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The Jewish Roots in George Gershwin’s Music
Adam Benaroya, May, 2000

Introduction

Composer of over 860 songs, George Gershwin was very popular with his audience. He wrote many hit songs such as, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” "Nice Work If You Can Get It,”  “Summertime,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and the tone poem American In Paris.

George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershwine, due to the misspelling of his last name by the doctor. He was born on September 26, 1898 in New York City. He was the son of two immigrant parents, father Morris, and mother Rose who came from Russia. He had three siblings, too, brothers Arthur and Ira, and sister Frances. They lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Gershwin enjoyed many sports, such as baseball, wrestling, and having jumping contests. However, he was not good in school and misbehaved. His family didn’t pay much attention to formal Jewish practices; only his brother Ira had a bar mitzvah.

His Early Career

The first time Gershwin noticed that he liked music, was when he heard “Melody in F” by Anton Rubinstein. His first instrumental experience came from a piano that was really meant for Ira. His parents noticed that George enjoyed piano and music, so they bought him some lessons. He began musical training at age 13, which is a late age to start learning. However, he obviously still succeeded playing the piano. Gershwin’s first important teachers were Charles Hambitzer and Edward Kilenyi. By his late teens, Gershwin already began having a musical profession. He left high school and went to work in Tin Pan Alley, a place where composers tried to sell their songs. There, Gershwin worked as a pianist and as a “song plugger”. A song plugger’s job was to help publicize and sell tunes. He started writing songs at the age of 16. Although these songs never became big hits, Gershwin accomplished a lot in the earlier part of his life.

His Private Life

Gershwin was very devoted to his work and music. Most of his time was spent writing songs and working with others to produce all of his Broadway shows. He never got married. However, he was pretty close to Kay Swift. They met in 1925 at a party for the violinist Jascha Heifetz. She graduated from Harvard, and they had similar interests, mainly music. Gershwin also spent part of his life involved with art. He, himself, was a painter. This wasn’t the focus of his life, although his paintings were quite good. Something I found interesting was that Gershwin bought $50,000 worth of art by Picasso, Weber, and other well-known artists. After Gershwin’s death, the value of his collection had increased about ten times. Gershwin died at the age of thirty-nine of a brain tumor. He died on July 11, 1937 in Hollywood, California.

His Musicals

In such a short life, Gershwin was able to write a great amount of music, about 860 songs. Gershwin’s first published song was “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get Them, When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want Them” written in 1916. That same year, at the age of eighteen, the first of his songs was used in the Broadway musical, “Making of A Girl” in The Passing Show of 1916.

Gershwin’s first complete Broadway show was La, La, Lucille in 1919. The whole score of music was written by him. All of these songs were well received by the press. They called it, “a highly respectable score”. It ran for 104 Broadway performances. Now Gershwin could be called a “full-fledged Broadway composer”.

Gershwin’s real fame came with his hit song, “Swanee”, but at the first hearing, it got little or no cheering and applause. When Vaudeville artist Al Jolsen sung and recorded it for Columbia Records, records and sheet music of “Swanee” sold in thousands.

Lady, Be Good was Gershwin’s first musical comedy. It was very successful, and was the best of Gershwin’s 1924 works. Since this was so well-received, many more musical comedies followed, however this was one of the best.

In 1927, Strike Up The Band came out. It was very different from Gershwin’s other works; it wasn’t liked. Three years later, in 1930, it was released again. This time is was a more of a musical comedy, and like most of Gershwin’s plays and songs, it was well-liked.

Another of his famous plays was Of Thee I Sing. It was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize ever. It was a drama, and it beat other successful and well-known ones. With its 441 performances, it was the longest run of all Gershwin’s musicals.

Some other famous Gershwin musicals were Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake”.

His Classical Music

Possibly Gershwin’s greatest work was “Rhapsody In Blue” written in 1924. It was the first of Gershwin’s classical pieces. Gershwin wrote it for a concert given by bandleader and violist Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra. The concert was called “Experiment in Modern Music” and it was given in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Actually, the orchestration was not done by Gershwin. It was done by someone named Ferde Grofé.

One of the famous parts of this piece is the solo clarinet’s glissando at the very beginning. A glissando is a high “klezmer-sounding” string of notes, ending on a high “screeching” note. It was done accidentally at a practice by the soloist. Gershwin told the soloist that he liked it and should play it like that.

This piece was a success right from the first performance. There was a tremendous amount of cheering and applause. The piece lasts more than half an hour. The earlier part of the concert was a disappointment, but this work pleased the audience very much. The money that Gershwin made from “Rhapsody In Blue” alone is extraordinary. He got almost one-half million dollars from records and sheet music sales, and also for selling the song rights for its use in movies, plays, etc.

One of his more interesting works was An American In Paris written in 1928. He did it without being told to. (Usually Gershwin was commissioned or paid in advance to write something). An American In Paris was a tone poem, which is a story written to music. It had no piano, and the percussion included taxi horns. The idea for this work came from his trip to Europe. Much later, this tone poem was turned into a movie with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron that is still popular today.

