The name of George Gershwin linked one of the most interesting periods of music history of the United States. One hundred years after his birth, George Gershwin is the most widely remembered of the songwriters who dominated African popular music between the end of World War I and the rise of rock-and-roll (Teachout 46).
George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist. His parents were immigrants from Russia. He did not receive systematic music education and began to study to play the piano with the help of a famous music teacher Hambitzer in 14 years old. Then, already a famous author, he took lessons in composition and harmony. Since 1913 he worked as a pianist-accompanist at the music store and began to write songs in the style of I. Berlin (1888-1989) and D. Kern (1885-1945).
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Soon he achieved a success in musicals. Many of the songs from the musicals have become extremely popular with the crowds. The most popular musicals written by Gershwin are the following ones: “Ladies, please,” “Funny Face”, “Crazy” and many of his songs. The real fame came to Gershwin in 1924, after writing “Rhapsody in blue” for the piano and orchestra, performed by the author with the orchestra conducted by P. Whiteman.
Thus, in this paper we are going to discuss and examine biographical information about this composer, to explore musical styles and forms which he is famous for, and to describe one of the major works of George Gershwin that is called “Rhapsody in blue”.
Biographical information about George Gershwin
Gershwin was born on September 26, 1898 in New York’s block of Brooklyn. He was a son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a native of St. Petersburg. The real name of the famous composer was Jacob Gershowitz. Since childhood, absorbing jazz culture (they say, that Gershwinhas heard jazz music at age 6), he was a lover of jazz concerts. In 12 years old, George began to learn to play the piano himself. Much later, as a famous composer, Gershwin has never ceased to learn, and improve his technique. During these lessons, he became acquainted with unique American composers of those years – Henry Cowell, Wallingford Constantine Rieggerand Russian Professor Joseph Schillinger (Joseph was famous for the fact that he approached to the process of composing music with a mathematical position, trying to develop a universal algorithm).
In 1914, Gershwin began to play music professionally, working as an accompanist in the company of Jerome Remick. Two years later, the first author’s work of George Gershwin was presented to the audience. Despite the fact that this work had not much success with the crowds, some well-known and famous Broadway producers and directors paid attention to a talented composer. For example, Sigmund Romberg happily included music of Gershwin in his operetta “The Passing Show of 1916”. In those years, Gershwin, playing the piano and mastering harmony and orchestration, earned extra money as a pianist in different restaurants.
In 1918-1919, on Broadway there were a lot of works of Gershwin: “Swanee” entered the musical “Sinbad” and had a resounding success in the performance of Al Jolson. In 1919, a famous performance “La, La Lucille” was entirely based on the works of Gershwin. In 1920-1924, George Gershwin created several dozens of works for “George White’s Scandals”, and in 1922, he even wrote a real opera, which was named “Blue Monday” (also known as “135th Street”). After the premiere, he was invited by Whiteman to a jazz band as a composer. George wrote especially for Whiteman a real pearl of his work – “Rhapsody in Blue”. In 1924, Gershwin created his famous musical “Lady, Be Good!” that had much success and brought a composer the first wide popularity on Broadway. In this performance, Gershwin first worked with his brother Ira Gershwin, who wrote all the lyrics. The next decade, this creative union was one of the most productive and popular unions on Broadway. The most successful show was “Of Thee I Sing”, 1931.They received the Pulitzer Prize, first awarded to a musical performance, for this show. The most extensive and ambitious work in the biography of George Gershwin was a “folk” opera “Porgy and Bess”, 1935, staged on the novel by Edwin DuBose Heyward, who took part in writing the libretto for that opera.
According to Crawford, “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (libretto by DuBose Heyward with help from Ira Gershwin)-the stage work that has come to at the Great American Opera tag (minus Kahn’s stenographers and subways) perhaps better than any other-opened in New York” (697).In early 1937,Gershwin was diagnosed with symptoms of a brain tumor. Gershwin was placed in Leben-Clinic, where he died on July 11, 1937in Los Angeles without regaining consciousness after cancer surgery to remove a tumor.
