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Happy Birthday George Gershwin

On this day in history, September 26th, 1898, George Gershwin was born.  We turned to Oxford Music Online to learn a little more about Gershwin.  The excerpt below is part of Gershwin’s entry in Grove Music Online by Richard Crawford.

Gershwin, George [Gershvin, Jacob]

(b Brooklyn, NY, 26 Sept 1898; d Hollywood, CA, 11 July 1937). American composer, pianist, and conductor. He began his career as a song plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley; by the time he was 20 he had established himself as a composer of Broadway shows, and by the age of 30 he was America’s most famous and widely accepted composer of concert music.

1. Boyhood.

Gershwin’s parents, Moshe Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, emigrated from Russia to the USA in the 1890s and settled in New York, where they met and married in 1895. The family lived under one roof until long after the four children were grown. George found an artistic collaborator in the person of his older brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics for most of his songs.

Gershwin’s boyhood was marked by an interest in athletics and an indifference to school. Music was seldom heard at home until 1910, when the Gershwins bought their first piano. Though it had been intended for Ira, George quickly took it over; he progressed rapidly in lessons with neighbourhood teachers and about 1912 was accepted as a pupil of Charles Hambitzer. Recognizing ‘genius’ in Gershwin, Hambitzer took him to concerts and assigned him pieces by composers such as Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. In 1914, however, Gershwin turned to a musical world closer to home when he dropped out of high school and went to work for Jerome H. Remick & Co., a music publishing firm on Tin Pan Alley, for $15 per week.

Remick hired the 15-year-old Gershwin as a song plugger – a salesman who promoted the firm’s songs by playing and singing them for performers. Endless hours at the keyboard improved his playing: he cut his first piano rolls in 1915 (by 1926 he had made more than 100), and he became a skilled vocal accompanist. He also began to compose songs and piano pieces of his own, though with no encouragement from his employers. Finally, he aspired to move from Tin Pan Alley, with its emphasis on songs written to commercial formulas, to the Broadway musical stage, where men like Jerome Kern were applying a more highly developed musical artistry to writing scores for entire shows.

2. From Broadway to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.

Gershwin left Remick & Co. in March 1917 and by July was working as the rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917, a show by Kern and Victor Herbert. After the show opened in November at the Century Theater, he stayed on as the organizer of and accompanist for popular concerts held there on Sunday evenings. His talent as a composer was also noticed. Although he had previously published little, in early 1918 Max Dreyfus, the head of Harms publishing company, offered him $35 per week for the rights to any songs he might compose in the future. Before the year was out, three Broadway shows carried songs by Gershwin. Soon thereafter he composed his first full Broadway score, for La La Lucille which opened on 26 May 1919. Well before his 21st birthday, Gershwin, known as an outstanding pianist, could also claim a Broadway show on the boards, several songs in print, and a prestigious publisher awaiting more.

The 1920s saw Gershwin realize his early promise. Swanee, recorded in 1920 by the popular singer Al Jolson, was his first hit song, yielding some $10,000 in composer’s royalties in that year alone. Under contract to the producer George White, he composed the music for five annual Broadway reviews (1920–24). For other producers he wrote scores for three Broadway shows and two London ones. Primrose (1924), his second London show, was a success, followed in the same year by Lady be Good!, starring Fred and Adele Astaire and the first of his shows for which Ira wrote all the lyrics. The latter included the songs Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, lady, be good!, both of which became standards of the American song repertory.

In 1924 Gershwin became famous for composing and then performing, in a well publicized concert organized by the dance band leader Paul Whiteman, the Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra. The work was first performed in New York’s Aeolian Hall on 12 February in a concert billed as ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’. It purported to demonstrate that the new, rhythmically vivacious dance music called jazz, which most concert musicians and critics considered beneath them, was elevated by the ‘symphonic’ arrangements in which Whiteman’s band specialized. Gershwin’s Rhapsody won both the audience’s approval and the critics’ attention. Performed repeatedly, and also recorded, the work also won renown for its composer, as a historical figure – the man who had brought ‘jazz’ into the concert hall.

Although most observers saw Rhapsody in Blue as a new departure for the young songwriter, in fact it reaffirmed Gershwin’s continuing involvement with classical music. In 1915 he had begun to study harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and musical form with Kilenyi, continuing at least to 1921. His first classical piece, the Lullaby for string quartet (c1919), was apparently composed as a harmony exercise for Kilenyi. His second, a brief opera called Blue Monday, opened the second act of George White’s Scandals for 1922 but was withdrawn after its first performance. On 1 November 1923 Gershwin performed in an Aeolian Hall recital by the Canadian mezzo soprano Eva Gauthier that helped to set the stage for Whiteman’s concert less than three months later. In a programme that ranged from songs by Purcell and Bellini to works by Schoenberg, Hindemith and Bartók, Gauthier included compositions by Gershwin, Kern, Irving Berlin and Walter Donaldson, the latter group accompanied by Gershwin. The musical juxtapositions of Rhapsody in Blue had roots in a sensibility that never fully accepted a separation between popular and classical genres.

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