The Genius of George Gershwin

George Gershwin was born on Sept. 26, 1898 in Brooklyn. He was named after his grandfather Jacob Gershovitz. His father was from St. Petersburg, Russia, and his mother was from Vilnius, Lithuania. His brother Ira, originally named Israel, was born 2 years earlier. They had a younger brother, Arthur, and a younger sister, Frances, and grew up on the Lower East Side in the Yiddish theatre district. George’s favorite past time was roller skating. He always had poor grades, and dropped out of high school his freshman year.

At age 12, his mother had a used upright piano brought into their home, and he immediately demonstrated a great passion for the instrument. He studied with several piano teachers, each time requiring more advanced instruction because his pianistic skills developed quite rapidly. He also took private lessons in music theory, harmony, orchestration and composition. As a young teen, Gershwin began attending concerts of the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra, and when he returned home he would recall the music he heard, both in his mind, and as best as he could at the piano.

At 15 he got his first job, working as a pianist for a music publisher. His task was to advertise popular songs of the day with the intent to sell the sheet music to these songs. There was no radio in those days, no movies with sound, and the machines with the large horns upon which records were played were not yet commonly owned, so the way people experienced music was either by attending vaudeville shows in a theatre or by purchasing sheet music to play and sing at home. Gershwin played and sang these songs in music stores, dept. stores, cafes, bars, at silent movie theatres, and between events in sports arenas. Because he was such a piano virtuoso, he was quite successful at making any song sound very attractive to the prospective buyers of the sheet music. His rhythms had a striking impact, and his use of harmony was way ahead of his time. He wanted very much to compose his own songs, and became disinterested in plugging other people’s songs. After a few years he abruptly quit his job and then worked as a freelance pianist in vaudeville theatres, as an accompanist to singers, and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows.
He loved Irving Berlin and called him America’s Schubert. Irving Berlin thought about hiring him as an assistant and secretary, but then instead, encouraged George to continue on his own path.
When he was 18, one of the most popular vaudeville stars of the time, Sophie Tucker, heard his song “When you want ‘em you can’t get ‘em; when you get ‘em, you don’t want ‘em. Based on her recommendation it became his first song that was ever published. Then Jerome Kern’s publisher, Max Drefus, who believed in the young man’s talent and potential, offered Gershwin $35 a week, basically subsidizing him, with the expectation that his hunch would pay off. Gradually more of Gershwin’s songs were published. In 1919 he composed Swanee with lyrics by Irving Caesar and Al Jolson requested to sing it. Within a year a million copies of the sheet music, and 2,250,000 recordings of it were sold. It was Gershwin’s all time biggest commercial success.

One of his jobs was recording songs on piano rolls. He actually recorded 140 piano rolls including Swanee
In 1922 Gershwin composed a one act jazz opera performed at the Globe Theatre, called Blue Monday, set in Harlem, with an all black cast. It’s about a jealous woman who has been led to believe her lover is cheating on her. When a telegram for him arrives, she assumes it’s from the other woman and demands to see it. Her lover refuses and she shoots him. Then he reads it and discovers that it’s actually a telegram informing him about his mother’s death. His lover asks to be forgiven, which he does, and the curtain comes down as he sings about going to heaven to be united with his mother. I’m struck by its great lyrical beauty.

One critic wrote: “The most dismal, stupid and incredible black-face sketch that has probably ever been perpetrated.”

The conductor of the opera was none other than Paul Whiteman, known then as the “King of Jazz”. He loved it and asked Gershwin to compose a jazz piano concerto. The result, in 1924, was Rhapsody in Blue! In the audience for the world premiere played by Gershwin with Whiteman conducting were Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, the conductors Walter Damrosch and Leopold Stokowski, the composers Victor Herbert, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff! Gershwin recorded it in the 20s! Gershwin played the famous melody much faster than we always hear it played by others.

It was an enormous success at its world premiere inspiring an instantaneous standing ovation at its conclusion. It has become the most frequently played concert work by an American composer, and at age 26 made George Gershwin a rich man and the most famous composer in the U.S. Among excerpts from the reviews we find these statements: “How sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment.” Another critic: “It runs off into empty passage work and meaningless repetition.” Another called it “crude.” And another wrote: “weeping over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so static, so inexpressive.”
Gershwin wanted to write truly great music. He wanted to continue to develop and go deeper. He had obstacles though: It was very easy for him to write a new pop song, which would earn him a lot of money in royalties. He had a need to be the center of attention. And the roaring 20s were a time of superficiality.
Gershwin kept in good shape by doing calisthenics, and was a good dancer and athlete. In his home he had a punching bag, a rowing machine, and he loved ping pong. Those who knew him best said that the smiling, handsome young man surrounded by friends and acquaintances at parties was really a very lonely young man and that he may have used music to fill an emptiness in his life.