Musical styles and forms of Gershwin’s masterpieces
The musical styles and forms of Gershwin’s works are well-known and can be characterized as dynamic contrast images, humor or satirical grotesque combinations of traditional African-American folk and jazz music with the principles of symphonism. The melodies of Gershwin’s songs are unique for their combinations of identity and almost complete dissolution of African-American melodies and harmonies. Sometimes, his music is influenced by cantorial singing, though the Jewish theme is virtually absent in his work.
It is interesting to know that Gershwin not only composed and created “light music”. By 1919, he wrote a string quartet that was called “Lullaby”. This composition represented a very high-style opus, written in the genre of light blues, but it had a resemblance to “elegant music” of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. Gershwin joined the “classic” means with intonations of jazz in the opera music. All compositions and works that were written by Gershwin, permeated by a common idea – to make music accessible to everyone, do not break away from everyday life, do not turn away from the sound arrogant streets, dancing, do not erect the adamantine walls between classical and popular music. This idea led George Gershwin to the creation of his works included in a music custom all over the world, which raised American music to the level of classics.
Rhapsody in Blue
“Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most famous and successful works of George Gershwin. Rhapsody was first performed by the author on February 12, 1924 in New York, accompanied by the orchestra of Paul Wightman. This work was ordered by Wightman on January 5, 1923, as an experiment to create a new musical style that combines jazz and classical music. Initially, that product was called “An American Rhapsody.” The well-known name of this work was suggested by the composer’s brother Ira Gershwin, after visiting an art exhibition of James McNeill Whistler. “Rhapsody in Blue” became a masterpiece of classical music and jazz, and, in various interpretations, played by musicians in different fields of music. This composition that includes elements of jazz, the Negro folk music and light music are combined with a brilliant piano writing in the style of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff. This work was a kind of bridge between the so-called light and academic music. “Rhapsody” is one of the most frequently performed concertos for the piano and orchestra (along with the concerts by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) and the repertoire of the finest pianists in the world. Music is characterized by vivid signs of early American jazz: a syncopated rhythm, a sense of improvisation, etc. However, the development of the main themes goes on within the strict framework of sonata form, the author uses a “classic” orchestra, and solo piano reminds a romantic style of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. In this musical composition, the themes are based on the blues scale that consists of major and minor thirds and lowered sevenths. There are significant differences in presentation styles of each theme.
The harmonic structure of this composition is difficult to express and analyze. One thing can be said that the piece of Rhapsody begins and consequently ends in B flat.
Different contemporary styles and jazz are present in this masterpiece. The tempos of Rhapsody in Blue vary directly and widely. There is an extreme use of “rubato” in a lot of places throughout this composition.
According to Howard, “â€¦Rhapsody is irresistible still, with its syncopated rhythmic vibrancy, its abandoned, impudent flair that tells more about the roaring twenties than could a thousand words, and its genuine melodic beauty colored a deep, jazzy blue by the flatted sevenths and thirds that had their origins in the Negro slave songs” (par. 3).In addition,
Schiff stated that “Rhapsody in Blue is an enduring monument to the love affair of Americans – and people around the world – with the African-American idiom that became the most influential language of twentieth-century music” (3).
Taking the above-stated information into consideration, it is possible to draw a conclusion that George Gershwin was one of the most famous and talented American composers in the first half of the XX century. In his work, he has managed to combine seemingly incompatible phenomena: the European late romantic music, jazz and pop.
The composer’s creative experience is unique and no one could repeat it exactly. However, a style found by Gershwin (a combination of different spheres of music), proved to be fruitful and prosperous for American culture and led to wonderful phenomena, such as musicals of Leonard Bernstein.
Many critics noted that Gershwin mixed folk and classical music. However, it was a common thing for a lot of great composers. Music of ordinary people finds its place in symphonic music with the majestic compositions. Gershwin’s creativity is distinguished by a great emotional and original melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language, enriched with folk motifs of African-American songs. Harmony and characteristic rhythms of swing and jazz were influenced by the music of George Gershwin. Despite ingenious rhythms and beautiful lyrical melody, his music arises primarily from his own harmonic structure. After Gershwin, the development of jazz can be mostly attributed to the expansion and complication of harmony.
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