The Amazing Legacy of George Gershwin

During George Gershwin’s short, but eventful, life-time he carved out an amazing career in the music world by composing memorable songs for both the classical concert hall and for popular musical theater. The works of this talented American composer and musician are of such an enduring quality, with universal appeal, that they continue to entertain music lovers more than 60 years after his death.

George Gershwin was born on 26 September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the second of four children who were born to his Russian Jewish immigrant parents. George was about ten years old when he first displayed an interest in music. There was a piano in the family home that had initially been bought for his older brother Ira, but George was the one to master the instrument under the tutorship of Charles Hambitzer. At the age of 16, George Gershwin quit school and began working as a song plugger for publishing company, Remick’s, on Tin Pan Alley. He later recorded and arranged piano rolls for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, producing dozens under his own name, as well as under assumed names. All the while, he was developing his music talent and, together with his brother Ira who wrote many of the lyrics to his songs, George was soon on the road to fame in the entertainment world.

In 1924 George and Ira Gershwin produced the musical comedy, Lady Be Good which was followed in quick succession by Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, Strike Up the Band, Show Girl and Girl Crazy. Their 1931 production Of Thee I Sing was the first musical comedy to receive a Pulitzer Prize. While in Paris in 1928, he wrote An American in Paris, which received somewhat mixed reviews at its debut performance at Carnegie Hall, but went on to be widely acclaimed in Europe and the United States. In total, he produced sixteen Broadway Musicals as well as one London musical.

Not restricting his talents to Broadway Theater, in 1924 George Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra and piano. This jazz-influenced classical piece was his first major classical work and proved to be his most popular. It also served to establish his reputation in the music world as a serious composer.

In 1935 George Gershwin presented “Porgy and Bess” – a work which he himself termed as a “folk opera”. Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, which is based in a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, apart from some minor speaking roles, all the characters are black. Gershwin skillfully blended elements of popular music of the day, with black music and opera techniques, to produce what is today widely regarded as the most important twentieth century American opera.

Many of George Gershwin’s compositions have been used in films and on television, as well as becoming jazz standards. Numerous musicians and singers have recorded his songs, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby, Janis Joplin, Madonna, Billy Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Julie Andrews, Frank Sinatra and Sting.

Sadly, George Gershwin died on 11 July 1937 at the age of 38, following surgery to remove a cystic malignant brain tumor. His life was short, but his impact on the world of music was enormous – and his legacy lives on.