Today, a great American composer:
The composer does not sit around and wait for an inspiration to walk up and introduce itself ... Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion. In composing we combine what we know of music with what we feel.
- George Gershwin (quoted in Goldberg, Tin Pan Alley)
Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas.
- Gershwin (The Composer in the Machine Age (1933))
My people are American, my time is today ... music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the times.
- Gershwin (quoted in Armitage, Accent on America)
Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer - that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language.
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) (quoted in Kimball and Simon, The Gershwins)
Today is the 116th anniversary of the birth of American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn to Jewish parents of Russian/Ukrainian descent. Gershwin started piano lessons at an early age, left school at 15, first worked as a "song plugger" on Tin Pan Alley, and published his own first song in 1916. Later, while working as a piano-roll arranger, he began a series of Broadway collaborations, leading to his first show with brother Ira Gershwin (1896-1983), Lady Be Good (1924). This was followed by (among others) Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927), Show Girl (1929), and Girl Crazy (1930). In 1924, Gershwin also wrote his quasi-classical Rhapsody in Blue for Paul Whiteman's band, and it has remained his most popular work in that vein. That same year, he traveled to Paris, hoping to study composition with Nadia Boulanger or Maurice Ravel - they demurred - but while there he did compose another of his well-known semi-classical works, An American in Paris. Following a brief Hollywood stint, Gershwin wrote his most ambitious work, the "folk opera" Porgy and Bess (1935), based on a novel by DuBose Heyward, and it has been an American classic ever since.* Gershwin's shows became the source of countless popular hits, including "I Got Rhythm," "Strike Up the Band," "Swanee," "Summertime," and "Someone," and his classical compositions raise intriguing questions about "what might have been" had he not been felled by a brain tumor in 1937. On his death, American novelist John O'Hara (1905-1970) wrote,
"George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
* N.B. Of Porgy and Bess, American composer Virgil Thomson 1896-1989) wrote,
"Porgy is ... an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad set-up. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has a considerable power."
Rare footage of Gershwin himself playing I Got Rhythm: