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George Gershwin and “Rhapsody in Blue”

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George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist, whocame from Russian Jewish heritage. His grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. He retired near Saint Petersburg. His teenage son, Moishe Gershowitz, worked as a leather cutter for women’s shoes; Moishe fell in love with Rosa Bruskin, the teenage daughter of a Saint Petersburg furrier. Bruskin moved with her family to New York because of increasing antisemitism in Russia; she Americanized her first name to Rose. Moishe, faced with compulsory military service in Russia, followed Rose as soon as he was able. Upon arrival in New York, Moishe Gershowitz gave his first name as Morris. He settled at first with his mother’s brother in Brooklyn, a tailor named Greenstein, and earned money as a foreman in a women’s shoe workshop. When Morris and Rose married on July 21, 1895, she was 19 and he was 23. Gershowitz changed his family name to Gershvin some time between 1893 and 1898, perhaps at his marriage.

The first child of the family was Ira Gershwin, born with the name Israel, on December 6, 1896. Morris moved his family to Brooklyn. George Gershwin was born there on September 26, 1898; his birth certificate bears the name Jacob Gershwine, which would have been pronounced “Gershvin.”. The boy was named for his late grandfather, the army mechanic. However, he was not called anything but ‘George’. Years later, George changed the spelling of his surname to “Gershwin” after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit. George and Ira lived in many different residences as their father changed dwellings with each new enterprise he became involved with. Mostly, the boys grew up around the Yiddish Theater District. They frequented the local Yiddish theaters, with George running errands for members and appearing onstage as an extra. George ran around with his boyhood friends, roller skating and misbehaving in the streets. He cared nothing for music until the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s violin recital.

The Gerswins 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. Gershwin tried various piano teachers for two years, before being 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 orchestra concerts. At home, following such concerts, young Gershwin would try to play at the piano the music that he had heard. He later studied composition with the classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell. On leaving school at the age of 15, Gershwin found his first job 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 $5. His 1917 novelty rag, “Rialto Ripples”, was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song, “Swanee”, with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer of the day, heard Gershwin perform “Swanee” at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows.

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 the late 1910s, Gershwin met songwriter and music director William Daly. The two collaborated on the Broadway musicals Piccadilly to Broadway (1920) and For Goodness’ Sake (1922), and jointly composed the score for Our Nell (1923). This was the beginning of a long friendship; Daly was a frequent arranger, orchestrator and conductor of Gershwin’s music, and Gershwin periodically turned to him for musical advice.

In the early 1920s, Gershwin frequently worked with the lyricist Buddy DeSylva. Together they created the experimental one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, set in Harlem. It is widely regarded as a forerunner to the groundbreaking Porgy and Bess. In 1924, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a stage musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included such future standards as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!” They followed this with Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face (1927); Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930). Gershwin gave the song, with a modified title, to UCLA to be used as a football fight song, “Strike Up The Band for UCLA.” He and his brother created 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 (for Drama).

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. In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him. She was afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. While there, Gershwin wrote An American in Paris. This work had its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, and 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.

In 1929, Gershwin was contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the movie Delicious. Only two pieces were used in the final film, the five-minute “Dream Sequence” and the six-minute “Manhattan Rhapsody”. Gershwin became infuriated when the rest of the score was rejected by Fox Film Corporation, and it would be seven years before he worked in Hollywood again. Gershwin’s most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin called it a “folk opera”, and it is now widely regarded as one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century. Based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in the fictional all-black neighborhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy and Bess contains some of Gershwin’s most sophisticated music, including a fugue, a passacaglia, the use of atonality, polytonality and polyrhythm, and a tone row. Even the “set numbers” (of which “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are well known examples) are some of the most refined and ingenious of Gershwin’s output. The work was first performed in 1935 but was a box office failure.

After the commercial failure of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin moved to Hollywood, California. He was commissioned by RKO Pictures in 1936 to write the music for the film Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. On February 11, 1937, Gershwin performed his Piano Concerto in F in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of French maestro Pierre Monteux. Gershwin, normally a superb pianist in his own compositions, suffered coordination problems and blackouts during the performance. He was at the time living with his brother Ira and Ira’s wife Lenore in a rented house in Beverly Hills while they worked on other Hollywood film projects. Lenore Gershwin began to be disturbed by George’s mood swings and seeming inability to eat without spilling food at the dinner table. She suspected the onset of mental illness and she insisted he be moved out of their house to lyricist Yip Harburg’s empty quarters nearby where he was placed in the care of his valet, Paul Mueller.

The headaches and olfactory hallucinations continued and on June 23rd, after an incident in which Gershwin tried to push Mueller out of the car in which they were riding, Gershwin was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles for observation. Tests showed no physical cause and he was released on the 26th with a diagnosis of “likely hysteria”. His troubles with coordination and mental acuity worsened, and on the night of July 9, Gershwin collapsed in Harburg’s house where he had been working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies. He was rushed back to Cedars of Lebanon where he fell into a coma. Only at that point did it become obvious to his doctors that he was suffering from a brain tumor. An immediate call was made to pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing in Boston who, retired for several years by then, recommended Dr. Walter Dandy, who was on a boat fishing in Chesapeake Bay with the Governor of Maryland. Dandy was quickly brought to shore by the Coast Guard and sent on to Newark Airport to catch a plane to Los Angeles; however, by that time Gershwin’s condition was judged to be critical and the need for surgery immediate. An attempt by doctors at Cedars to excise the tumor was made in the early hours of the 11th, but it proved unsuccessful, and Gershwin died on the morning of July 11, 1937 at the age of 38.

Gershwin received his sole Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Song at the 1937 Oscars, for “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film Shall We Dance. The nomination was posthumous; Gershwin died two months after the film’s release. Gershwin was influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century. In turn Maurice Ravel was impressed with Gershwin’s abilities. Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin. Aside from the French influence, Gershwin was intrigued by the works of Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg. Russian Joseph Schillinger’s influence as Gershwin’s teacher of composition (1932–1936) was substantial in providing him with a method of composition. Gershwin’s compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Gershwin’s compositions have been adapted for use in many films and for television, and several became jazz standards recorded in many variations. Countless celebrated singers and musicians have covered his songs.

My collection includes the following works by Gershwin:

An American in Paris, tone poem for orchestra (1928).
But Not for Me, from Girl Crazy (1930).
Catfish Row Suite (1936) from Porgy and Bess (1935).
(Piano) Concerto in FM (1925).
Cuban Overture, Rumba for Orchestra (1932).
Embraceable You, from Girl Crazy (1928/1930).
A Foggy Day (in London Town), from Damsel in Distress (1937).
I Got Rhythm Variations (1934).
The Lady Said Yes.
Lullaby for String Orchestra (1919).
Oh Lady Be Good, from Lady Be Good (1924).
Porgy and Bess (1935): Selections, including I Got Plenty of Nuttin’; It Ain’t Necessarily So; Summertime; and A Woman is a Sometime Thing.
Portrait of You.
Promenade, or Walking the Dog (1936).
Rhapsody in Blue (1924).
Second Rhapsody for orchestra with piano (1931).
Someone to Watch Over Me, from Oh! Kay (1926).

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