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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Fascinating Rhythms (and Notes) of George Gershwin

In this post I want to look at a composer whose life was so completely unique that he stands alone by almost any definition. But with the passing of time this man is now regarded as someone who spoke the language of both popular music and the classical world, and his music crosses barriers like that of few others. His name is George Gershwin.

Gershwin's parents were Russian Jews who had emigrated to the US in the early 1890s, settling in New York. Moshe Gershovitz and Rose Burkin met in New York and married there in July 1895. Moshe changed the family surname to Gershvin (with a v), and their second son, Jacob Gershvin, was born on 26 September 1898.

Mulberry St, Lower Manhattan (1900)

Becoming known as George, rather than Jacob, he changed his surname to Gershwin (with a w) after becoming a professional musician, and the rest of the family did likewise.

There was no piano in the family's apartment until young George was 10, and even then his parents bought it for his older brother, Ira. It soon became evident that George was far more interested in music than Ira, and the younger boy soon started having lessons. His teacher from around 1912, Charles Hambitzer, did much to encourage the boy by taking him to concerts and teaching him works from the standard repertoire.

George dropped out of school in 1914 - when he was 15 - and started working as a song plugger for Jerome H. Remick and Co., a music publishing company in New York's Tin Pan Alley. A song plugger spent his day at a piano playing and singing the firm's songs for performers who might be interested in buying the sheet music and singing the firm's material. For this Gershwin was paid $15 a week.

Gershwin started writing his own songs at this time, and also started to cut piano rolls from 1915. The song thought by many to be his first was When you want 'em, you can't get 'em. This was written in 1916 and you can hear it as it appears in Gershwin's own piano roll. [listen]

George Gershwin

It's often thought that when Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 that this was a departure for him, moving into so-called serious music after nearly a decade as a writer of popular songs, but this isn't true. Even from these earliest days, Gershwin studied harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration and built on the training he'd received from Hambitzer. His first piece in a classical form was the Lullaby for string quartet, composed around 1919 or 1920. [listen]

The public, though, only really knew of Gershwin's work in popular music. From the start he demonstrated himself to be a gifted songwriter, with knack for clever, memorable tunes. But it wasn't only melody which made his songs stand out. His gift for clever turns of harmony and catchy rhythmic ideas made his songs stand out from the crowd as well.

Gershwin left Tin Pan Alley in March 1917 and later that year started working on Broadway shows, initially as a rehearsal pianist. Before long his gifts as a songwriter were becoming noticed. He started getting songs published by the prestigious Harms publishing company (who put him on a retainer of $35 per week) and before the end of 1918, three Broadway shows contained songs by Gershwin. The first show completely made up of Gershwin songs, La La Lucille, opened in May 1919. And he wasn't even 21 yet.

In 1920 Gershwin had his first spectacular hit with his song Swanee being recorded by Al Jolson. In that one year, the song netted Gershwin about $10,000 in royalties. This is Al Jolson's recording of Swanee, made in January 1920. [listen]

Al Jolson on the cover of the sheet music for Swannee

The early 20s saw Gershwin establish himself as a major songwriter for Broadway shows and he also wrote music for shows in London. At the same time, he kept his hand in more formal, classical genres. In 1922 he wrote a one-act opera, Blue Monday, which was intended to open the second act of George White's Scandals for 1922 on Broadway. It was withdrawn after the first performance, though, and was only recorded for the first time in the 1990s. [listen]

Most of the shows for which Gershwin wrote songs, either in whole or in part, were ephemeral, short-lived entertainment and are largely forgotten today. But many of the songs became stand-alone hits and soon entered the realm of "standards". One of Gershwin's London shows was Primrose, written in 1924. Its most popular song is here sung in a 1952 recording by Fred Astaire. The pianist in the band is Oscar Peterson. [listen]

'S Wonderful is one of the many songs which feature words written by George Gershwin's older brother, Ira. The two men became one of the greatest song writing partnerships of all time, with Ira's witty rhymes and clever turns of phrase matched perfectly with George's ability to catch a word on exactly the right chord or rhythm. In the same year, 1924, the brothers produced Lady Be Good! which included another song destined to become a classic. The song, Fascinating Rhythm, is a perfect example of the brothers' ability to match words and music in a way which is irresistible. This recording from 1926, only two years after the show was written, features Fred and Adele Astaire with George Gershwin himself at the piano. [listen]

George (left) and Ira Gershwin

In the same year as Primrose and Lady Be Good! - 1924 - Gershwin produced perhaps his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue. The band leader Paul Whitman presented a concert in New York called "An Experiment in Modern Music". Such a concert title today would probably scare punters away, but in February 1924 the "modern music" referred to was jazz. Jazz itself was only very new in 1924 and Whiteman's aim was to demonstrate that music could cross the boundaries - such as they were perceived - between jazz and classical styles. Whiteman himself had a classical background; he was a violinist and had been a member of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Paul Whiteman (1934). They don't make batons like they used to!

