George Gershwin

New York, 1898 – Hollywood, 1937

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gershwin was not a very studious child, preferring the lanes of Brooklyn to the classroom. He discovered music at the age of 12, when a piano found its way into the family home. He took to it immediately, improvising with such ease that his parents bought lessons for him, which he soon supplemented with theory and harmony classes from a former student of opera composer Mascagni. He quit school at the age of 16, going to work for a music publisher on New York’s famous “Tin Pan Alley.” His job consisted of playing songs on the piano to help sell sheet music. He then went on to work as an accompanist in a Broadway theatre, managing to get a few of his own songs in the shows. He soon wrote his first musical, La La Lucille (1919), and scored his first real success with one of his songs, Swanee (1920), popularized by Al Jolson. Some twenty other musicals followed over the next fifteen years or so—including Lady Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930)—, which included many of his hit songs. He joined forces with his lyricist brother Ira, with the pair going on to write several classics in the Great American Songbook. Seeking to contribute to the development of American music, in 1924, he wrote the Rhapsody in Blue, an attempt to blend jazz and classical music that succeeded in winning over critics and audiences alike. He continued in the same direction, most notably with the Piano Concerto in F (1925) and the orchestral suite An American in Paris (1928). Very much in demand, he spent some time in Europe, where he met with all of the major composers of the day: Prokofiev, Weill, Lehár, Berg, etc. Ravel, whom he admired, refused to give him composition lessons but did provide him with some encouragement. Schoenberg even went on to become his tennis partner. In the early 1930s, he went to try his luck as a composer of film music in Hollywood, all the while dreaming of composing more important works. In 1933, he began to work on an opera project that came to fruition two years later: Porgy and Bess. Premiering on Broadway, the work was first considered to be a musical but went on to find its way onto the world’s major opera stages, becoming the most popular American opera to date. Gershwin died prematurely of a brain tumour in 1937, leaving his brother Ira to oversee his immense body of work, filled with inventive melodic and rhythmic treasures.