George Gershwin

1898–1937

20th Century

These days music often sits in separate boxes – classical music, pop music, jazz music and folk music, for example. But George Gershwin doesn’t fit in a box! His style was a very natural mixture of classical, popular and jazz – and he mixed with such skill that what came out were some really exciting and original pieces.

Indeed, many of Gershwin’s songs are so popular that he is included in books on ‘popular’ music. Jazz musicians particularly love his tunes; they have a kind of ‘swing’ that makes them a good basis for improvisation (making up music on the spot, often done in jazz). His great opera Porgy and Bess seems to bridge the gap between the kind of operas written by Wagner and the modern musical. It is seen today as an American classic.

Gershwin had Russian and Jewish ancestry. His father’s name was originally Gershowitz, but he ‘Americanized’ his surname to Gershwine. George, his son, eventually turned this into Gershwin. As a boy in New York, George hung out with his friends, doing the usual things and misbehaving in general. He had no interest in music. Then, aged 10, he heard a violinist play and fell in love with music. He soon became an accomplished pianist.

Gershwin was a natural, instinctive musician who quickly learnt the popular American music published by ‘Tin Pan Alley’. His famous Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra begins with the most enormous clarinet glissando (slide) – a real first! He wrote musicals for Broadway and later on moved to Hollywood where he composed film scores. But at the height of his powers, he developed a brain tumour and died, aged only 38. His tunefulness and his gift for urban glamour had already combined to create a rich and lasting collection of music that is both ‘classical’ and ‘popular’.

George Gershwin, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Check out Gershwin by selecting a track.

Cuban Overture

Gershwin wrote his Cuban Overture after a holiday in Cuba. It shimmers with the rhythms of Cuban dance.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559107

Girl Crazy (Selections)

This selection of music is taken from Gershwin’s 1930 musical, Girl Crazy. It contains typical Gershwin tunes – sentimental, sweeping and rhythmically alive.

Performers: Richard Hayman Symphony Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.556686

Rhapsody in Blue

From the sleazy, rising opening riff to the magnificent climax, this masterpiece incorporates jazz effects with complete success. It was written for the famous bandleader, Paul Whiteman, in 1924.

Performers: Kathryn Selby, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hayman

Taken from Naxos 8.550295

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 George Gershwin’s surname was originally what?

a. Smith
b. Gershowitz
c. Grabsky

 Gershwin was superb at playing what?

a. The mouth organ
b. The violin
c. The piano

 George Gershwin had a famous brother whose first name was what?

a. Isaac
b. Abe
c. Ira

 Gershwin started out working for publishers on which famous ‘street’ in New York?

a. Madison Avenue
b. 42nd Street
c. Tin Pan Alley

 Gershwin’s great American opera is called what?

a. Porgy and Bess
b. West Side Story
c. Ahmal and the Night Visitors


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. George had a brother, Ira, who wrote song lyrics. The brothers collaborated on many musicals as well as Porgy and Bess.
  2. At 15 Gershwin left school and got his first job, with a publisher on New York City’s Tin Pan Alley.
  3. Gershwin went to study in Paris, but composers didn’t want to teach him – they were worried that formal classical study would spoil his individual jazzy style. Ravel wrote, ‘Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’
  4. Gershwin wrote one of his earliest hit songs Swanee in ten minutes while sitting on a bus!
  5. Schoenberg was another composer who wouldn’t teach Gershwin. Instead they played tennis together each week!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral and Opera


Piano Concerto in F major

Written a year or so after the more famous Rhapsody in Blue, this concerto incorporates jazz and blues elements – and Stravinsky thought it a work of genius. Others have been more severe, and it hasn’t achieved quite the same reputation as Rhapsody in Blue. See what you think!

Performers: Kathryn Selby, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hayman

Taken from Naxos 8.550295


An American in Paris

This was inspired by Gershwin’s time in Paris. It is infectiously happy, and describes a bustling city. Listen out for the car horns in the orchestra! Gershwin actually brought back some car horns from Paris for the New York premiere. Needless to say, some people at the time thought the piece had no place in a concert hall, but later listeners have disagreed.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559107

Opera


Porgy and Bess: Suite

This suite takes themes from Gershwin’s famous opera Porgy and Bess. The opera was first performed in 1935 and, at first, had a cool response from the public. It challenged people’s ideas of what an opera should be. Today it is widely admired. Porgy, a crippled beggar, tries to rescue Bess from Crown, her violent boyfriend, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. The suite contains the opera’s most famous tunes.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559107


Catfish Row (arr. D. Hunsberger)

Catfish Row is a compilation of Gershwin’s hits from Porgy and Bess. The most famous number of all is ‘Summertime’ (track 2 here), which is one of the most covered songs of all time. Gershwin wanted it to sound like a folksong, which is probably why it works when people perform it in different arrangements and at different speeds.

Performers: Jo Ella Todd, soprano; Derrick Fox, baritone; University of Missouri Symphonic Wind Ensemble; Thomas J. O’Neal

Taken from Naxos 8.572108

Piano and Song


Three Preludes

These jazzy piano preludes were first performed by Gershwin himself in New York in 1926. He intended to write 24 preludes (as J.S. Bach did) but somehow he only got to three! The first one has a lot of syncopation – where the music goes against the regular beat. It was a bit of a shock to a 1920s audience: these preludes were not like Chopin’s! Gershwin described the second prelude as a sort of ‘blues lullaby’; and the third is marked ‘agitato’ (agitated) – you can hear why…

Performers: Leon Bates, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550341


Six Songs

These are settings for solo piano of six of Gershwin’s most popular songs. They cover a wide range of emotion, from the energy of ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ to the yearning of ‘The Man I Love’.

Performers: Leon Bates, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550341


Miscellaneous Songs

Gershwin’s songs have been ‘covered’ by innumerable singers. Here a selection is presented with piano accompaniment.

Performers: Carole Farley, soprano; John Constable, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559314