Overview

George Gershwin

(1898—1937) American composer and pianist


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1898–1937)

US composer and pianist, known for his popular songs, musicals, and his folk opera Porgy and Bess.

Born in Brooklyn of impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, he grew up on the tough East Side of New York City. By the age of ten he had managed to arrange for piano lessons and at sixteen began his professional career as a song plugger for a music publisher. In 1916 his first song was published and in 1919 he made his name with ‘Swanee’, the song popularized by Al Jolson. In the same year his first musical, La, La Lucille, appeared. In 1924 Gershwin had his first really successful musical Lady Be Good (including ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’, and ‘The Man I Love’), which was also the first show written in collaboration with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin (1896–1983). This partnership continued until George's death and included such shows as Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931).

In the 1920s, as well as keeping up a flow of songs and shows, Gershwin spent a considerable amount of time studying composition with avant-garde composers, such as Henry Cowell (1897–1965). In 1924 he expanded into the world of orchestral music with Rhapsody in Blue (1924), a blend of jazz and Lisztian romantic pianism. This work was introduced to the public with fantastic success by Paul Whiteman at a Town Hall concert with the composer at the piano. A subsequent piano concerto (1925) was not so well received and the orchestral An American in Paris (1931), although popular, shows the limitations of Gershwin's symphonic technique. The negro folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), with Ira Gershwin as librettist, has had more success posthumously than in the composer's lifetime. At the peak of his career a brain tumour was discovered and Gershwin did not survive the operation.