Gershwin died this day (July 11) in 1937. In his honor, I’m going to be doing some heavy duty, Gerswhin listening. To start off, here is a playlist from Spotify:
In case the embed code is acting up (which it seems to be), here’s the actual link: Gershwin
George Gerswhin was the son of Jewish immigrants to the US, born in New York in the 1890s. His family name had been changed from Gershowitz to Gershvin sometime after immigrating. Gershwin began piano studies sometime after his parents purchased a piano for lesson for his older brother (and eventual lyricist) Ira. Ira wasn’t interested, but Gershwin took to it early on. However, interestingly, George wasn’t the first in the family to make a living with music; his sister Frances made money as a performer but gave it up in favor of being a housewife.
George got his start in music working in music publishing in Tin Pan Alley. He published his first song at the age of 17, earning him $5. He wrote many songs, including his first national hit, during this period. He also composed numerous piano rolls – music for player pianos – during this time. From there, he moved into writing musicals such as Lady Be Good and Funny Face.
It wasn’t until 1924 that Gershwin composed his first classical piece, Rhapsody in Blue, which ultimately turned out to be one of his biggest hits. After this, he moved to Paris, where he attempted to study with Nadia Boulanger and Maurice revel, who both rejected him as a student, apparently for fear that study with them would spoil his jazz-influenced style. During this period, he also composed An American in Paris, before returning to the US.
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. “From the very beginning, it was considered another American classic by the composer of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ — even if critics couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate it. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical? ‘It crossed the barriers,’ says theater historian Robert Kimball. ‘It wasn’t a musical work per se, and it wasn’t a drama per se — it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category.”