Porgy and Bess was one of the only classical works that was not liked by the audience. George had always wanted to write a full-length opera about Black Americans. On this, he worked with DuBose Heyward who wrote the libretto or the story. It is interesting why Gershwin wanted to write this play; he had little knowledge of blacks. This is why he probably chose to work with DuBose Heyward, because Heyward, who was white, grew up in a black community. The play was criticized by the public, because they didn’t think its creators knew anything about the African–American experience. The opera, however, is considered historically accurate. The main character of this story, Porgy, was actually based on the life of a real person.

Gershwin wrote the music and helped fine-tune the story. Some of the famous songs from this play are “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”, “Summertime”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Brother Ira Gershwin worked with Heyward in order to write the lyrics of the songs. In fact, Ira wrote most of the lyrics for all of Gershwin’s songs.

Part of Gershwin’s classical repertoire include the “Concerto in F”, the “Second Rhapsody”, and the three piano “Preludes”, which are still standard for concerts and recitals today.

Jewish Influences on His Music

After researching George Gershwin’s life, I have been convinced that his being Jewish definitely affected his music. He was interested in the Yiddish theater at a very early age, about 15. He actually even planned writing a Jewish opera. It was to be called The Dybbuk. George wrote some musical sketches, and did some research on Jewish music. Unfortunately, after hearing the rights to the original play were owned by the Italian composer, Lodovico Rocca, Gershwin gave up writing it.

According to several Gershwin scholars, Gershwin was influenced by the Yiddish Theater and other popular Jewish music. An example of this is the famous tune ‘S Wonderful. It shows many similarities to Goldfaden’s Jewish tune, “Noach’s Teive”. Both songs have almost exact copies of the same tune, and partly even the same notes. Another of Gershwin’s songs that has resemblance to Yiddish music was “My One and Only” from the 1927 show of Funny Face. “Seventeen and Twenty-One” from Strike Up The Band has a similar melody to “Der Pach Tanz” and “Schuster and Schneider Tanz”.

There were other influences from Jewish music on his work. It has been pointed out that Gershwin’s tunes are almost all melody, a characteristic of a lot of religious and secular Jewish music. Moreover, many of his songs are written -- like much Jewish music-- in a minor key. For example, Gershwin’s title song from the show Funny Face is based on a minor third, which is interval of music containing a total of three half steps. Another example of Gershwin’s use of the minor third is the song “In the Mandarin’s Orchid Garden”, used in the early version of the 1929 play Show Girl. Some of George Gershwin’s songs even resemble Biblical prayer chants. An example of this is “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess. This song is similar to the prayer that you chant after you read the Torah at your bar/bat mitzvah and at every Sabbath. Since there is enough evidence, I believe that Gershwin’s being Jewish affected his music.

Conclusion

George Gershwin truly was a important person in music history. He affected pop, blues, jazz and classical music, because his work was a mix of all those categories. His Broadway shows, operas and musicals are still famous and around today, such as Strike Up The Band, An American In Paris, and Porgy and Bess. His music, too, is very popular today, such as “Swanee”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Rhapsody In Blue”, “Summertime”, “’S Wonderful”, and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’. He lived a short life, but was able to accomplish so much. Michael Feinstein, someone who records Gershwin music on new CDs, says, “I hear the name Gershwin and I think of the most incredibly talented, prolific, extraordinary composer of the century, and his music is as fresh and vital today as it was when he originally created it.”

After researching George Gershwin over the last four to five months, I have my own thoughts on the composer. I think that it is amazing that even though he lived a short life, he was able to influence America so much with his music, plays, and other works.

In learning and performing some of his more popular pieces, I realize that Gershwin was able to create a wide variety of music. Most musicians and composers only write one type of music, but Gershwin is an exception. He wrote (and was good at) more than one type, classical, jazz, pop, and blues. Lastly, I noticed that his music is timeless. Therefore, his songs are considered “standards”, popular with all age groups.

Lastly, George Gershwin could be considered a role model. He was a first generation American, the son of two immigrants, and he had little to start with. He worked hard, and with his determination achieved great success. Unlike many other famous people, he didn’t just stop there. He wasn’t satisfied sticking with the same thing. Other well-known people did the same thing time after time; they were probably just in it for the money. You can tell Gershwin wasn’t just in it for the money; he experimented with more than one type of music. He was always willing to take risks musically. He obviously loved what he did, and didn’t want to constantly do the same thing just to be successful. In conclusion, I am glad that I researched George Gershwin, because I was able to hear a new type of music and I was able to learn about one of the greatest composers of all times.

Works Cited

Ewen, David. George Gershwin His Journey To Greatness. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice – Hall, Inc, 1970.

“George Gershwin: American in Paris.”   http://www.lasalle.edu/academ/fine_art/music/gersh/american.html  (9 Mar 00).

“George Gershwin.”    http://www.cmgww.com/music/gershwin/print4.htm  (14 Mar 00).

Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin. New York:Doubleday, 1987.

“Music Fans Celebrate Gershwin’s Many Contributions.”    http://cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Music/9809/25/gershwin/index.html   (6 Jan 00).

Peyser, Joan. The Memory of All That. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin His Life and Music. Indianapolis: The Bobbs – Merrill Company, Inc., 1973.

“The George Gershwin Educational Fanpage.”    http://www.gershwinfan.com/home.html    (6 Jan 00).



 
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