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George Gershwin George Gershwin, a famous American composer of the 1920 th, belongs to the category of exceptionally gifted artists, who died young and could not realize many of their plans and ideas. Despite of his short life-time, musical and creative inheritance of Gershwin is significant: he wrote about thirty musicals and operettas for theater and cinema, and became an author of many popular songs, which are still being played in our times. Born in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York, in a family of Russian immigrants of Jewish origin, future music genius Jacob Gershowitz has been demonstrating his talents and endowment since early childhood. At the age of six he began getting interested in playing piano, which was purchased by the parents for his elder brother, Ira. For very short period of time George reached incredible progress in playing by ear, and left Ira, who has been receiving lessons from professional teachers, far behind.
The family was rather poor, so, being unable to afford fundamental music education for George, the parents used the services of cheaper private musicians. At the age 12, George became a student of Charles Hambitzer, who made the strongest influence on Gershwin. Hambitzer seriously trained young talent in piano techniques, harmony, orchestration, improvisation, and also made George familiar with music of progressive European composers of those times. Later on Gershwin studied with a number of other famous composers, like Rubin Goldmark, Joseph Shillinger, etc, who taught him the basics of composition and artistic arrangement. The first years of his musical career Gershwin spent playing piano at Remarks Music Publishing House in Tin Pan Alley as a song plugged: a piano player, who demonstrated the songs to be sold to the producers.
This work was an incredible experience for the young composer, and during this period of time he made first efforts on composing some own songs, similar to the ones he had to perform. In 1916 he officially published his first composition and took pseudo name George Gershwin. For some time he continued earning money as a pianist, working on writing more and more songs and even musical comedies. In 1919 the premier of his first stage musical La, La, Lucille had very good success in Broadway and, a year later, his song from this musical, Swanee, performed by Al Jolson, brought nationwide fame and popularity to young talented composer. Within the first year, Swanee exceeded one million copies sold around the country, and it was just the beginning for Gershwin. Together with his brother, Ira Gershwin, George wrote a great deal of stage musicals and compositions for stage shows and performances of Broadway and other American theatres.
The most famous of those are Lady, be good (1924), Oh, Kay (1926), Girl Crazy (1930), Strike up the Band (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), which can be characterized with special rhythmic patterns and original intonations. Almost all the musicals of Gershwin brothers were staged and successfully performed. During whole his musical career, Gershwin used to be captivated by music of many worlds composers of the beginning of XX century, like Russian Dmitriy Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky, Austrian Alban Berg, etc. But the influence of French masters of composition, like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel or Darius Milhaud was the most considerable and the most rooted in Gershwin's works.
Some of these composers were his mentors, like Stravinsky or Ravel. The latter used to highly estimate and value musical talent of Gershwin, encouraging his musical advancement by saying "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" (Bakers Dictionary) But principal unique musical approach of Gershwin was in combining elements of jazz and folk with traditional symphonic compositions. First attempt of such creative experiment was his one act musical opera 135 th Street, which, indeed, was not very successful. But the next work in this mixed style, The Rhapsody in Blue (1924) for piano and orchestra caused shock in American musical world. Despite of its lack of proper form and numerous repetitions, this composition was an example of exceptional vivid rhythmic and melody. Besides, it included a bouquet of American national tunes, that is why it become one of the most worldwide popular composition of all American concert works.
The Rhapsody established Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer. The next symphonic work was Concerto in F (1925), another popular composition for piano and orchestra, which continued Gershwin's musical experiments with jazz and swing. Concerto was much better with its musical concept, and till today it remains matchless with its emotionality. In some years, after visiting Paris, Gershwin got inspired for a new originality: he created a sort of symphonic dance, named An American in Paris (1928). This work can be called as symphonic poem, with its unique wideness of blues melodic and emotional development of harmonic connections throughout the composition. One more innovative approach of Gershwin was special melodic unity in his compositions.
In those times works of popular symphonic composers could be split into separated pieces, but even long and fundamental symphonic masterpieces of Gershwin were not just combinations of tunes: they were large indivisible works of art. Moreover, Gershwin was among the first famous composers, who tried to base their works on improvisation and developing repetitions of principal tunes and melodies. Undoubtedly, ballad folk-opera Porgy and Bess (1935), written on the novel by DuBose Heyward Porgy, was the peak of Gershwin's creative activity. It is one of the first attempts to present various problems and daily life of ethnic minorities in American culture. This masterpiece demonstrates the most mature music of the composer; also, it is the best and most successful American opera of all times, though it received different reviews of critics after its premiere in New York. The opera includes a number of Gershwin's life-best compositions: Summertime, Bess You Is My Woman Now and I Got Plenty of Nuttin are three most known of them.
In 1937 Gershwin started feeling terrible headaches and doctors diagnosed brain tumor. In summer of 1937, after staying for two days in coma, George Gershwin passed away. He was only 39, and he forever remained in minds of American people as an outstanding musical innovator, who created a new style of American music, which we all know today. Beautiful songs written by George Gershwin can be heard in more than 90 movies and TV Series.
Some of his stage musicals, like Girl Crazy, and his opera Porgy and Bess were published as different TV versions, and a great number of his songs were borrowed by cinema sound directors to express emotional moments of their movies. In 2004 Gershwin's song "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" became a part of soundtrack for Oscar nominated movie The Aviator. Apart of being a brilliant composer, Gershwin gained good fame as a talented pianist. After his piano performances, hundreds of enchanted spectators used to rise up and applaud genius maestro for 20 minutes. He played all the premier performances of his own works, and also he gave a lot of concerts, playing music of other composers. His performances were exceptionally emotional, sincere and exciting, and he could make any boring composition live and breath with his expressive playing.
One of the main characteristics of Gershwin's musical philosophy was devotion to national motifs and tendencies in development of American culture of his time. He always reacted on any changes in social routine, and this patriotism resulted in presence of important public themes in content of his works. Besides, it enriched his special music style and methods of his creative expression. "Music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today. " (Greenberg) Bibliography: George Gershwin Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians.
Ed. Nicolas Sloninsky, 7 th Ed. New York: Macmillan, 1984. p. 817 - 818 "George Gershwin. " International Movie Database.
IMDb Inc. 15 May 2005 < web >. "George Gershwin. " Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 14 May 2005. Wiki Media Foundation. 15 May 2005 < web >. "Gershwin, George. " The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6 th Ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Greenberg, Rodney. George Gershwin (20 th-Century Composers).
New York: Phaidon Press 1998
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