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George Gershwin

 b.26 September 1898, Brooklyn, New York
d.11 July 1937, HollywoodGeorge Gershwin


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George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 September 1898, and began his musical training at thirteen. At fifteen he quit high school to work as a pianist and 'song plugger' for a music publisher, and soon he was writing songs. Swanee, introduced by Al Jolson, brought Gershwin his first real fame. But it was George and his older brother Ira who became the dominant Broadway songwriters to emerge during the 1920s, creating a ceaseless flow of brisk, infectious rhythms and affectingly poignant ballads. Working together, they fashioned the words to fit the melodies with a 'glove-like fidelity'. This extraordinary collaboration led to a succession of 22 musical comedies, among them Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926). Funny Face (1927), Strike Up The Band {1927 & 1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Over the years, Gershwin songs have also been used in numerous films and in the award-winning stage musicals My One And Only (1983) and Crazy For You, which opened on Broadway in 1992. Crazy For You is loosely based on Girl Crazy, with a new libretto by Ken Ludwig, and has an impressive roster of George and Ira songs including two previously unpublished songs. Crazy For You opened in the West End on 3 March 1993 at the Prince Edward Theatre.

From his early career Gershwin had ambitions to compose serious music. Asked by Paul Whiteman to write an original work for a special modern concert to be presented at Aeolian Hall in New York on 12 February 1924, Gershwin, who was hard at work on a musical comedy, barely finished his composition in time. But from the first low chuckle of the solo clarinet and its spine-tingling run up the scale. Rhapsody In Blue caught the public's fancy and opened a new era in American music.

In 1925 the eminent conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned Gershwin to compose a piano concerto for the New York Symphony Society. Many feel that this Concerto In F is Gershwin's finest orchestral work. Others opt for his An American In Paris (1928) or his Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, which he introduced with himself as pianist with the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzsky in 1932.

Gershwin, fascinated by the DuBose Heyward novel Porgy, recognised it as a perfect vehicle for opera using blues and jazz idioms. What he called a 'folk opera", Porgy And Bess (co-written with Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin) was the Gershwin brothers' most ambitious undertaking, tightly integrating unforgettable songs with drama. Porgy And Bess was first performed in Boston on 30 September 1935 and opened on Broadway on 10 October. In addition to its 1942 and 1953 revivals and subsequent world tours, it was made into a major motion picture in 1959.

In 1937 George Gershwin was at the height of his career. His symphonic works and three Preludes For Piano were becoming part of the standard repertory for concerts and recitals, and his lighter songs had brought him ever increasing fame and fortune. It was in Hollywood, while he was working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that George Gershwin collapsed and on 11 July 1937 died of a brain tumour. He was not quite 39 years old. Countless people throughout the world, who knew George Gershwin only through his work, were stunned by the news as if they had suffered a personal loss. John O'Hara summed up their feelings at the time: 'George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to'.

Today, George Gershwin's works are sung and played with ever greater frequency than they were in his brief lifetime. The songs and concert pieces are proving to be not in the least ephemeral as a glance at the pages of any record catalogue will quickly show.

Reproduction Rights
This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Warner/Chappell

Ira Gershwin

Ira Gershwin, the first songwriter to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (along with co-librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for Of Thee I Sing) was born in New York City on 6 December 1896. While attending the College of the City of New York he began contributing to the famed Conning Tower and Don Marquis' column in the Evening Sun: the latter published in May 1917 his first song lyric 'You May Throw All The Rice You Desire But Please, Friends, Throw No Shoes'. Marquis appreciated the joke lyric, printed it. and called the work "perfect".

1918 marked the year of Ira Gershwin's first work to be sung from a stage, as well as the beginning of a long-time collaboration with his brother George when their 'The Real American Folk Song' was interpolated into the Nora Bayes show Ladies First. Not wanting to trade on the success of his already famous brother, Ira soon afterward adopted the nom de plume of Arthur Francis, combining the names of his youngest brother Arthur and sister Frances. Under this pen name Ira Gershwin enjoyed his first major stage success, Two Little Girls In Blue, written in 1921 with another Broadway newcomer, Vincent Youmans.

By 1924 the pseudonym was dropped. Thus it was as "the Gershwin brothers" that George and Ira created the 1924 stage hit Lady, Be Good! Their remarkable collaboration was to produce a dozen major stage scores, including Tip -Toes (1925), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up The Band (1927 & 1930), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and the American opera Porgy And Bess (written in collaboration with DuBose &. Dorothy Heyward).

In 1936 the two brothers went to Hollywood for what became their final collaboration, three motion picture scores; Shall We Dance (1937), A Damsel In Distress (1937) and The Goldwyn Follies (1938). Together the Gershwin brothers created dozens of "standards" many of which have been rediscovered by a younger generation, delighted with the "new' Gershwin musicals My One And Only (1983) and the 1992 Tony Award winner for best musical Crazy For You which also won two Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography in 1993.

Ira was also proud of his collaborations with other songwriters, including Harold Arlen (Life Begins At 8:40, A Star is Born, The Country Girl), Vernon Duke (Ziegfeld Follies of 1936), Kurt Weill (Lady In The Dark, The Firebrand Of Florence, Where Do We Go From Here?), Aaron Copland (North Star), Harry Warren (The Barkleys Of Broadway), Arthur Schwartz (Park Avenue), Burton Lane (Give A Girl A Break), and Jerome Kern (Cover Girl). From Cover Girl came Ira's greatest song hit of any one year, 'Long Ago (And Far Away)'.

In all the years after George's death, Ira was the keeper of the Gershwin flame, assiduously attending to the details of his brother's estate and supervising for donation to the Library of Congress the organisation and annotation of manuscripts pertaining to the careers of the brothers Gershwin. On 17 August 1983 Ira died peacefully in the Beverly Hills, California home that he had long shared with his wife of 56 years, Leonore.

Reproduction Rights
This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Warner/Chappell

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