Rhapsody in Blue was written for this concert and its original scoring is for piano and jazz band; the orchestral arrangement was made later. Gershwin wrote the work in three weeks, with the jazz band scoring undertaken by Ferde Grofé. Among those present at the premiere in February 1924 were Sergei Rachmaniniov, Leopold Stokowski and Jascha Heifetz. The audience went wild at the end, making Rhapsody in Blue one of the most popular works of the 20th century from day one. It takes about a quarter of an hour in performance; this is an abridged version recorded by the original performers and released on 78 rpm records. [listen]

By the mid-20s Gershwin was making a great deal of money and was very famous. Rhapsody in Blue alone secured him more than a quarter of a million dollars in performances, royalties and rental fees in its first decade. The work's success led him to consider concert music more seriously, even though he still wrote music for Broadway. He sought out composition teachers to consolidate and develop his skills and in 1925 he produced his next major concert work, the Concerto in F. This was in response to a prestigious commission from the New York Symphony Orchestra and it saw Gershwin produce a major, full-length work in three movements. [listen]

In 1926 Gershwin produced two works which have remained in their respective repertoires ever since. One of his most popular songs, Someone to watch over me, was written for the musical Oh, Kay! and again this is now one of the standards of its time. And again, the matching of Ira Gershwin's lyrics to the rhythmic and harmonic turns of George Gershwin's melody is just perfect. A feature of this song, which we encounter in some of the brothers' best songs, is the use of the title as the last line of the chorus, a simple yet memorable feature which emblazons the song on the memory. Somehow, in this ballad style of song, it makes it even more touching. This 1959 recording features Ella Fitzgerald. [listen]

The other work Gershwin produced in 1926 was premiered only a month after Oh, Kay! The three Preludes for solo piano are wonderful miniatures which, as with all of Gershwin's concert works, blurs the lines between the jazz and classical worlds without doing either a disservice. The slow, languid second prelude is probably the best-known, but the faster movements before and after are gems in their own right. [listen]

In 1928 Gershwin went to Europe for a few months with some of his family. He was welcomed as a major celebrity and heard performances of many of his works. He met major composers such as Prokofiev, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel, Walton and Berg. The famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger refused his application for lessons, fearing that his natural affinity for jazz might be compromised; Ravel is said to have had the same response to Gershwin's request for lessons. The story goes that when Ravel heard how much money Gershwin was making that he replied, "You should give me lessons". (Some version of this story have the comment being made by Stravinsky rather than Ravel, but Stravinsky himself confirmed that he heard the story from Ravel.)

Another famous line, thought by some to be apocryphal, grew out of Gershwin's requests for composition lessons from famous composers. Gershwin asked Arnold Schoenberg for lessons, to which Schoenberg replied, "I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin". This possibly grew into the legend of Ravel making a similar comment: "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you're a first-rate Gershwin?" As is often the case, the true origins of some of these quotes may never be known.

The trip to Europe led to Gershwin's next major concert work, the tone poem An American in Paris. It too became instantly popular and has been so ever since. [listen]

And of course Gershwin kept writing Broadway shows. In 1930 he produced two: the second version of Strike Up the Band, and Girl Crazy. The latter contained two songs which became major hits: Embraceable You, and another song which, like Fascinating Rhythm six years earlier, played with rhythm. It was sung in the show in 1930 by an unknown artist called Ethel Zimmerman, but by the time she recorded I got rhythm in 1947, Ethel Merman was a major star. [listen]

When Girl Crazy opened in October 1930, Gershwin was 32. The year before he had made his debut as a conductor and he had accepted a commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write a theatre work called The Dybbuk, which sadly he never realised. He was still writing shows, still seeking to expand his concert work, and showed promise for what seemed to be a long and illustrious life.

George Gershwin (c. 1935)

The sad fact of the matter was that he had less than seven years to live. Those seven years, though, saw him produce some marvellous things. Little-played today, the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra was written in 1931. It grew out of music written in the same year for the film Delicious, but the final concert work really deserves to be better-known. [listen]

From 1932 to 1936 Gershwin was taking composition lessons with Joseph Shillinger; he never seemed satisfied with his skills and was always seeking to develop further. The start of this period saw the creation of another fine concert work, the Cuban Overture. For all its "popular" elements, there is much that is modern in the classical sense in this piece, including passages of polytonality. [listen]

In 1934 and 1935 Gershwin wrote two works which perhaps best of all inhabit both the popular and classical worlds. One is not well-known, the "I got rhythm" Variations for Piano and Orchestra [listen]. The other is regarded as his magnum opus, the folk opera Porgy and Bess.

Porgy and Bess in many ways stands alone in the realm of music theatre. There are many works which aim to blend different musical worlds but perhaps none does it as well as this one. Any performance of the work is a major event and it requires singers of the first rank to bring it off. This is no toe-tapping sequence of light tunes which can be sung by untrained voices; Porgy and Bess is an opera in every sense of the word. This is a video of the complete work, in the Glyndebourne production. [listen]

Porgy and Bess opened in October 1935 and ran for 124 performances in its initial run. Gershwin, to quote the Grove article which was the primary source for this article, seemed "on the threshold of new musical achievements". But in early 1937 he started to suffer from dizziness and emotional instability. On 9 July he suddenly fell into a coma. A brain tumour was diagnosed and surgery attempted, but two days later, on 11 July 1937, George Gershwin died. He was 38.

It doesn't help to ask - as we do in the case of people like Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and so many others - what Gershwin might have achieved with another 20, 30 or 40 years of life, but we can't help wondering. Still, what George Gershwin did achieve was simply remarkable, and he deserves to be regarded as truly one of the "greats". We can't take that away from him, and we'll end with a song of Gershwin's along those lines, written in the year of his death, sung by Fred Astaire. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2011.

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