The Gershwins

In the 38 short years of his life, George Gershwin did more than any other composer to make American music felt throughout the world. From the music hall to the concert hall, his compositions, stamped with the authentic hallmark of creative genius, have assured George Gershwin a place among the musical immortals of the world.

Born in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898, George Gershwin was the second of four children - almost two years younger than his brother, and later his collaborator, Ira. When he was about 12, his parents bought a piano for Ira’s lessons, but it was George who monopolized it.

A few years later, the composer and pianist, Charles Hambitzer, who became his teacher and according to Gershwin, “the first great musical influence in my life”, wrote of him, “The boy is a genius, without a doubt.”

But genius must eat - and genius was most anxious, again in Hambitzer’s words “to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and what not”. So, while still 15, George left high school to become the youngest piano pounder in New York’s famed Tin Pan Alley - plugging other writers’ songs, he composed his own in his mind, making player piano rolls for less than $5 a piece, pushing himself irresistibly to fulfill his destiny.

His first published song, in 1916, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em,” netted him exactly $5 in royalties. His second, “The Making of a Girl,” brought him a 40% increase - a total of $7.

But within three years, George Gershwin, not yet 21, was the composer of a solid Broadway musical comedy success, “La La Lucille,” and within another year had written, with Irving Caesar, the song “Swanee,” which Al Jolson’s singing in his revue, Sinbad, catapulted into sales of over a million records, and was writing the score for George White’s Scandals of that year, as he did for the next four.

Before he was 25, George Gershwin was one of Broadway’s greatest musical comedy composers with a long string of smash hits to his credit.

On November 11, 1923, he made his first appearance as a pianist and composer at Aeolian Hall in New York, and February 12, 1924, marked the first performance of his famous “Rhapsody in Blue”, which he composed for a serious all-jazz concert presented by Paul Whitman.

In 1924 with Lady be Good, starring Adele Astaire, Ira Gershwin joined George as lyric writer for his song and their collaboration continued generally unbroken until George’s death in 1937. The years were marked by a long string of international musical comedy successes, starring such notables, in addition to the Astaires, as Gertrude Lawrence, Marilyn Miller, Eddie Foy, Jr., Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante, Duke Ellington, Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Victor Moore and many others.

At the same time, he devoted his boundless talents to serious and equally popular compositions such as the Concerto in F, Five Preludes for the Piano, Cuban Overture - and finally his supreme triumph, Porgy and Bess.

The idea of Porgy and Bess as a musical drama - as a native American folk opera - was born one night in October, 1926 when George Gershwin reached for a recently published novel on his night table, hoping to relax and fall asleep. Instead, at 4am he was writing DuBose Heyward, the author of Porgy, suggesting they collaborate on a musical version of the novel.

Over seven years went by - during which Dorothy and DuBose Heyward adapted the novel into the highly successful Theater Guild play of the same title - before George Gershwin was able to begin actual composition of the music for Porgy and Bess. He spent months in and about Charleston, South Carolina, soaking up the atmosphere of the city and of nearby James Island, where the Gullah Negroes still preserved their songs. He observed the singing, the stomping, the “shouting: of prayer meetings and the intricate but natural, even primitive, rhythms of the melodies which blended powerfully into prayer, and to it he added the musical genius which made him unique among American composers.

On October 10, 1935, almost nine years to the day after the idea was born, Porgy and Bess opened in New York City to the thunderous applause of the first night audiences and the reserved approval of the New York critics - a critical attitude which, in the decades since that time, has changed to one of unreserved acclaim.

In 1931 George and Ira Gershwin spent some time composing in Hollywood and returned in August of 1936. A little less than a year later, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, the incandescent flame that was the genius of George Gershwin went out. On Sunday, July 11, 1937, George Gershwin died of a brain tumor on the operating table at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.