The Life Of George Gershwin Essay, Research Paper
(1898 – 1937)
George’s parents emigrated to the USA in the late 1800’s. George’s father, Morris, was trying to avoid a probable twenty year conscription in his native St. Petersburg. Besides that, his hometown sweetheart, Rose Bruskin, had already moved to New York with her family. They are shown here at about the time of their marriage in 1895.
George was Morris and Rose’s second son, born on September 26, 1898. Athough Morris had already Americanized the family name from Gershovitz to Gershvin, the doctor still managed to misspell it on the birth certificate. George’s name of record was Jacob Gershwine. George’s brother Arthur was born two years later and his sister, Frankie, followed in 1908.
This house in Brooklyn, New York was the family home where George was born. But the Gershvins didn’t live in this house very long. By the time George was 18 years old, the family had moved 28 times! Morris was an entrepreneur, though not a very successful one. He always wanted to live within walking distance of the family business. His business ventures included a restaurant, bakery, summer hotel, boarding house, bookmaking, cigar store, pool hall, and Russian and Turkish baths.
The family did not trust banks, a typical attitude of the period. They kept their money in Rose’s diamond ring. When cash was low one of the boys was entrusted to take the ring to the pawn shop and later redeem it. Though Morris wasn’t the greatest businessman in the world, Rose proudly maintained that the family always had a maid. This picture shows one of the family maids on an outing with Ira, Rose, George, and baby Arthur.
Throughout his life George was outgoing and energetic. As a boy, he did not go in for indoor activity, like reading or music. He was always getting in trouble at school because of his poor grades and misbehavior in class. The teachers sent notes home to his parents, but somehow George usually had the notes intercepted and signed by a neighbor. Once, when a teacher asked to see his parents at the school, George managed to get away with having his brother, Ira, show up for the meeting.
George spent most of his time on outdoor games and activities. He was considered the neighborhood roller skating champion. He also excelled at fighting with the other boys. Once when the family was gathered in the living room of their apartment, the sounds of a fight on the street below had George out the door and in the action within minutes.
Though his family and friends did not discern any particular interest in music from young George, years later he told a story of walking past a penny arcade and hearing a pianola playing Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F. According to George, the music had a profound effect on him, “The peculiar jumps in the music held me rooted.”
The boyhood experience that seems to have started George on the road to music came one day when he overheard a fellow student at P.S. 25, Maxie Rosenzweig, perform Dvor k’s Humoresque on the violin. Although George had not attended the recital, he was outside the hall and couldn’t help hearing the music. It made such an impression on him that he waited outside, in the rain, to meet the performer. Maxie had left by another door, so George walked to his house to congratulate him in person on the performance. Maxie wasn’t home, but his family arranged a meeting later and the two boys became friends.
“Max opened the world of music to me,” George said. During their many conversations about music, Maxie encouraged George to try picking out a few tunes on another friend’s piano. Maxie also told George that he had no musical aptitude but, fortunately, that did not discourage George.
In 1910 the Gershwins bought a second hand piano on the installment plan for their son, Ira, who had been taking occasional lessons with an aunt. As soon as the piano had been hoisted in through the window, it was George who sat down and amazed his family by playing a few popular tunes that he had learned by ear. Almost from that moment on, Ira relinquished the piano to his younger brother.
George started taking lessons from various neighborhood teachers, but soon he realized he needed something more. He admired the playing of his friend, Jack Miller, and sought out Jack’s teacher, Charles Hambitzer, pictured here. Hambitzer, a dedicated musician, immediately accepted George as a pupil and refused to charge any fee for the lessons. Hambitzer improved George’s technique enormously, and introduced him to the works of the classical masters. It was during this period, with Hambitzer’s encouragement, that George started attending concerts at every available opportunity. He kept a scrapbook, which is now in the Library of Congress, detailing every performance that he heard.
Although George was becoming more and more passionate about music, his dedication was not spilling over to his other studies. He continued to bring home such poor grades, that in 1912 his mother decided to have him enroll in the High School of Commerce to study to become an accountant. Math was the only subject in which he had been able to produce even moderately good grades.
Though he was gaining exposure to the classics, George still loved popular music – especially jazz. During the summer of 1913 he took a job as a piano player at one of the resorts in the Catskills.
