Here to Stay: George Gershwin at 120

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Ray White.

Publicity photograph of George Gershwin at the piano, 1934. Box 104, Folder 4, George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Music Division.

Composer George Gershwin was born 120 years ago, on September 26, 1898.  For most of his adult life, he was a youthful celebrity, indeed a rock star of his time, and his mystique is only enhanced by his tragic death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.  His story has been often told, and not always entirely accurately.  George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and raised largely in the Lower East Side of New York.  He left high school at age fifteen to make his way in the music business.  He aspired to compose “production music”—that is, music for the Broadway stage—which he regarded as the better quality popular music of the day.  In 1919 at age twenty he wrote his first Broadway score (the little-remembered La-La-Lucille!) and later that year he wrote the song that would bring him international fame–“Swanee,” with a lyric by Irving Caesar, which was popularized by the singing actor Al Jolson.

From early 1920 until Gershwin’s death in 1937, a little less than eighteen years, Gershwin produced music that confirms him as a master of music for Broadway and Hollywood as well as for the concert hall and the opera house.  Many of his songs have remained staples of the popular and jazz repertoires.  And his concert works—beginning with his Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924 when he was only twenty-five, and An American in Paris, written four years later—have become staples of world’s leading orchestras.  Gershwin’s only opera, Porgy and Bess, is widely regarded as one of the truly great American operas.

But as many times as Gershwin’s story has been told, there always seems to be something more to say.  The original manuscripts of George and his lyricist brother Ira in the custody of the Library’s Music Division continue to be rich resources for research.  And the collection continues to grow—with materials which are, by turns, expected (music manuscripts and lyric sheets, for example) as well as the unusual (our most recent acquisition has been a letter from Gershwin to the noted graphologist Nadya Olyanova, whose analysis of that letter found Gershwin’s personality to have been “pervaded with rhythm”).

Happy 120th Birthday, George!

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