Happy Birthday George Gershwin!

Happy Birthday Gershwin!

Gershwin’s family was of Russian-Jewish and Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry and had moved to America in the late nineteenth century. The family name was originally Gershowitz, but upon arriving in New York it was Americanised to Gershwin.

Jacob Burskin Gershwin (later known as George) was born on 26th September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. Unusually for most composers, Gershwin was no child prodigy. He cared nothing for music in his early years, and it wasn’t until 1908, intrigued after hearing a friend’s violin recital, that he became interested in music.

Around the same time, Gershwin’s parents bought his older brother Ira a piano. To their surprise, however, it was George who spent more time playing it. He had several piano teachers over the course of a few years, before being introduced to Charles Hambitzer. Hambitzer remained his musical mentor until his death in 1918.

Gershwin left school at age 15 and became a “song plugger” – a piano player employed by department and music stores as well as music publishers to promote and sell new sheet music. He began composing music at this time, publishing his first song in 1916 and earning 50 cents.

In 1919 he hit the big time with his song “Swanee”. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer, heard the song and decided to sing it in one of his shows. But it wasn’t until 1924 that Gershwin wrote what is perhaps his most famous composition – “Rhapsody in Blue”.

Gershwin continued to compose throughout the 1920s and 30s, collaborating with his brother Ira on a number of Broadway stage musicals. His opera “Porgy and Bess”, although not well-received at the time, is now considered one of the most important American operas of the 20th century.

In 1937 Gershwin began suffering from coordination problems and blackouts. On 9th July 1937 he collapsed and fell into a coma. Although he underwent emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumour, Gershwin died on 11th July 1937 at the age of 38.

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