Ira was enrolled in the City College of New York and, in March 1914, he made arrangements for his younger brother’s professional debut as a pianist *and* composer. George was invited to perform for the Finlay Club, a literary society affiliated with the college. The tango that George wrote and performed was listed on the program simply as, Piano Solo by George Gershvin.
George’s grades had not improved at Commerce, and he was determined to have a career in music. Finally his mother agreed to allow him to quit school and take a job at Remick’s for $15 a week. He became the youngest song plugger in Tin Pan Alley. George would sit in a small cubicle for about ten hours a day and pound out the popular songs for anyone who requested them. He learned a lot about improvisation and how to change keys and transpose music quickly. In the evenings, his job also entailed visiting theaters and vaudeville houses to see if the performers were using Remick songs. He also accompanied a team of singers and dancers to various restaurants and saloons to play and promote Remick tunes. In 1915 George began making piano rolls at $5 per roll, or six for $25. He also played at nightclubs and parties to supplement his income.
On March 1, 1916 George signed his first professional contract for a song called, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.” He received $5 for his first published piece of music.
George left Remick’s in March 1917. He had set his sights on musical theater. Among the jobs he held after leaving Remicks were rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917. He also spent time as accompanist for Louise Dresser on her 1918 tour of Keith Theaters, and as an accompanist for the volatile Nora Bays.
In 1918 he came to the attention of Max Dreyfus the head of the the most important publishing house in Tin Pan Alley, T. B. Harms. Dreyfus signed George to a contract at $35 per week, and royalties of 3 per copy of sheet music sold. George’s duties were no longer to play the piano and sell other people’s songs. He was on retainer as a composer.
George contributed five songs to the unsuccessful musical, Half Past Eight. He also wrote several other songs that were interpolated into the scores of other New York shows. But his ambition was to write the entire score for a show. A dream he achieved when the bedroom farce La La Lucille opened at the Henry Miller Theater on May 26, 1919.
By 1920, George was becoming very well known in New York theater circles. He played one of his songs for Al Jolson at a party. Jolson, quite taken with the number, interpolated it into his show, Sinbad. And Swanee went on to sell over 2 million copies.
George came to the attention of George White, whose annual production, Scandals, was in competition with the Ziegfeld Follies. White hired George to write the score for the 1920 Scandals. It was a success and George wrote five scores for the Scandals between 1920-1924.
It was during the Scandals of 1922 that George convinced White to allow him to try a one act jazz opera, Blue Monday Blues. The 25 minute opera was a study of life in Harlem performed in black face by a white cast. It was a total disaster.
Also during the Scandals period, George met and became friends with Paul Whiteman, the orchestra leader. Whiteman was popularly known as “The King of Jazz.” More important than the unsuccessful Blue Monday Blues, George had impressed Whiteman as a serious jazz composer.
Whiteman had the idea of performing a serious jazz concert at Aeolian Hall. His purpose was to give jazz respectability, and he felt the concert hall setting was the only way to demonstrate “that jazz was beginning a new movement in the world’s art of music” and that jazz “had come to stay, and deserved recognition.”
Whiteman spoke to George about writing a piece for piano and orchestra to be performed at the Aeolian Hall concert. George expressed interest in the project. A short while later, while George was absorbed in a game of billiards, Ira showed him a newspaper article announcing the Whiteman concert as well as mentioning George’s piece would appear on the program. On January 7, 1924 he began working on Rhapsody in Blue. The original score gives a completion date of February 4, 1924 – the concert was to be held on February 12.
“There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing with unwonted rapidity. No set plan was in my mind – no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, as you see, began as a purpose, not a plan.”
Whiteman’s musical experiment was an artistic, critical and popular success. And George’s Rhapsody in Blue was the hit of the show.
In 1924 George also made a second trip to England. This time to write the score for the successful musical, Primrose. Back home he wrote the music for Lady be Good with Fred and Adele Astaire.
The Symphony Society of New York commissioned The Concerto in F in 1925. After accepting the commission George had to do some quick research to find out what a concerto was. His work, originally titled New York Concerto, was Gershwin’s version of the form. His preliminary notes were very simple:
2. Melody (Blues)
3. More Rhythm
Although The Concerto in F did not get the immediate acclaim of Rhapsody in Blue, it has gone on to become one of the most frequently performed concertos written in the 20th century.
