Photos courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
Despite his abbreviated life, George Gershwin (1898–1937) — born Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz in 1898, in Brooklyn — crafted an epochal body of work, encompassing not only a group of compositions but also a stylistic imprint as influential as that of any other American composer. He composed perhaps the country’s most iconic orchestral work, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), as well as the signature American opera, Porgy and Bess (1935); and he wrote the music to songs that are as indelible as any written in the era of Tin Pan Alley: “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy and Bess), “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “Love Walked In,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “S’Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and on and on, many penned for hit shows on Broadway. Then there are his oft-performed orchestral tone poem An American in Paris and his Piano Concerto in F, which Gershwin premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1925 with himself as soloist. He was appreciated by European classical composers for his individuality and freshness. Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky are on record as being inspired by Gershwin, and no less than Arnold Schoenberg praised the American for his unique way with rhythm, melody and harmony: “Gershwin is an artist and a composer — he expressed musical ideas, and they were new, as is the way he expressed them.” In his own way, Gershwin was a modernist, saying: “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”
After the composer’s death from a brain tumor in 1937, The New York Times obituary stated: “Mr. Gershwin was a child of the Twenties, the Age of Jazz. In the fast two-step time after the war, he was to music what F. Scott Fitzgerald was to prose.” Yet, however much he captured his age, Gershwin’s music has lived on, beguiling each successive generation. Major concert pianists from Oscar Levant, Leonard Bernstein and Earl Wild to André Previn, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Garrick Ohlsson have performed and recorded Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F. Such jazz pianists as Marcus Roberts and Stefano Bollani have ventured the Gershwin works on record, too. Although Gershwin died before he could make high-fidelity recordings, his crisp, vivacious manner at the piano can be experienced through the player-piano rolls he made, many of which — including a complete, solo Rhapsody in Blue – were restored and reissued by Nonesuch on hit albums in the mid–’90s. Acknowledging his prime inspiration, Gershwin penned a 1926 essay titled “Jazz Is the Voice of the American Soul.” In return, jazz singers from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Diana Krall and Cécile McLorin Salvant have been inspired to interpret Gershwin’s songs, as have instrumentalists from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis to Keith Jarrett and Bill Charlap. (That’s not to mention the countless vintage jazz tunes based on the chord changes of Gershwin’s song “I Got Rhythm.”) Whether in cabarets or jazz clubs, Gershwin’s songs are sung as often as those by Schubert or The Beatles; Porgy and Bess was revived on Broadway with star Audra McDonald in 2012, for nearly 300 performances; and the composer’s concert works are heard around the world, still representing an American ideal. —Bradley Bambarger