“I want to use the piano as a stepping stone!” - George Gerswhin.
“A song without music is a lot like H2 without the O” — Ira Gershwin
George Gershwin wrote most of his vocal and theatrical works, including more than a dozen Broadway shows and several films in collaboration with his elder brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. George’s musical compositions have been used in numerous films and on television, and many became jazz standards recorded in numerous variations. Countless singers and musicians have recorded their songs.
Marvin says that he can put his finger on some elements that contributed to George Gershwin’s musical personality, but genius remains a mystery:
“I think he came at a time when the whole jazz world was really popping with a lot of great composers. He was able to do “a fusion,” mixing a song-plugging style with symphonic composition and blending jazz rhythms into the classics. He had this uncanny ability to fuse the things he knew were part and parcel of of the age with a kind of classical knowledge.
I think Gershwin was this kind of dynamo; when I look at how much he did, how much he wrote, it boggles the mind how he did it. The difference is he wrote whether he was hired to or not. Most composers write because they’re hired to write. He just kept going. He was a force of nature, I think the analogy to Mozart is the closest you can get — the unbelievable passion to keep writing.
One of the reasons I do Pops concerts is because of George Gershwin. Right after ‘A Chorus Line,’ an agent said, ‘I think you should do symphonic concerts with your music.’ I didn’t know. Then he told me Gershwin did them. I thought, if it’s good enough for Gershwin, it’s good enough for me – Marvin Hamlisch
FASCINATING RHYTHM — Sung by Mel Torme’:
Ira was born Israel Gershowitz in New York City in 1896 and George was born in Brooklyn in 1898. Their father Morris (Moishe) and Mother Rose were from Odessa, Ukraine of Jewish descent. Their last Name Gershowitz was changed to Gershvin well before they rose to fame (it was not spelled “Gershwin” until later).
By 1916 George began composing and “plugging” in Tin Pan Alley. (Song pluggers” were pianists and singers who made their living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new publications. Among the ranks of song pluggers was George Gershwin)
By 1921 Ira became involved in the music business. Alex Aarons signed Ira to write the music for his next show, Two Little Girls in Blue (written under the pseudonym “Arthur Francis”), ultimately produced by Abraham Erlanger, with co-composers Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin. Gershwin’s lyrics were well received, and allowed him to successfully enter the theatre world with just one show
It was not until 1924 that Ira and George Gershwin teamed up to write the music for their first Broadway hit Lady, Be Good!. Once the brothers joined together, their combined talents became one of the most influential forces in the history of American Musical Theatre. “When the Gershwins teamed up to write songs for Lady, Be Good, the American musical found its native idiom” (Philip Furia)
“Summertime” is an aria composed by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The song soon became a popular and much recorded jazz standard, described as “without doubt… one of the finest songs the composer ever wrote.…Gershwin’s highly evocative writing brilliantly mixes elements of jazz and the song styles of African-Americans in the southeast United States from the early twentieth century.”
George moved to Paris in an attempt to study with Nadia Boulanger, where he began to compose An American in Paris. After returning to New York City, he wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and author DuBose Heyward. Initially a commercial failure, Porgy and Bess is now considered one of the most important American operas of the Twentieth Century.
Together, George and Ira Gershwin wrote the music for many shows and films. Some of their more famous works include “The Man I Love”, “Fascinating Rhythm”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “I Got Rhythm”, and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. In 1931, the brothers collaborated on the score for the Broadway show, “Of Thee I Sing,” which became the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
George Gershwin moved to Hollywood and composed numerous film scores.
George and Ira’s partnership continued until George’s sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38.
LISTEN — Arnold Schoenberg speaks about George Gershwin:
Following his brother’s death, Ira waited nearly three years before writing again. After this interlude, he teamed up with such accomplished composers as Jerome Kern (Cover Girl); Kurt Weill (Where Do We Go from Here? and Lady in the Dark); and Harold Arlen (Life Begins at 8:40; A Star Is Born- a Judy Garland Film. –His final major work, in 1954).
Ira Gershwin was a joyous listener to the sounds of the modern world. “He had a sharp eye and ear for the minutiae of living.” He noted in a diary: “Heard in a day: An elevator’s purr, telephone’s ring, telephone’s buzz, a baby’s moans, a shout of delight, a screech from a ‘flat wheel’, hoarse honks, a hoarse voice, a tinkle, a match scratch on sandpaper, a deep resounding boom of dynamiting in the impending subway, iron hooks on the gutter.”
There was a full house in December 1996 when a gala concert was held at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the centennial of Ira’s birth. There was also an all-star cast in the British tribute at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“America’s musical debt to George Gershwin remains immeasurable 74 years after his death. You could count up all the great songs and musicals and add the concert pieces, such as “Rhapsody in Blue,” and still not have the measure of the man.
The synthesis he achieved with different musical styles — all with his immediately recognizable personality — remains unequaled to this day. Yet, beyond even this, he inspires a rare degree of affection for the vibrant personality he was — all too briefly because he was 38 when he died — and the example he set personally as well as professionally.
Gershwin most certainly has confounded experts for years. His “Porgy and Bess,” unsuccessful in its first performances, is now regarded as a landmark achievement in 20th century opera.
“American in Paris,” Gershwin’s ode to the City of Lights, demonstrated Gershwin’s casual elegance on the piano and provided a teasing rhythmic core not often seen in classical renditions.” -Mark Kanny, Classical Music Critic.
In 2007, the Library of Congress named its Prize for Popular Song after Ira and his brother George. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture, the prize will be given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins.
2007 — Paul Simon
2008 — Stevie Wonder
2009 — Paul McCartney
*IRA GERSHWIN (Dec 6, 1896 — Aug. 17, 1983) *GEORGE GERSHWIN (Sept 26, 1898 — July 11, 1937)