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Trying to choose a favourite composer above all others is an impossible task. Could it be Grieg for his amazing Piano Concerto? Then there's Beethoven whose musical influence towers over the classical work like a giant colossus. But George Gershwin, the man who preceded Bernstein as the great titan of American music in his day, is widely regarded by many Americans and beyond as their hero. Here's why...
Gershwin has always appealed because he’s a composer who refused to be pigeonholed. From the jazz-tinged Piano Concerto to the show tunes in Lady, Be Good!, Gershwin demonstrated his gift of writing a great tune in any genre.
It’s pointless playing the high culture versus low culture game with Gershwin, asking which works are classical and which are not. The answer? They’re all Gershwin!
After performing a piece by the composer, the violinist Jascha Heifetz commented, “We should be ashamed that we did not appreciate this man more when he was alive”. We couldn’t agree more.
Gershwin was derided by those who demanded serious music and weren’t looking in his direction – but that never deterred him. If anything, it seemed to give him greater energy, as he composed hit after hit.
There’s also an amusing entrepreneurial quality to Gershwin. He was astonishingly rich and while that was, of course, because he wrote great tunes that resonated with the public, it was also down to his understanding of the music business at the time.
By his early twenties, Gershwin had made dozens of piano rolls, both of his own music and that of other composers. They were published under Gershwin’s name – and those of various pseudonyms – and they made the young man a very tidy income.
Then, when the player-piano market crashed as a result of two factors, the Depression and the improved sound quality of a competing source of music reproduction, the phonograph, Gershwin turned his attention to recording his songs in new ways. As a result, he always ensured that the music he loved to write could be immediately appreciated by the very people who earned the composer his fortune.
Gershwin’s financial gains shouldn’t be resented; he was a worker and a winner, someone who proved that realising your dream isn’t the preserve of the privileged.
Born Jacob Gershowitz, his parents were Ukrainian immigrants who, it seemed, didn’t particularly expect him to be a high achiever. They were astonished when George sat down to play on the piano they had bought for his older brother Ira, and George’s success in later life seemed to surprise them as much as it did the musical elite of America.
We love the fact that Gershwin saw no conflict between great art and broad public appeal. He became adept at second-guessing what the establishment would think of his music. Porgy And Bess was a musical that only became truly popular years after it was written, but Gershwin understood the nature of the work well when he prophetically commented, “It is not the few knowing ones whose opinions make any work of art great. It is the judgment of the great mass that finally decides”.
The great mass has, it seems, made its opinion quite clear: Gershwin remains enduringly popular – and not just among Americans.
Above all else, the reason for choosing Gershwin as a Classic FM Hero is that his music is evocative not just of 20th century America but also New York City.
Every time we hear Rhapsody In Blue, it's not difficult to visualise the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Central Park, Lincoln Center, the Broadway theatres and all that beats at that great city's heart.
Put simply, his music takes you straight to the Big Apple and there is no higher praise than that.