The Kennedy Center

George Gershwin


American composer George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898 to a non-musical family, and did not begin his formal musical training until age 12, when he began piano instruction. He left school at 15 to become a "Song Plugger" at the Tin Pan Alley music publishing firm of Jerome Remick. His job there was to play and sing newly published music for potential buyers. While in this job he began composing his own songs. He also made piano rolls under a pseudonym. After four years with Remick he left to travel the vaudeville circuit as a pianist.

His first big song hit was "Swanee," (1917) introduced by Al Jolson, which sold over a million copies. His first Broadway show was La La Lucille, in 1919, which ran for 100 performances. In the following years his success as a composer of popular songs soared, and he became equally successful as a man about town.

With his brother, Ira Gershwin, and other lyricists, Gershwin wrote twenty-two of the most successful musical shows for Broadway during the 20's and early 30's, starring most of the famous stage performers of the time, including Ruby Keeler, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice and Gertrude Lawrence. Of Thee I Sing , a brilliant political satire which he wrote with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1932, the first musical to win that prestigious award. Songs from most of his musical shows became standards of the popular music performing world. Conductor Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write orchestral pieces utilizing jazz elements then popular with the audiences attending concerts by Whiteman's orchestra. These concerts first presented such enduring light classical standards as Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928). New York Symphony conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned Gershwin to write a piano concerto. The NYSO premiered Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F in 1925; it is considered by many to be Gershwin's finest orchestral work.

By 1935 Gershwin's interests turned to more serious music, and he, with his brother Ira, and DuBose and Dorothy Heywood, wrote the "black folk opera" Porgy and Bess, based on the novel by DuBose Heywood. It was received with mixed reviews, and excited some controversy, but has remained a staple in musical theater repertory to this day.

After Porgy and Bess closed on Broadway in 1935, Gershwin went to California to begin writing scores for film musicals. Shall We Dance starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and A Damsel In Distress featured Astaire, Joan Fontaine and Gracie Allen.

By 1937 Gershwin was experiencing increasingly severe headaches and dizzy spells, and on July 9th collapsed into a coma, from which he never awakened. He died on July 11th at age 38 from a brain tumor.
George Gershwin


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