George Gershwin and His Importance to Theater Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2780 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Music

George Gershwin is considered one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century. He was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1868 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Russian immigrants and had four children. George was the second child. He had an older brother Ira, a younger sister Francis, and a younger brother Arthur. Gershwin is best known for bringing a fresh new sound to the Broadway musical stage during the 1920s and the 1930s. Furthermore, his career showed a steady progression of widening horizons -- from revue (Scandals) to musical comedy (Lady, Be Good!, Ok, Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy) to comic opera (Strike Up the Band, of Thee I Sing) to "folk" opera (Porgy and Bess) (Green 1980, 150).

Gershwin wasn't raised in a home particularly cultured household, nor was he forced by exploitative parents into some kind of unnatural childhood (Jablonski 1998, 1). He was raised in a very typical New York family and grew up like any other kid on the streets of New York. In fact, even Gershwin wasn't immediately aware of his talents. He wrote, "There is nothing I can really tell…except that music never really interested me, and that I spend most of my time with the boys in the street, skating and, in general, making a nuisance of myself" (1998, 3).Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Maxie Rosenzweig was Gershwin's first "music teacher," which was interesting since when Gershwin met Maxie (who would later become the violin virtuoso Max Rosen), Maxie was 8-years-old and Gershwin was 10-years-old. One day Gershwin decided to sneak out of assembly when a young Maxie was asked to play his violin for the students. Gershwin thought this was stupid, but when he heard Maxie play, he was awestruck. He was immediately taken to the sound and he had to meet the boy. He waited for Maxie in the pouring rain outside, but Maxie had left through the teacher's exit. Gershwin tracked down the house, but Maxie wasn't home. Maxie's parents, however, were so impressed with Gershwin's desire to meet Maxie that they set up a date for the boys to meet. Maxie and Gershwin became the best of friends and Maxie taught Gershwin everything he knew about music. George kept a scrapbook of all things musical -- programs, sketches, and pictures of musicians and composers to feel his inspiration (Rowley 1997).

Gershwin called Charles Hambitzer one of the most important influences in his musical life (Jablonski 1998, 10). Hambitzer was a great composer as well but he was strangely indifferent to having his works performed. He enjoyed teaching piano and he was greatly loved by all his students (1998, 10). Hambitzer was very impressed by George who was always on time and eager to learn. Hambitzer called him a "genius" who would "make his mark in music if anybody will" (1998, 11). Gershwin abandoned all childish activities, skating, playing in the streets, and even hooky, for music (1998, 11). Gershwin said that Hambitzer was responsible for making him "harmony conscious," stating that before Hambitzer, harmony was a secret to him (1998, 11). Hambitzer, however, did not teach musical theory, something that Gershwin also needed to learn and thus Hambitzer introduced Gershwin to Edward Kilenyi.

Gershwin definitely loved playing the classics, but he was also interested in what Hambitzer called "this modern stuff, jazz and whatnot" (Jablonski 1998, 11). Gershwin had hear Jerome Kern's "You're Here and I'm Here" and "They Didn't Believe Me" as well as Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and he was blown away by the music. He told Hambitzer that he also wanted to play that type of music, but Hambitzer was adamant about giving Gershwin a solid foundation in the standards first (1998, 11).

When Gershwin was fifteen years old he dropped out of high school to devote all his time to being a musician. Dropping out of high school was not what his mother wanted for him. In fact, she had plans for him that did not include music. Even after he had become a successful song-writer/composer, she gave unsolicited advice and made demands (Jablonski 1998, 5). Gershwin's first job out of high school was in Tin Pan Alley, a market place where musicians could sell their work in New York. He made fifteen dollars an hour as a music plugger for the Jerome Remick Company, a popular publishing house (Pollack 2007, xiv). A music plugger was someone who played sheet music in hopes of selling it, though he was constantly composing on his own as well as continuing his musical studies. However, plugging music was not something that Gershwin enjoyed. In early 1917 Gershwin quit Remick and in early 1918 he was hired as a songwriter for T.B. Harms, who was at once his principal publisher (2007, xiv). This was the beginning of Gershwin's career as a composer. His first published piece was called, "When You Want Em You Can't Get Em, When You've Got Em You Don't Want Em." This piece was not very well-known, but it was Gershwin's first composition to be sold and for this reason it was very important to him. The next composition published in 1919 was his first major success. It was called "Swanee" and it was used in the Broadway play Sinbad. That very same year, Gershwin wrote his first full-length Broadway score for the production La-La- Lucille (Pollack 2007, 95). Gershwin suddenly had international recognition as a composer. He became even more popular in 1924 with the introduction of his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band and hit shows on both the West End (Primrose) and Broadway (Lady, Be Good!) (2007, xiv). Gershwin kept composing concert works, which included the Concerto in F (1925) and an American in Paris (1928) as well as musical comedies -- including Girl Crazy (1930) and of Thee I Sing (1931), which was the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize (2007, xiv).

Gershwin's career took off and he was hired by George White to compose for his Scandals series, an annual Broadway extravaganza (Rimler 2009, 3). While writing his third Scandals score, Gershwin tried his hand at composing opera. For George White's Scandals of 1922, Gershwin and lyricist B.G. DeSylva gave white something much loftier than the normal revue number. In just five days, the two churned out a half-hour work called Blue Monday, Opera a la Afro-American (2009, 3). It told the story of a Harlem gambler who, having been shot by his girlfriend due to a misunderstanding, dies after singing a sad aria called "I'm Going to See My Mother" (2009, 3). Gershwin was so excited about this during its tryouts that he got what turned out to be a permanent case of his "composer's stomach" -- as he liked to call it -- a chronic combination of nausea, constipation, and abdominal pain (2009, 3). There were mixed reviews about the opera. One review called it the first real American opera; another called it a stupid and dismal black-face sketch (2009, 3). White ended up taking the piece out of the show, believing that it would depress people. This was Gershwin's first attempt away from popular music and, though it didn't go as well as he had planned, he was committed to trying again.

The Jazz Age officially began on January 16, 1920, when the Volstead Act, enforcing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting interstate commerce in alcoholic beverages, went into effect (Hyland 2003, 77). It was a revolution of both manners and morals. Broadway held a mirror to the frivolity of the Jazz Age (2003, 78). La, La, Lucille came out of this era and songs like "Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo" and "Nobody but You" were a herald to the "jazzy" age.

Gershwin and his brother Ira collaborated for their first great success -- Lady Be Good! -- and marked the beginning of what would later be seen as the Golden Age of the American musical (Hyland 2003, 78). This was when brilliant songwriters and clever lyricists took over the reigns on Broadway. Their scores were much superior to those of the previous era and teams like Rodgers and Hart took Broadway by storm. Ira was a clever and brilliant lyricist in popular music. During the 1920s, Ira easily fit into the Jazz Age with his witty lyrics that adopted the tone of the era (2003, 83). He wrote lyrics not only for his brother (while he was still alive) but for Vincent Youmans and Vernon Duke as well as for Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen (after his brother had died).

Music and lyrics were brought together with the libretto and put in some kind of order. On Broadway, as opposed to in movies, the libretto was usually completed before the songwriters started the project, but not always. Usually twelve or more songs were written and then many were tossed aside. Maybe nine or ten songs would survive and make it to the opening in New York, and even after the show opened, there were substitutions… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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