Primarily a songwriter, George Gershwin also produced a number of well-loved concert works that point to his genius for melody and the rhythms of jazz. Never one to distinguish between popular and classical genres, his tragically early death at the age of 38 surely robbed the world of yet more classic songs and further successes in the concert hall.
Born to Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York on 26 September 1898, Gershwin first discovered his remarkable natural ability on the piano in 1910. By 1912 he was the classically trained pupil of Charles Hambitzer, but in 1914 dropped out of school to work for Jerome H. Remick & Co., a publishing firm on Tin Pan Alley.
Working as a song-plugger (promoting the firm's songs to potential performers), he also began to compose his own songs and piano pieces. At the same time, Gershwin also continued his classical training, studying harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and form with Kilenyi.
In 1917, Gershwin left Remick & Co. to become a rehearsal pianist on Broadway, still composing his own songs, which by now were being noticed and published. By the end of 1918, three Broadway shows featured his music and his first full Broadway score, La La Lucille opened in May 1919.
Gershwin made the big time with the hit song, Swanee, famously sung by Al Jolson; royalties in 1920 alone brought him $10,000. He continued to produce hit shows for producer George White, including Lady be Good in 1924, the first for which his brother Ira supplied all the lyrics.
1924 also marked Gershwin's compositional debut in the concert hall, in a concert promoted as 'An Experiment in Modern Music' and presented by Paul Whiteman's dance band. The experiment in question demonstrated the elevation of jazz music through a symphonic arrangement; the piece was the inimitable Rhapsody in Blue, quickly gaining the praise of both the public and the critics.
Growing in fame and fortune, and moving in theatrical and literary social circles, Gershwin followed up Rhapsody with further concert works, including the Concerto in F for Piano and An American in Paris. The latter was written in 1928, mostly during a tour to Europe where the successful composer met colleagues Prokofiev, Milhaud, Ravel, Walton, and Berg. Stravinsky, on being approached for lessons, is supposed to asked with typical candour: "How much do you earn from music Mr Gershwin?". Upon hearing the reply, he retorted: "In that case, I should study with you!"
Having broadened his scope without dulling his popular appeal, Gershwin continued to write hit shows for Broadway, though less frequently than before. Girl Crazy appeared in 1930 and 1931's Of Thee I Sing won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Still anxious to pursue his concert aspirations, though, Gershwin studied with Joseph Schillinger from 1932 to 1936, producing the Cuban Overture and, most importantly, his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. Amazingly for an opera, Porgy opened on Broadway, further dissolving the barriers between popular and classical music.
Having finally moved to Hollywood with Ira in August 1936 after signing a contract with RKO studios to provide songs for the movies, Gershwin's sudden death in July 1937 shocked the entertainment world. Complaining of dizzy spells, he suddenly fell into a coma on July 9. A brain tumour was diagnosed and emergency surgery carried out, but Gershwin died on 11 July.
Gerhswin's legacy lies in the phenomenal number of indisputably classical songs he wrote, including such varied gems as: Someone to Watch Over Me (1926), I got rhythm (1930), and Nice Work if You can Get It (1937). In addition, he showed with the jazz-influenced style of his orchestral works and his opera, Porgy and Bess, that his genius for melody could transcend any barriers of genre or style.