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George Gershwin

George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue is a musical composition by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band written in 1924, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. Commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman, the composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé three times, in 1924, in 1926, and finally in 1942. The piece received its premiere in a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano.

220px-George_Gershwin_1937George Gershwin in 1937

George Gershwin (/ˈɡɜːrʃ.wɪn/; September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist. Gershwin’s compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and Joseph Brody. He began his career as a song plugger, but soon started composing Broadway theatre works with his brother Ira Gershwin, and Buddy DeSylva. He moved to Paris intending to study with Nadia Boulanger, who refused him, where he began to compose An American in Paris. After returning to New York City, he wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and the author DuBose Heyward. Initially a commercial failure, Porgy and Bess is now considered one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century.

Gershwin moved to Hollywood and composed numerous film scores until his death in 1937 from a malignant brain tumor– glioblastoma multiforme.

Gershwin’s compositions have been adapted for use in many films and for television, and several became jazz standards recorded in many variations. Many celebrated singers and musicians have covered his songs.

Biography: Early Life

Gershwin was born of Russian and Ukrainian Jewish descent. His grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. He retired near Saint Petersburg. His teenage son, Moishe Gershowitz, worked as a leather cutter for women’s shoes. Moishe met and fell in love with Roza Bruskina, the teenage daughter of a furrier, born in Vilnius. Bruskina moved with her family to New York due to fears of an increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia; once re-settled, she Americanized her first name to Rose. Moishe, faced with compulsory military service in Russia, followed Rose as soon as he had the means to. Upon arrival in New York, Moishe Gershowitz used the first name Morris. Moishe (Morris) settled at first with a maternal uncle in Brooklyn: a tailor named Greenstein, where he worked as a foreman in a women’s shoe factory. When Morris and Rose married on July 21, 1895, they were 23 and 19, respectively. At some time between 1893 and 1898, Moishe (Morris) Gershowitz changed his surname to Gershwine – even possibly at, or around, the time of his marriage to Roza.

The first child to the new couple was Ira (given the name ‘Israel’), on December 6, 1896. It was about that time that Morris moved the family to Brooklyn, to a second-floor dwelling at 242 Snediker Avenue. George Gershwin was born at the new residence on September 26, 1898; his birth certificate bears the name Jacob Gershwine, with the surname being commonly pronounced ‘Gersh-vin’ by the predominantly expatriate Russian and Yiddish community. George was named after his late grandfather (the Russian army mechanic). However, although the common American practice was to give children two names—a first and a middle name—he had no other name but ‘George’. Years later, George changed the spelling of his surname to ‘Gershwin’ after he became a professional musician; subsequently, other members of his family followed suit.

George and Ira lived in many different residences, as their father changed dwellings with each new enterprise with which he became involved. Mostly, the boys grew up around the Yiddish Theater District. They frequented the local Yiddish theaters, with George occasionally appearing onstage as an extra.

After Ira and George, two more children were born to the family: Arthur (1900–1981), and Frances (1906–1999).

George lived a usual childhood existence for children of New York tenements – running around with his boyhood friends, roller skating and misbehaving in the streets. 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. Although his younger sister Frances Gershwin was the first in the family to make a living through her musical talents, she married young and devoted herself to being a mother and housewife – thus surrendering any serious time to musical endeavors. Frances, having given up her performing career, did however settle upon another art: painting, as a creative outlet. Painting had also been a hobby George briefly pursued. Arthur Gershwin followed in the paths of George and Ira, when he also became a composer of songs, musicals, and short piano works.

With a degree of frustration, George tried various piano teachers for some two years, before finally being introduced to Charles Hambitzer by Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Until his death in 1918, Hambitzer remained Gershwin’s musical mentor and taught him conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. 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. As a matter of course, Gershwin later studied with the classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell, thus formalizing his classical music training.

Europe and Classical Music

220px-George_Gershwin-signedGeorge Gershwin, c. 1935.

In 1924, Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano. This piece featured an intermediate work that would win over the audience when played. It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and premiered by Paul Whiteman’s concert band in New York. It proved to be his most popular work.

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger, who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him. They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” While there, Gershwin wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and the United States.[26] Growing tired of the Parisian musical scene, Gershwin returned to the United States.

In 1929, Gershwin was contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the movie Delicious. Only two pieces were used in the final film, the five-minute “Dream Sequence” and the six-minute “Manhattan Rhapsody,” which in expanded form was later published as the Second Rhapsody. Gershwin became infuriated when the rest of the score was rejected by Fox Film Corporation, and it would be seven years before he worked in Hollywood again.


Gershwin’s first opera, Blue Monday, is a short one-act opera which was not a financial success and has received only limited performances. Gershwin’s most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Gershwin called it a “folk opera”, and it is now widely regarded as one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century. “From the very beginning, it was considered another American classic by the composer of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’—even if critics couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate it. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical? ‘It crossed the barriers,’ says theater historian Robert Kimball. ‘It wasn’t a musical work per se, and it wasn’t a drama per se – it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category.”

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