George Gershwin, 1898 – 1937

September 26, 1898 – Birthdate of George Gershwin, American pianist and composer.

Gershwin’s compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

Gershwin was born of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish descent. His grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew.

His teenage son, Moishe Gershowitz, worked as a leather cutter for women’s shoes. Moishe met and fell in love with Roza Bruskina, the teenage daughter of a furrier, born in Vilnius. Bruskina moved with her family to New York due to fears of an increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia.

George Gershwin was born at the new residence on September 26, 1898; his birth certificate bears the name Jacob Gershwine, with the surname being commonly pronounced ‘Gersh-vin’ by the predominantly expatriate Russian and Yiddish community.

George lived a usual childhood existence for children of New York tenements – running around with his boyhood friends, roller skating and misbehaving in the streets. Remarkably, he cared nothing for music until the age of ten, when he was intrigued by what he heard at his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s violin recital.  The sound, and the way his friend played, captured him. His parents had bought a piano for lessons for his older brother Ira, but to his parents’ surprise, and Ira’s relief, it was George who spent more time playing it.

Gershwin was influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century. In turn Maurice Ravel was impressed with Gershwin’s abilities, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”  The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.

What set Gershwin apart was his ability to manipulate forms of music into his own unique voice. He took the jazz he discovered on Tin Pan Alley into the mainstream by splicing its rhythms and tonality with that of the popular songs of his era. Although George Gershwin would seldom make grand statements about his music, he believed that “true music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

Gershwin died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937, at the age of 38.  His funeral was held at Temple Emanu-El in New York City and 3,500 people attended. He was buried in Westchester Hills Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York.

As testament to how well-loved his music was throughout the world, his image can be seen on these stamps issued by the United States, Monaco, the Republic of Comoros and the Republic of Niger:

george gershwin_us               george gershwin_monaco

george gershwin_republic of comoros               george gershwin_Niger

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