1925 saw George working not only on The Concerto in F, but also the successful musical Tip Toes, and Song of the Flame. Paul Whiteman, who had never forgotten Blue Monday Blues which was such a dismal failure in the George White Scandals of 1922, performed a reworking of the material at Carnegie Hall. He called the revised piece 135th Street. It didn’t play much better on it’s second outing.
George returned to London in 1926 to prepare Lady Be Good for the stage. He was quite at home there, and was considered a dazzling addition to society functions.
When he came home later in the year to write Oh, Kay! as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, he chanced to read a best selling novel by DuBose Heyward. George was immediately struck by the possibilities of adapting Heyward’s story, Porgy, for the stage. He envisioned the simple but powerful story as a perfect book for an opera.
Heyward liked George’s idea of turning his book into an opera, but he was already committed to working on a dramatic adaptation of Porgy for the Theater Guild. Although Heyward expressed regret that the collaboration was out of the question, George was unconcerned. He responded that the dramatic adaptation would not interfere with the musical treatment, which Gershwin felt he was still years away from mastering the technical ability to write.
In 1927 George was working on Strike Up the Band, Funny Face (again with the Astaires), Rosalie for Ziegfeld. He also started his third orchestral piece, An American in Paris, two years after The Concerto in F.
The idea for An American in Paris probably dated back to 1923, when George had toured Paris as part of his European trip for Primrose. He began work in earnest in January 1928. In March he made a second visit to Paris. Among the souvenirs he brought back from that trip were four French taxi horns, which he used in the composition.
Back in Manhattan, George began work on another show with Gertrude Lawrence, Treasure Girl. He also worked on another musical for Ziegfeld, East is West, which was never produced. He continued to work on An American in Paris. In a magazine interview, he said:
“This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though the tunes are all original. My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere. As in my other orchestral compositions, I’ve not endeavored to present any definite scenes in this music. The rhapsody is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way, so that the individual listener can read into the music such episodes as his imagination pictures for him.”
By the time it debuted on December 13, 1928 at Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic Society under the direction of Walter Damrosh, An American in Paris had become “a tone poem for orchestra.”
George had his first experience conducting in 1929. It was in front of a home town crowd at Lewishon stadium, and they went wild with appreciation. He began reworking his material for Strike Up the Band and a new Ziegfeld production, Show Girl.
For Girl Crazy in 1930, George had the opportunity of directing an orchestra that included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glen Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden.
In 1930, George and Ira also signed a contract with Fox Studios in Hollywood to write the score for Delicious with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Although George used a lot of material from his discard pile in the film, he did write another rhapsody intended to simulate the sounds of bustling Manhattan. Only a small piece of the rhapsody was included in the final cut of the film, but George continued to work on it even after he returned from California.
“I wrote it mainly because I wanted to write a serious composition and found the opportunity in California. Nearly everybody comes back from California with a western tan and a pocketful of motion picture money. I decided to come back with both of these things and a serious composition – if the climate would let me. I was under no obligation to the Fox Company to write this. But, you know, the old artistic soul must be appeased every so often.”
The Second Rhapsody debuted on January 29, 1932 with George Gershwin as piano soloist with the Boston Symphony under the direction of Koussevitzky. George was such a celebrity by this time that the hall was filled to capacity and beyond. Though the critics weren’t very kind to the Second Rhapsody, the crowd (if not the critics) seemed to enjoy it at it’s premiere and a week later when it opened in New York.
The California sojourn also produced the score of the Gershwins’ next Broadway show, Of Thee I Sing. The show was a smash hit. Pulitzer prizes went to Kaufman and Ryskind for the book, and to Ira for the lyrics.
George took a Cuban vacation in 1932, and began to compose Rumba for symphony orchestra. This piece is known today as Cuban Overture.
“In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.”
That year he also began working on his Song Book with improvisations, and conducted the first ever all-Gershwin program at Lewisohn stadium.
In 1933, Pardon My English and Let ‘Em Eat Cake, the sequel to Of Thee I Sing, were both dismal flops.
