George Gershwin (1898-1937) was an American composer and pianist. Among his best known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, as well as the opera, Porgy and Bess.
Life and Music
Born Jacob Gershvin on 26 September 1898 to poor Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He frequently skipped school and felt inadequate beside his smarter, better-behaved older brother Ira – except when it came to girls.
There was no music in Gershwin’s family, but when he was 12, they bought a piano and immediately it was clear that he had a remarkable natural talent.
In 1914, Gershwin got a job as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley. With no radios or gramophones, sheet music publishers pushed their popular songs by having someone play them in shops, over and over again.
By his early 20s, Gershwin was much in demand. Having formed a permanent song-writing team with his lyricist brother Ira, he was writing two shows a year for Broadway, and his fame spread to London.
By the early 1930s, Gershwin could do no wrong. He was established as a popular composer, and as a conductor and performer of his works to packed houses. He mixed with composers including Prokofiev, Poulenc and Ravel. Arnold Schoenberg became a close friend and hailed Gershwin’s distinctive melodic and harmonic idiom as ‘something entirely new’.
In his mid-30s, Gershwin was plagued by headaches, and puzzled by the smell of burning rubbish that only he seemed to notice. His problem, dismissed as ‘hysteria’ by family and colleagues, who sent him to the psychiatrist rather than the doctor, proved more physical: a brain tumour. He died aged 38.
Did you know?
It seems to be an almost legal requirement for TV and movie producers to use Rhapsody in Blue over all and any footage of New York. Gershwin’s songs have been used in countless films, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Summertime, probably one of the most recorded songs of all time, has appeared in TV ads for Pimms and Galaxy chocolate.