Profile of a Composer: George Gershwin

George Gershwin is known for his orchestral compositions such as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and the opera Porgy and Bess.

George Jacob Gershwine was born on September 26,1898 in New York City.  He was the son of Moishe and Roza Bruskina Gershowitz.   The Gershowitz name was

Brothers George and Ira Gershwin
George is sitting at the piano

soon Americanized to Gershwine.

George had an older brother, Ira and two younger siblings, Arthur and Francis.  All four would make a living in the music business at some point of their lives.

Remarkably, he cared nothing for music until the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s violin recital. The sound, and the way his friend played, captured him. His parents had bought a piano for lessons for his older brother Ira, but to his parents’ surprise, and Ira’s relief, it was George who spent more time playing it.

Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and Joseph Brody.  At home, following such concerts, young Gershwin would essentially try to play, at the piano, the music that he had heard – completely from recall, and without sheet music.

He began his career as a song plugger, but soon started composing Broadway theatre works with his brother Ira Gershwin, and Buddy DeSylva.

In 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song, “Swanee“, with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer of the day, heard Gershwin perform “Swanee” at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows.

George Gershwin

In 1929-1930, the Gershwin brothers created the shows Show Girl and Girl Crazy, which introduced the standards Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and Of Thee I Sing.

In 1924, he composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano.

He moved to Paris intending to study with Nadia Boulanger, who refused him, where he began to compose An American in Paris.

He wrote a short opera, Blue Monday, and then later the ambitious Porgy and Bess in 1935, which was a commercial failure.

George Gershwin had a long term relationship with composer Kay Swift, but they never married.

In early 1937, he began to complain of blinding headaches and a smell of burning rubber.  He also began to suffer from coordination issues.

The discovery of a brain tumor came too late and the attempts to remove it proved unsuccessful.  George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937 at the age of 38.

George Gershwin

The 1937 film Shall We Dance was released two months after his death.  He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song “They Can’t Take That Away from Me“.

In 2007, the Library of Congress named their Prize for Popular Song after George and Ira Gershwin. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of popular music on culture, the prize is given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins.

George Gershwin left us early, but his strong body of musical work lives on.