|Born||Sep. 26, 1898
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||July 11, 1937 (at age 38)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Born on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, George Gershwin was widely regarded as the most famous and popular American musical composer of the 20th century. His majestic compositions included celebrated orchestral works such as the 1928 classic An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, and folk operas such as Porgy and Bess, and other great works.
Born Jacob Gershwine, the ever-popular composer was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the U.S. His father was Moishe (Morris) Gershowitz and his mother was Rosa (Rose) Bruskin and they moved from Russia to New York roughly eight years before George’s birth. He was named after his Jewish grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, who had worked his entire life as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army in order to earn the right of residence in Russia.
George eventually changed his name to Gershwin after becoming a professional composer. His older brother, Ira, and younger siblings, Arthur and Frances, grew up in the center of the thriving Yiddish Theater District, the leading Yiddish theater in the world. Frequently George ran errands for the members of the local Yiddish theaters and he even appeared as an extra in various vaudeville acts, musical shows, and plays.
Fascinated by a violin recital performed by his friend, 11-year old George Gershwin taught himself to play a popular song on a second-hand piano that his parents bought for Ira. Surprised by George’s innate talent for music, his parents decided to pay for piano lessons for him instead of Ira. His piano teacher and mentor, Charles Hambitzer, however, refused payment upon discovering George’s exceptional musical abilities.
At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and began working as a song plugger for a publishing company on Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley. In 1916, he composed his first published song and his first solo composition Rialto Ripples. In 1919, he composed the popular song Swanee, with lyrics by Irving Caesar and performed by Al Jolson.
Gershwin’s professional career in songwriting began as a classical composer. He was greatly influenced by Maurice Ravel and he reached his first major success in 1924 when he completed the classic orchestral composition Rhapsody in Blue, which combines classical music with jazz nuances.
That same year, he also composed the commercially successful stage musical comedy entitled Lady, Be Good, which starred Fred Astaire and was also the first Broadway collaboration with his brother, Ira. The following year, Gershwin composed on commission what is now widely considered to be his finest orchestral work – Piano Concerto in F.
In 1928, while in Paris to study composition, Gershwin was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to compose the now-classic symphonic tone poem An American in Paris, which was featured in the 1951 Hollywood musical with the same name.
Operas and Other Works
In 1931, Gershwin composed the first musical comedy that was ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was entitled Of Thee I Sing. He also created the orchestral work Second Rhapsody. Incorporating jazz and blues idioms, George Gershwin conceived the famous 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was based on a novel by DuBose Heyward.
Gershwin spent his last two years in Hollywood composing original film scores. In 1937, at the height of his career, he was nominated posthumously by the Academy Awards for Best Original Song – They Can t Take That Away From Me, composed for the 1937 musical film Shall We Dance, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Death and Legacy
The famous American composer passed away unexpectedly at only 38 years old on the morning of July, 11, 1937, in Los Angeles, California, during the filming of the musical film The Goldwyn Follies. He died due to a brain tumor, which he had been diagnosed with at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles only two days prior to his death. George Gershwin was buried at Westchester Hills Cemetery in New York. At the centennial of his birth, in 1998, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.