1934 at last saw George working on Porgy and Bess, with DuBose Heyward acting at librettist. To help finance his work on Porgy and Bess, George did a New York based radio program, Music By Gershwin, heard Mondays and Fridays between 7:30-745 p.m. George wrote the I Got Rhythm Variations which was intended to be played during a cross country tour he made that year. He much preferred the tour to the radio program,
“… the activity during those twenty-eight days was more physical than mental, for while we covered 12,000 miles in less than a month, our program was unchanged in the various cities in which we played.” Radio was quite different from touring, he complained, “It means preparing an entirely different program for each broadcast. At that rate it doesn’t take long to exhaust even an extensive repertoire. The microphone is like a hungry lion the way it eats up material. It’s really liable to prove something of a strain even to a composer who is in the habit of turning out melodies more or less on schedule. And I’ve written close to a thousand songs.”
Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theater in 1935.
“The reason I did not submit this work to the usual sponsors of opera in America was that I hoped to have developed something in American music that would appeal to the many rather than to the cultured few.”
The show closed after 124 performances. Although George was negotiating a West Coast revival of the show in 1937, he did not live to see its success.
By 1935 the Depression had created a great dent in the Broadway theater scene. FDR instituted the Federal Theater Project as part of his New Deal programs in order to keep theater people employed, and to keep ticket prices down. Broadway was struggling to stay alive. But in California, the movie industry was thriving.
The Gershwins let it be known they were available to write a Hollywood score, but the offers did not pour in. Their asking price, $100,000 plus a percentage of the gross, was considered very high considering it had been several years since their last hit. To make matters worse, in the eyes of Hollywood, there had also been that opera ! There was speculation that George had lost the ability to communicate with the average theater or movie goer. Eventually, RKO signed them to 20 weeks work on a vehicle for Fred Astaire called Watch Your Step, which was released as Shall We Dance.) George and Ira tied up all their New York business and moved to Beverly Hills in August 1936.
George enjoyed his second stay in California much more than he had his first visit six years earlier. He took every opportunity to play golf, tennis and swim. His home was equipped with a tennis court, and he often played with Arnold Shoenberg. As many of his New York cronies had already moved to California, or soon joined him there, there was a much more active social life.
His reputation as a Don Juan didn’t suffer in California either. His most notable romances included French actress Simone Simon, and Paulette Goddard. It was rumored that George begged Paulette to leave her husband, Charlie Chaplin, to marry him. He was crushed when she refused.
While George composed his film scores with Ira, he supplemented his income by giving public performances. During two all-Gershwin programs he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, February 10-11, 1937, came an indication of his fatal illness. While performing The Concerto in F George experienced a blackout which caused him to fluff a few notes. Though the audience didn’t even notice the mistakes, it bothered George enough for him to see a doctor. Though the doctor felt that the cause of George’s experience was physical, the examination showed him to be in perfect health.
Since the results of the medical examinations did not uncover any physical problems, George forgot about the incident and began writing the score for a new Fred Astaire musical, A Damsel in Distress.
By early June 1937 George was complaining of headaches, but he dismissed them as the result of overwork. (This is the last photo of George Gershwin. It was taken on June 16, 1937.) He went back to the doctor, but all the tests and examinations, including a neurological exam on June 20 showed nothing wrong with him. The doctor suggested a spinal tap, which would have revealed the presence of a brain tumor, but this was a long and painful procedure and George decided not to have it done.
The doctors sent George home under heavy sedation. The sedatives seemed to decrease the instance of headaches, but George was obviously wasting away at a very rapid rate. Within only a couple of weeks he had lost weight, motor skills, and a great deal of his personal sparkle. He could not walk unaided, he was barely able to eat or speak.
On the morning of July 9, 1937 the doctor asked George to play the piano. That much he could still do. Later that day he lapsed into a coma and was rushed to the hospital. On the morning of July 10 the results of a spinal tap showed that he did indeed have a brain tumor. The doctors felt that surgery be performed immediately.
The country’s preeminent brain surgeon, Dr. Walter Dandy, could not be located. He vacationing on board his yacht. Calls were made to the White House and soon two navy destroyers were dispatched to locate the yacht and bring the doctor to California. The doctor got as far as the Newark airport, when the decision was made that the operation could not wait for his arrival. He was on the phone with the medical team in California during the surgery.
George Gershwin never regained consciousness. He died on Sunday, July 11, 1937. He was thirty-eight years old.