interest in music. At the age of ten, he began studying piano with Charles Hambitzer, a teacher who recognized and nurtured Gershwin's exceptional talent.

Gershwin's formative years were marked by a unique blend of influences. His exposure to Yiddish theater, the vibrant street life of New York, and the sounds of ragtime and jazz permeated his musical consciousness. This rich cultural tapestry would later find expression in his compositions, creating a distinctively American musical voice.

Tin Pan Alley and Early Success

In his late teens, Gershwin worked in the thriving musical hub of Tin Pan Alley, where he honed his skills as a song plugger and pianist. It wasn't long before his compositions caught the attention of the music publishing industry. In 1919, at the age of 21, Gershwin achieved his first major success with the song "Swanee," performed by Al Jolson. The song became a massive hit and catapulted Gershwin into the limelight.

"Swanee" marked the beginning of Gershwin's prolific career as a songwriter, and he quickly became a sought-after composer for Broadway musicals. His ability to infuse traditional American melodies with a modern, jazzy flair set him apart from his contemporaries.

Jazz Influences and the Birth of Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin's immersion in the vibrant jazz scene of the 1920s profoundly influenced his musical style. The synthesis of classical forms with jazz elements became a hallmark of his work. In 1924, bandleader Paul Whiteman approached Gershwin with a commission to create a jazz-influenced piece for an upcoming concert. This commission would lead to one of Gershwin's most iconic compositions: "Rhapsody in Blue."

"Rhapsody in Blue" premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York City on February 12, 1924, with Paul Whiteman's jazz band and Gershwin himself at the piano. The composition was a groundbreaking fusion of classical and jazz elements, showcasing Gershwin's ability to bridge the gap between highbrow and popular music. The soaring clarinet glissando that opens the piece became instantly recognizable and synonymous with the energy and dynamism of the Jazz Age.

Broadway Success and Collaboration with Ira Gershwin

Gershwin's success on Broadway continued to grow with collaborations with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. The Gershwin Brothers became a formidable duo, producing a string of hit musicals that defined the era. "Lady, Be Good!" (1924), "Oh, Kay!" (1926), and "Funny Face" (1927) showcased their infectious melodies, witty lyrics, and sophisticated yet accessible musical style.

One of their most enduring collaborations was the musical "Girl Crazy" (1930), which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm." The song would go on to become a jazz and pop standard, covered by countless artists over the decades. The Gershwin Brothers' contribution to the American Songbook solidified their place in musical history.

Concerto in F and An American in Paris

Gershwin's venture into classical music continued with the composition of "Concerto in F" for piano and orchestra, which premiered in 1925. This ambitious work demonstrated Gershwin's maturing style and his ability to seamlessly blend classical and jazz idioms. The concerto marked a departure from the brief, catchy tunes of his Broadway days, showcasing Gershwin's capacity for more extended and complex musical forms.

In 1928, Gershwin composed "An American in Paris," a tone poem that vividly captured the spirit of the city. Inspired by Gershwin's experiences in Paris and infused with jazz rhythms, the composition showcased his skill in painting musical portraits. "An American in Paris" premiered at Carnegie Hall and further established Gershwin as a composer capable of bridging the gap between classical and popular music.

Porgy and Bess: Opera as an American Art Form

In the 1930s, Gershwin embarked on an ambitious project that would become his magnum opusó the opera "Porgy and Bess." Collaborating with librettist DuBose Heyward, Gershwin set out to create an American opera that would reflect the African American experience. Premiered in 1935, "Porgy and Bess" was a groundbreaking work, featuring a cast of classically trained African American singers.

The opera, with its memorable arias like "Summertime" and "I Loves You, Porgy," explored themes of love, poverty, and societal challenges. While initially met with mixed reviews, "Porgy and Bess" has since been recognized as a masterful work and an important contribution to the American operatic tradition.

Hollywood and Film Scores

As the 1930s progressed, Gershwin found success in Hollywood, composing scores for films such as "Shall We Dance" (1937) and "A Damsel in Distress" (1937). His foray into film allowed him to experiment with orchestration and adapt his musical style to the demands of the silver screen. Gershwin's contributions to film music further showcased his versatility as a composer.

Personal Life and Legacy

Despite his professional success, Gershwin faced personal challenges. He never married and struggled with health issues, including a brain tumor that would ultimately lead to his untimely death. George Gershwin passed away on July 11, 1937, at the age of 38.

Gershwin's impact on American music is immeasurable. His ability to seamlessly blend classical and popular elements laid the foundation for future generations of composers. His work continues to be celebrated and performed worldwide, with his compositions finding new life in various arrangements and interpretations.

In 1985, the Pulitzer Prize Board posthumously awarded George Gershwin a Special Citation for his lifetime of distinguished contributions to American music. The Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, named in honor of George and Ira Gershwin, stands as a testament to their enduring legacy.

George Gershwin's life was a symphony of innovation, blending classical sophistication with the vivacity of jazz and the pulse of Broadway. His ability to capture the essence of American life and infuse it into his compositions left an indelible mark on the world of music. From the iconic "Rhapsody in Blue" to the groundbreaking opera "Porgy and Bess," Gershwin's genius transcends genres and continues to inspire musicians and audiences alike. As a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of musical expression, George Gershwin remains a timeless figure in the pantheon of American composers, a true rhapsodist whose music echoes through the corridors of musical history.

Jo Ann Vick is a private piano instructor with 20 years of training and performing experience
and has a home based studio in Frisco, Texas. Her mission is to develop in others, a love
for playing the piano. Her website is located at
www.teachmethepiano.com