His life embodied the American dream. Starting from nothing, he used his talents and musical intuition to build a fortune and an international reputation. George Gershwin’s music touched a diverse array of audiences and forms, from popular song to concerti to opera. In his short life he helped shape the future of American music.
Gershwin’s parents emigrated from Russia in 1891 and settled in a poor community on the lower east side of Manhattan. As a young child, George was far from studious and he wasn’t exposed to much music at all. He was far too interested in street sports. Then, when he was 11 the family acquired an upright piano. George took to the instrument very quickly. He began to take lessons in composition, theory and counterpoint with many different instructors, yet he never became a proficient sight-reader. He played “by ear”.
When Gershwin was 15, he left school to become a pianist and songwriter on Tin Pan Alley. It was a collection of music publishers on West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, many popular songs came from this one block in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. George began writing and had his first big hit with Swanee which was recorded by Al Jolson in 1920.
Four years later, George was commissioned to write and perform a new work Rhapsody in Blue. This jazz infused romp influenced a generation of American musicians and composers. This was also the year that he teamed up with his older brother, Ira, a talented lyricist. The two became the biggest names in Broadway history. Their early hits include Lady Be Good, Funny Face, and Of Thee I Sing, which became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.
With his growing reputation, Gershwin wrote not just for the Broadway stage but for film and the concert hall. He found success with his Concerto in F and his symphonic An American in Paris. In 1934, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of creating an opera featuring African-Americans. Porgy and Bess garnered quite a few memorable and popular hits, yet it received mixed reviews from audiences and critics. Today though, it has become a touchstone of American musical theater.
Despite his humble beginnings, by the height of his career in the 30s George Gershwin lived a lavish lifestyle among the Hollywood elite. Then in 1937, he started to experience unexplained dizziness. He died in July of that year during an operation to remove a brain tumor. He was 39 years old.