September 26, 1898 - July 11, 1937
George Gershwin (born: Yakov Gershowitz) was an important American composer and pianist, who worked both in popular and classical genres, created several world-famous operas, orchestral pieces and film scores, and died at the age of only 38, at the peak of his music career. Among his best known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), as well as the initially unsuccessful, but later cult opera Porgy and Bess (1935).
George Gershwin - The Legend Extinguished In Its Prime
George Gershwin was born in New York borough of Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa. His grandfather (and namesake) Jakov Gershowitz had served in the Imperial Russian Army for quarter of a century to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew (there were strict limitations enacted for Jews). His son Moishe Gershowitz fell in love with Roza Bruskina, born in Vilnius, and when Bruskina moved to New York because of the tide of antisemitism in Russia, Moishe followed her, changing his name to Morris Gershwin during the immigration process.
As a little boy, George was not interested in music, but when his parents bought a piano for his older brother Ira, it was George who mostly played it! Gershwin was taught by several teachers for two years, before being introduced to Charles Hambitzer by a pianist of the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Hambitzer taught Gershwin conventional piano techniques and eagerly encouraged him to attend orchestra concerts.
Coming home from the concerts, young Gershwin would try to play the music that he had heard, altering and experimenting with it.
Having left school at only 15, Gershwin worked as a "song plugger" (song demonstrator) for Jerome H. Remick and Company on New York City's Tin Pan Alley. His first ever published song was "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em" (1916) which earned him a whopping $5!
In 1919 he scored his first big national pop hit with his song, "Swanee". Much of the song's success and popularity was owed to Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer of the day, who heard Gershwin perform "Swanee" at a party, and then sung it in one of his shows. And in 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work (and one of his most prominent compositions), Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano.
Gershwin's relationship with Hollywood was a difficult one. In 1929 he was contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the movie Delicious. But the producers decided to only use two short pieces in the final version, the five-minute "Dream Sequence" and the six-minute "Manhattan Rhapsody" (later reworked and published as Second Rhapsody). Gershwin became so infuriated by the decision, that it would be seven years before he agreed to work for a Hollywood studio again!
Gershwin's first opera was Blue Monday, a short one-act opera that was not a financial success. But soon came his most famous composition - Porgy and Bess (1935), now widely regarded as one of the most important American operas of the XX century.
Porgy and Bess proved to be a commercial failure, so the following year Gershwin decided to move to Hollywood, California, to work for RKO Pictures and write the music for the famous movie Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Gershwin's personal life was greatly complicated by his mother, who was rumored to be unhappy that her son's long-time love, composer Kay Swift, wasn't Jewish: the couple had a ten-year (!) affair but never married, although Swift had obtained a divorce from her first husband.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began experiencing blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. On several occasions his condition would suddenly worsen, leading to blackouts and coordination problems halfway through his concerts, or to mood swings that made his relatives, with whom he was residing at the time, to believe he was suffering from a serious mental illness. After he tried to push a caretaker out from a moving car, they finally lost patience and brought him to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles...
At first, the doctors could not find the cause of the illness, but soon, after he blacked out again and then slipped into coma, they diagnosed Gershwin with a brain tumor. The neurosurgeon who was to perform emergency surgery could not reach Los Angeles from Boston in time - local surgeons tried to perform the procedure themselves but failed, and Gershwin died on the morning of July 11, 1937 at the age of only 38.
Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin. His Life and Work (2006), University of California Press
Schwartz, Charles (1973). Gershwin, His Life and Music. New York, NY: Da Capo Press
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