George Gershwin: Why his music was the soundtrack to the optimistic world of early 20th-century America

03 May 2021
By Guest Writer
Writer Inge Kjemtrup looks at Gershwin's life and music

Main image: © Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress

From Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess, from ‘Swanee’ to ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off ’, George Gershwin’s music uniquely evokes the energy and optimism of the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. His songs and
concert works conjure up Art Deco Hollywood and bustling New York, call to mind the Roaring Twenties and the in-need-of-cheer Thirties, and incorporate the music of African-Americans and of European immigrants to the great American cities. Gershwin wrote that American music ‘must express the feverish tempo of American life… In our music we must be able to catch a glimpse of our skyscrapers, to feel that overwhelming burst of energy which is bottled in our life, to hear that chaos of noises which suffuses the air of our modern American city.’

His life was short – he was 38 when he died – but in that brief time he accomplished so much, writing songs that are now standards and concert pieces that narrowed the gap, once thought unbridgeable, between classical and jazz.

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898 to Rose and Morris Gershvin, Jewish immigrants from Russia fleeing the pogroms and the persecution. (The parents of Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein were also Russian Jews – it’s been said that Tsar Alexander III could be credited for the thriving Broadway music scene of the 20th century.) George was two years younger than the oldest child, Ira, whose mild-mannered personality would prove to be the perfect counterbalance to George’s extrovert manner. The young George was a street-wise kid, running around his neighbourhood on the Lower East Side and getting into scrapes. Meanwhile, the bookish Ira unenthusiastically took piano lessons from their Aunt Kate.


George Gershwin at the piano. © Lebrecht Music & Arts


But George had a musical spark that was just waiting to be lit. He later cited two key experiences that turned him towards music: age six, hearing Rubinstein’s Melody in F played on a pianola, and age ten, listening to a young violinist his own age play Dvoƙák's Humoresque (‘it was a flashing revelation of beauty’). Imagine the family’s surprise one day when the feckless George, age 12, sat down at the piano and played a popular song. ‘I remember being particularly impressed by his swinging left hand and by harmonic and rhythmic effects I thought as proficient as those of most of the pianists I’d heard in vaudeville,’ said Ira. The family didn’t know until then that George had been teaching himself piano at a neighbour’s house.

George took Ira’s spot as the would-be piano prodigy. In his first years of lessons, he went through three teachers until he at last settled with Charles Hambitzer, an excellent teacher who laid the foundation of his technique. Hambitzer said of his pupil, ‘He is a genius, without a doubt. He will make his mark in music if anybody will.’

At age 15, Gershwin found a job as a ‘song plugger’ at Remick and Co, and left formal schooling behind. At Remick, he sat at a piano in a tiny room, for up to ten hours a day, playing sheet music for singers, bandleaders and impresarios. Still he found time to go to concerts and shows. Gershwin particularly admired Jerome Kern. ‘I followed Kern’s work and studied each song he composed,’ he said. ‘I paid him the tribute of frank imitation, and many things I wrote at this period sounded as though Kern had written them himself.’

He left Remick for musical theatre, playing the piano and composing extra music in between the big numbers. All the while he was writing songs. As a party in 1919, the famous entertainer Al Jolson heard Gershwin play one of those songs, ‘Swanee’. He immediately took it up for his new revue. ‘Swanee’, with its witty references to Stephen Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home’, caught the public’s fancy. Two million copies of Jolson’s recording and a similar number of sheet music were sold within the year, making Gershwin’s name. On the heels of this triumph, impresario George White hired Gershwin to write the music for his Scandals. Gershwin provided songs for five Scandals, including ‘I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise’ and ‘Somebody Loves Me’.

The ‘Roaring Twenties’ certainly roared for Gershwin, who was found at the best parties, with a throng of guests around him as he entertained at the piano. ‘You could feel the electricity going through the room when he played,’ recalled Burton Lane, quoted in Rodney Greenberg’s biography of Gershwin, ‘He could transpose into any key with the greatest of ease. He had total command of what he was doing. Musical surprises, unusual changes of keys. He was one of the few composers who had a real sense of humour.’ With his 24-hour lifestyle, Gershwin did not seem eager to get married. His greatest passion seemed to be for his work – and he did not suffer from low self-esteem. ‘Tell me, George,’ said the caustic pianist-composer Oscar Levant, a close friend, ‘if you had to do it all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?’


Rhapsody in Blue

For Gershwin, songwriting success wasn’t enough. He wanted to write a Broadway musical, emulating his hero Kern, and he wanted to write pieces for the concert hall. In this latter ambition he found a sympathetic spirit in bandleader Paul Whiteman, who hired Gershwin to compose a jazz concerto. Whiteman had booked Carnegie Hall for a concert of jazz music that would show jazz was ‘a new movement in the world’s art of music’. Just five weeks before the concert Gershwin realised how little time he had to compose. He worked frantically, enlisting the orchestrating assistance of composer Ferde Grofé, to prepare Rhapsody in Blue (written for ‘Jazz Band and Piano’) for the 12 February 1924 concert. Rhapsody in Blue – that extraordinary blend of Tin Pan Alley, klezmer, African-American blues and more – drew five curtain calls and rave reviews.