In 1925 Walter Damrosch invited George to compose a piano concerto, which had its world premiere in Carnegie Hall with the NY Philharmonic and then was repeated in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It was an enormous success; the audience gave it a standing ovation. Arturo Toscanini conducted it with Gershwin’s close friend, Oscar Levant. The 1st movement, passages of great lyricism. Toscanini liked Gershwin very much as a composer and as a person. And one area of common ground was their love of music that sang. Toscanini really got the musicians to sing on their instruments.

After the world premiere one critic called the concerto conventional, trite, at its worst a little dull. Another wrote that it was “fragmentary, uncertain in form” and another wrote “much less interesting than the Rhapsody in Blue.”

Walter Damrocsh commissioned Gershwin to compose another work for the NY Philharmonic.
While visiting Paris, Gershwin soaked up the sights and sounds of the bubbling city and while there, asked to study with the Queen of composition teachers, Nadia Boulanger. He also wanted to study with Ravel. Both declined to teach him, advising him to continue on his own individual path. In fact both of Ravel’s piano concertos may very well have been influenced by Gershwin.

The composition he wrote for Damrosch was An American in Paris, and it was another instant success at its world premiere in 1928. It’s interesting that many critics wrote that Toscanini didn’t have an affinity for this music. Yet, when compared to the recording made with Gershwin’s participation, the tempi are identical. The beginning of the piece includes real taxi horns that Gershwin brought back from Paris with him.

Again, Toscanini got a beautiful singing quality out of the NBC Symphony. The music fully captures the rhythms and spirit of Paris in 1928.

Among the critic’s reviews after the world premiere were “Nauseous claptrap…patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane’ Blunt brutality—ballyhoo vulgarity.”

Gershwin thrived on being worshipped. A friend said: “George needed praise and admiration.”

In 1930 Gershwin auditioned Ethel Merman for the show Girl Crazy. She was then unknown. He was so impressed that he asked her if she wanted him to make any changes in the songs for the new show.

In 1932 Gershwin vacationed in Cuba, and was immediately taken by the rhythms and many percussion instruments he was encountering for the first time. When he retuned home he composed his Cuban Overture.

Unlike his brother Ira, George was very extroverted, and frequently went to parties, where he often played the piano for hours. People just couldn’t get enough of his dynamic playing! I’ve got another surprise for you!

In 1934 Gershwin was even given his own radio show. He was very wealthy, and very popular with audiences here and in Europe. He constantly attracted and was attracted to beautiful women. Yet, he still wasn’t artistically fulfilled. He felt there was more music he wanted to compose, of a more serious nature.
He had frequent stomach problems, and would become depressed. He complained to his friends; “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t fall in love.” Actually the one woman he did fall in love with was Paulette Goddard, but she was married to Charlie Chaplin. No matter. George asked her to leave Chaplin and marry him, which she refused to do.

In 1930 Otto Kahn, a philanthropist and arts patron, commissioned Gershwin to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Gershwin decided to base his opera, Porgy and Bess, on the best selling novel of Dubose Heyward. It is set in Charleston, South Carolina, and calls for an all black cast. Gershwin said it was going to be “a labor of love.”
He spent the summer of 1934 living on Folly Island, near Charleston, where he soaked up the local music and did a lot of composing and painting. Dubose worked on the libretto, and Ira joined them on the project. George called it a folk opera. When it was completed the following summer the piano vocal score was 560 pages long. The orchestra score was 700 pages. It was more than 4 hours of music! Being a practical man of the theatre, Gershwin made many cuts to shorten the enormous length. The Met decided not to produce it, since they didn’t have any black singers on their roster and Gershwin insisted it be sung by a black cast. The world premiere was given on Sept. 30th 1935 in Boston, and opened on Broadway 10 days later.

One critic wrote: “It does not utilize all the resources of the operatic composer.” Another wrote: “The song hits which he has scattered through the score mar it. They are cardinal weaknesses.” A third wrote: “Porgy is falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed.” And another wrote: “The score sustains no mood. There is neither a progressive nor an enduring tension to it.” It was a commercial failure and Gershwin lost the money he had invested in it.

Next Ira and George were asked to create the music for 2 movies: A Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance? With Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

George was becoming an increasingly lonely man. He was frustrated with writing music for Hollywood. He told his friends that he had a compete string quartet in his head, which he never got the time to write down. His third and unfinished movie was The Goldwyn Follies.

At a concert during which he was playing his Piano Concerto, he thought at one point the lights had completely gone out, and he suddenly smelled the stench of burning rubber. He soon lost his usual energy, and began experiencing violent headaches. Then he lost his coordination. While eating, a knife would fall from his grasp, he would spill water on himself when drinking from a glass, bright lights hurt his eyes, and the smell of burning rubber continued. He became depressed, and when he consulted doctors, he was told that it was because of nerves.

On July 9, 1937 he collapsed in the bathroom and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He died 2 days later from a brain tumor that had gone undiagnosed until his coma. By then it was too late. He was 38.

About all those negative reviews: Gershwin said: “I am one of those people who honestly believe that the majority has much better taste and understanding, not only of music, but of any of the arts than it is credited with having.”