Tuesday, 7 April 2015

G is for Gershwin

George Gershwin was one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century.  He was born in 1898 in New York to Russian Jewish parents; his father had changed his surname to Gershwin upon his arrival in the United States.  The family changed residences frequently due to the father's jobs, but remained in the Yiddish theatre district.  George became interested in music upon hearing a friend's violin recital, and quickly took up the piano (to the annoyance of his brother Ira).

His first job at age 15 was for a publishing firm in New York's Tin Pan Alley, which led to other opportunities in music publishing and recording.  Within two years he had produced dozens of his own songs, leading up to a meeting with music director William Daly, with whom he collaborated on several Broadway musicals. Then his brother Ira joined him and the two embarked on a long creative stint in musical theatre.

In 1924 Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue.  Soon afterwards he traveled to Paris for further musical study.  The French composer Maurice Ravel commented, "Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?"  This encouragement partly inspired him to write the play An American in Paris, but he soon grew tired of the Parisian musical scene and returned home.

He was contacted by Hollywood in 1929 to produce a film score, which he did, but he was so discouraged upon finding out that only a fraction of his music was used in the final film, he didn't work in Hollywood again for a long time.  Going back to his roots in musical theatre he composed Blue Monday, followed by his most ambitious project to date, Porgy and Bess.  Sadly, its first staging failed due to the Depression.  Gershwin reluctantly headed back to Hollywood where he composed more music for films.

During this time he began to complain of mysterious symptoms that included blinding headaches, visual and olfactory hallucinations, and lack of coordination.  Eventually doctors realized that he had a brain tumour and attempted surgery but it was unsuccessful.  Gershwin died in hospital at the too-young age of 38.

UCLA established The George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award to honor the brothers for their contribution to music.  George Gershwin was posthumously inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

The first Gershwin composition that I became familiar with was Rhapsody in Blue, so here it is.
Rhapsody in Blue, Original Jazz Version

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