If 1924 was a good year for the fledging composer, who had a first Broadway musical success with Lady Be Good!, it also marked the first time that Ira publically revealed his role as George’s lyricist. The brothers stormed Broadway with a string of hits: Tip-Toes; Oh, Kay!; Funny Face; Girl Crazy and Of Thee I Sing. Songs from this period are some of their best: ’S Wonderful’, ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Sweet and Low-Down’, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’.

Girl Crazy made the name of a Broadway belter named Ethel Merman, and it also included a charming song called ‘Embraceable You’, featured in this issue’s scores (page 54). ‘Embraceable You’ was composed for a revue from the late 1920s called East is West, but Gershwin was not averse to recycling good material. This lovely song has been recorded by several singers, most notably Billie Holiday in 1944. Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack points out that in ‘Embraceable You’ the main melody doesn’t start on the downbeat. George also left a challenge for Ira in working out four-syllable rhymes at the end of each verse, ‘yielding such rhymes as “tipsy in me” and “gypsy in me”’ as Pollack notes.

The two sides of Gershwin – the songwriter and the ‘serious’ composer – came together in his great opera, Porgy and Bess, based on the novel by DuBose Heyward about poor African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. After much toing and froing about the rights, work began in 1933, with Heyward providing the libretto.

The thrilling ‘Summertime’ opens the opera, and it is hardly the only outstanding song, with ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin’, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ among the others. After a Boston try-out, Porgy and Bess began its New York run in October 1935. There have been so many outstanding performances of Porgy and Bess since 1935 that it’s difficult to imagine that it wasn’t an immediate hit, but it saw only 124 performances and lost money.

Discouraged by the mediocre reception for his music in New York, Gershwin, along with Ira, headed for Hollywood in 1936. He had worked there six years before – writing music for film called Delicious – but it wasn’t until he sealed a deal with RKO for a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Shall We Dance, that he decided to return. George rented a huge house in Beverly Hills with a tennis court (where he sometimes played with Arnold Schoenberg).

Shall We Dance is a classic of the Astaire-Rogers films, with great songs including ‘Shall We Dance’, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off ’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’, as well as spectacular footwork from Astaire and Rogers.

Unfortunately, the Gershwins’ next two films, A Damsel in Distress and Goldwyn Follies, were not as light on their feet as Shall We Dance. Worse, Hollywood was taking its toll on Gershwin. The headaches he’d complained of before leaving New York had worsened. He told a friend, ‘I’m not the kind of composer where a man tells me I need five songs for this film, now compose. I can’t do that anymore. I’m dying to get back to New York to compose when I want to.’

But Gershwin never returned to New York. On 11 July 1937, he died of an undiagnosed brain tumour following an unsuccessful operation to remove it. The song he was working on before he died was ‘Love Is Here to Stay’. Ira added the verses later, and some have suggested the song is a tribute to the love between the two brothers: ‘It’s very clear / Our love is here to stay / Not for a year / But ever and a day.’


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Gershwin's Legacy

Gershwin was one of the first composers to be comfortable both in popular music and in the concert hall. This fact attracted some suspicions that he was a musical dilettante. But Gershwin’s pianism impressed his colleagues. The Russian-trained composer Vernon Duke said, ‘Gershwin impressed me as a superbly equipped and highly skilled composer.’ Grofé’s contribution to Rhapsody in Blue is well known, but as Gershwin biographer Greenberg argues, we may never know how much help Gershwin had with his other concert works: Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), Second Rhapsody (1931), Cuban Overture (1932) and Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ (1934). He also wrote a handful of solo piano works, including Three Preludes and a collection of his songs, George Gershwin’s Song-Book (1932).






Gershwin’s lightweight reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that he was known to have asked many famous composers for lessons – Glazunov, Varése, Ibert and Schoenberg among them. There’s a famous, if possibly apocryphal story, about Gershwin asking Stravinsky for lessons. In reply, Stravinsky asked Gershwin how much he earned. Upon hearing the incredible figure, Stravinsky remarked, ‘Then maybe I should be taking lessons from you!’

In 1928, Gershwin performed for Ravel at the great French composer’s 53rd birthday. The party’s hostess recalled that Ravel was astonished by ‘the facility with which George scaled the most formidable technical difficulties and his genius for weaving complicated rhythms and his great gift of melody.’ Once again, Gershwin broached the subject of lessons, to which Ravel is said to have replied, ‘It is better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel, which is what would happen if you worked with me.’ Ravel sent Gershwin to Nadia Boulanger, the formidable teacher of Copland, Carter, Lipatti and many more. ‘I had nothing to offer him,’ Boulanger said. ‘I suggested that he was doing all right and should continue. I told him what I could teach him wouldn’t help him much… and he agreed.’ You can decide for yourself about Gershwin’s piano abilities, at least, by listening to recordings of his playing. He made 140 piano rolls, some during his days at Remick, and also recorded on phonograph records.

George Gershwin’s songs are a cornerstone of the ‘Great American Songbook’ and have been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Rod Stewart, while his orchestral works are staples of the concert hall. The strength of his compositions lies in the fact that they have been taken up by a wide variety of performers, and yet never lose their essential ‘Gershwin-ness’. However, Gershwin himself was focused on composing for his own age and not necessarily for the ages. He said once, ‘Music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today.’

This article is taken from issue 72 of Pianist.

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