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George Gershwin

A short biography on George Gershwin, composer and pianist, known well for his opera, Porgy and Bess.

It was in Las Vegas in the great amphitheater inside Luxor where I first listened to one of George Gershwin's most famous works. By watching Disney's Fantasia 2000, I was able to experience the wonder of “Rhapsody in Blue” which convincingly fused the most driving elements of classical music along with the sensational beat of jazz into one piece that was constantly entertaining and branded the name Gershwin into my head. It left such a lasting impression that I purchased nearly all his music and sought sheet music for his piano pieces so I could learn to play them. For more than half of my life, George Gershwin has been one of my favorite composers and for that same time period, I knew nothing about him until now. After much research and reading, I discovered the huge cultural impact Gershwin had on his era and even later on as he made notable contributions to the many different genres of music while at the same time providing flavorful tunes for the media that would become memorable in many films and television shows. Even more prominently, George was one of the first pioneers in music that allowed for the fusion of genres such as classical and jazz to become a popular form of music.

On September 26 in the year 1898, George Gershwin was born in the city of Brooklyn as Jacob Gershowitz son to immigrants from the textile industries of Russia. George was part of the first generation that could call themselves the children of the European immigration which became the foundation for the surging growth for the city of New York over many decades (Hyland 17). Living in a lower-class and hard working family, George was provided with ample opportunity to explore a career in his music. At a young age, George surprisingly did not have an interest in music and thought it to be an element of culture geared more for women, yet he was inevitably drawn towards it. When Max Rosen, a fellow classmate, performed at George's school PS 25 for the class, he unwittingly released the George Gershwin that would gain worldly renown for decades to come. After listening to Max's performance through a glass window (because he did not even care to attend) George was in a state of shock and awe later writing “It was to me, a flashing revelation of beauty” as his eyes were opened to the wonder that is music (JAHF). This event was the original musical landmark in George's life as he suddenly had a profound interest in music as noted by his talent with the family piano that his mother Rose had originally bought for the slightly disinterested, older brother Ira Gershwin. His parents found great pleasure in his musical ability and made sure to nurture their son's newfound talent. To do this, his parents sent him to the neighborhood piano teacher Miss Green where he quickly exhausted everything she had to offer eventually moving on to a man named Goldfarb and ultimately to the well-trained Charles Hambitzer who George himself stated had a significant impact on his life as composer and musician. Hambitzer was George's most significant mentor because aside from standard piano technique, he introduced George to the music of classical European tradition presenting him with orchestral music encouraging him to attend concerts and even telling him to try and reproduce the sounds heard in the concert halls on the piano (Carnovale 5-7).

George had important teachers that were large influences on his musical career, but he also found influence in musicians and composers that were famous during his youth such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and the pianist Lucky Roberts. Just as composers of the past took inspiration from their contemporaries, such as the effect Mozart and Haydn had on each other, George naturally took bits and pieces from the colorful world of music around him. The extent of other artist's influence on his life was noted in his personal statements on his musical colleagues. While on a radio broadcast, George stated this of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, “Incidentally, I believe Kern's Show Boat score to be the finest light opera achievement in the history of American music” and on a separate occasion said Kern was “the first composer who made me conscious that most popular music was of inferior quality, and that musical comedy was made of better material” (Carnovale 3-4). He also referred to Irving Berlin as America's “Franz Schubert reflecting upon just a sample of George's awe of the musical spectrum surrounding him. Just as he had found spark from Max Rosen at the age of ten, he continued to stumble upon musical influences drawing from these contemporaries to fashion his own style. His first truly famous work was the piece “Rialto Ripples” which was a combination of the traditional ragtime along with the elements of a novelty piano work (Carnovale 6). Taking stimulus from the popular ragtime genre of the time period along with the conventional teachings from his musical tutors, Gershwin composed a piece that had its unique form of piano playing in tandem with a minute orchestral accompaniment. This was his first song to experience commercial success and was also the first song to indicate George's push towards a new style of popular music that began to combine different musical genres.

Next on his list of notable works was the song “Swanee”, which has become almost immortalized because of its use in popular theater adopted by the famous singer Al Jolson and later appeared in the 1954 film A Star Is Born sung by the world renown (and still popular today) Judy Garland. “Swanee” was responsible for completely jumpstarting Gershwin's career in composing as it was made into a hit by Al Jolson who used it into his own touring show Sinbad where it became a hit garnering ten thousand dollars worth of royalties for Gershwin in just the first year along with the exposure required to establish himself as a reliable composer (Carnovale 4). In addition to giving him national fame, “Swanee” announced his foray into a different side of musical culture. It was Gershwin's first song originally intended as a large production number to be performed on stage with a dancing complement showing his ability to create music for the theatrical stage in addition to the concert hall. With the creation of “Swanee”, Gershwin found himself working on the Broadway stage where he found much work, but not nearly as much recognition until the coming of George's White Scandals (Carnovale 5). This series of Broadway revues firmly cemented his abilities as a Broadway composer and laid down the path for him to become an even greater composer.

The international fame he gained as a Broadway composer gave Gershwin opportunities to experiment slightly with his composition style. A few years after the start of his Broadway fame he was convinced and commissioned to write a jazz concerto for a concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music” featuring the Paul Whiteman Palais Royale Jazz Band and Zez Confrey, both prominent celebrities in the music world (Carnovale 6). It was for this concert that George Gershwin composed, in merely five weeks, his first classical and highly jazz-influenced work Rhapsody in Blue which not only won him international acclaim during the early-mid 1900s, but later on and even to this day. This work was the pinnacle of George Gershwin's fusion of genre using the orchestra to its fullest with a strong piano forming two distinguishing sounds. By merging the classical genre outstandingly in the form of the orchestra and giving it an even more noticeable jazzy undertone with the piano and other melodies, Gershwin proved himself to be more than just a Broadway composer. Regardless of whether critics regarded it as true jazz, the general audience believed themselves to be aural witnesses to the meeting point of classical and jazz genres. Gaining more confidence as a composer, he went on to compose An American in Paris which was more of an iconic orchestral and classical work of Gershwin's where he attempted to define the idea of imagery with music describing his work as a “impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere” (Freed). Even in this work he was able to fuse different genres by tagging the Parisian themes to the Classical genres as the visitor is exploring Paris and then moving on to the American Blues later in the piece as the visitor becomes homesick. Gershwin continued to pursue his blending style with the opera Porgy and Bess, with his music being described as ”…bringing to the play dramatic power, humor, tragedy, rich atmospheric colors and finely drawn characterizations. Incorporating a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera…“ (“Story of Porgy and Bess”). This opera arguably became one of the most important of the century and caps off Gershwin's contribution to musical world.

Living a life span that did not even span four decades, George Gershwin made enormous contributions to the world of music as a pioneer for the mixture of musical genres. His style of blending is seen even today all over the world, some artists even sampling his works in their own compositions. Just one example is the band Sublime and their use of the main motif in Rhapsody in Blue and elements of “Tequila” by The Champs bringing together two already contrasting pieces of music together in their mix of reggae and ska. By being at the turn of the century where the classical genre began to meet the emerging new styles of music such as jazz and the blues in America , George Gershwin was able to take advantage of this amazing opportunity; taking influence deeply in the best of both worlds he made a name for himself and started a legacy that has continued on to this day and will persist for as long as people know music.

Works Cited

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