George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist. He wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works in collaboration with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. George Gershwin composed songs for both Broadway and the classical concert hall. He also wrote popular songs with success.
Many of his compositions have been used in numerous films and on television, and many became jazz standards recorded in numerous variations. The jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded many of the Gershwins' songs on her 1959 Gershwin Songbook (arranged by Nelson Riddle). Countless singers and musicians have recorded Gershwin songs, including Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Art Tatum, Bing Crosby, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Hiromi Uehara, Madonna, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin, Nina Simone, Maureen McGovern, John Fahey, The Residents, Kate Bush, Sublime, and Sting.
Gershwin was named Jacob Gershowitz at birth in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898. His parents were Russian Jews: his father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed his family name to 'Gershvin' sometime after immigrating to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1890s. Gershwin's mother Rosa Bruskin had already immigrated from Russia. She met Gershowitz in New York and they married on July 21, 1895. (George changed the spelling of the family name to 'Gershwin' after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit.)
George Gershwin was the second of four children. He first displayed interest in music at the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig's violin recital. The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents had bought a piano for lessons for his older brother Ira, but to his parents' surprise and Ira's relief, it was George who played it. Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make money from her musical talents, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and housewife. She gave up her performing career, but settled into painting for another creative outlet— painting was also a hobby of George Gershwin.
Gershwin tried various piano teachers for two years, and then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer by Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Until Hambitzer's death in 1918, he acted as Gershwin's mentor. Hambitzer taught Gershwin conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. (At home following such concerts, young Gershwin would attempt to reproduce at the piano the music which he had heard.) Gershwin later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell.
At the age of fifteen, George quit school and found his first job as a performer as a "song plugger" for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a publishing firm on New York City's Tin Pan Alley, where he earned $15 a week. His first published song was "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em." It was published in 1916 when Gershwin was only 17 years old and earned him a sum total of $5, although he was promised much more.
His 1917 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee." In 1916, Gershwin started working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, recording and arranging. He produced dozens, if not hundreds, of rolls under his own and assumed names. (Pseudonyms attributed to Gershwin include Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn.) He also recorded rolls of his own compositions for the Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos. As well as recording piano rolls, Gershwin made a brief foray into vaudeville, accompanying both Nora Bayes and Louise Dresser on the piano.
In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "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.
In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra and piano. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premiered by Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.
Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period, where he applied to study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him, however, afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. While there, Gershwin wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States. Growing tired of the Parisian musical scene, Gershwin returned to the United States.
His most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin called it a "folk opera," the piece premiered in a Broadway theater. It is now widely regarded as the most important American opera of the twentieth century. Based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina. With the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, which was strongly influenced by black music, with techniques found in opera, such as recitative and leitmotifs. It also includes a fugue and "advanced" techniques such as polytonality and a tone row. For the performances, Gershwin collaborated with Eva Jessye, whom he picked as the musical director. One of the outstanding musical alumnae of Western University in Kansas, she had created her own choir in New York and performed widely with them.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. Doctors discovered he had developed a type of cystic malignant brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme. Although some tried to trace his disease to a blow on the head from a golf-ball, the cause of this type of cancer is still unknown. This type of cancer occurs most often in males, accounts for 52% of all brain cancers, and is always fatal. Scientists have recently discovered viral connections to this type of tumor.
In January 1937, Gershwin performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed. He died on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following surgery for the tumor.