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Classical Composers A-Z: George Gershwin

Peter Wintersgill outlines the life of George Gershwin, perhaps the best-loved of all American composers.

26th September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York.

Father and Mother
Moishe and Rosa. Russian Jews from St. Petersburg.

Elder brother Ira, younger brother Arthur.

Poor home, rags to riches. Played Ira's piano - great talent.

Started piano lessons at 15 from Charles Hambitzer, who soon recognised his talent. Left school at fifteen, worked as pianist and song plugger for music publisher in Tin Pan Alley. They published his first piece for piano - Rialto Ripples. Later studied theory and harmony with Edward Kilenyi, for whom he wrote a string quartet and the song Swanee, sung and recorded by Al Jolson.

Adult Life
First big hit was Rhapsody in Blue (1924) for piano and orchestra, commissioned and
orchestrated by Paul Whiteman; followed by Piano Concerto in 1925, then American in
Paris, in 1928.

He was a real extrovert, loved parties, and was a great ladies’ man. Did a grand tour in 1928 to London, Paris and Vienna.

His main claim to fame was to combine jazz and folk music with serious music, the only composer of musicals to do so.

He wrote the 2nd Rhapsody (1931), which was a great success. His musicals included
Lady be Good (1924) for Fred and Adele Astaire, Funny Face (1927), Strike up the
Band, Girl Crazy (1930) and Let 'em Eat Cake (1933).

Among his film scores were Shall We Dance? and a Damsel in Distress (1937) and The
Goldwyn Follies (1938).

Perhaps his best remembered work is the Negro opera Porgy and Bess (1935), a flop at first, but later a success.

He only had two serious love affairs, both with married women; Simone Simon, a flirty
French girl and Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin.

In 1937 he started with dizzy spells and headaches. After a long delay this was diagnosed as a brain tumour, for which he had an operation, but died ten days later without regaining consciousness on 15th July, 1937, in Hollywood, aged 39.


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