George Gershwin is recognised as one of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century. He made his legacy arranging music for Broadway, film and orchestra. In his early teenage years, he began working as a pianist in New York nightclubs and rehearsal pianist in Broadway rehearsals; it was here that he was scouted to work on Broadway. His musical style blends classical, jazz and blues influences, which was inspired by listening to a broad range of genres in school and in penny arcades.
Gershwin worked with his brother, Ira, for many of his musicals and films. Together, the brothers wrote famous songs, featured in many Broadway musicals and old Hollywood films, including Lady Be Good, An American in Paris and Funny Face.
George Gershwin continued working until he died from a brain tumour aged 38. After his death in 1937, his brother and colleague, Ira, allowed the publication of some of Gershwin’s finished but unpublished works, including ‘Lullaby’.
Here, we look at six of the best pieces from Gershwin’s extensive catalogue of work.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Film lovers may recognise this work, for solo piano and jazz band, from its appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The piece plays as Gatsby – portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio – raises his glass when introducing himself to Nick Carraway – portrayed by Tobey Maguire. This composition was originally titled American Rhapsody, but changed after Ira was inspired by a painting titled ‘Nocturne In Blue and Green’; from this, Ira suggested a change of name to include ‘Blue’. Musicians who play this composition perform both as soloists and collectively with the orchestra. Alternating between soloists and full orchestral playing, this jazz-inspired symphony demonstrates the elegance and power of an orchestra.
‘Oh Lady, Be Good’ (1924)
Since its creation for the 1924 musical Lady, Be Good! the song has been recorded multiple times by artists including Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald and Dianne Reeves. Because of its multiple reproductions it entered the popular music genre. ‘Oh Lady, Be Good!’ is sang in the 1941 eponymous film, yet the film and musical are unrelated in plot, characters and cast. The vocals on ‘Oh Lady, Be Good’ are accompanied with only a piano, making a clean and simple sound.
Lullaby for String Quartet (1919)
Gershwin wrote this piece as a student in 1919. It was initially written for piano, but consequently adapted for strings as part of an assignment, from Gershwin’s orchestration teacher, Edward Kilenyi. ‘Lullaby’ – which it is also known by – is also performed as an aria in Gershwin’s opera Blue Monday, which was published posthumously in 1968. The piece has solo performances from the string orchestra and collective performances from the entire quartet. The string quartet musicians harmonise with the soloists yet ‘Lullaby’ remains a soft production.
An American in Paris (1928)
After Rhapsody in Blue’s success, Gershwin was asked by Walter Damsroch to write a full concerto. Gershwin wanted to improve his compositional skills so he travelled to Paris where he spent time with illustrious composers like Ravel and Stravinsky. Having been inspired by his time in Paris, Gershwin created this jazz-influenced orchestral piece. For An American in Paris’s premiere in December 1928 Gershwin used Parisian taxi horns, which he bought during his travels; the horns created an authentic Parisian sound. Regarded as one of Gershwin’s most famed works, it’s difficult to disagree with critics, as the work encapsulates the city of Paris and its sounds, which Gershwin himself described as “developed in typical French style”.
‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ (1928)
‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ is a song performed in the 1957 American musical film ‘Funny Face’. The song was composed for the 1927 musical of the same name, but when performed in Philadelphia it received audience criticism and it was replaced by ‘He Loves and She Loves’. Despite criticism, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ was performed in the musical ‘Rosalie’ a short while after. Decades later when Ella Fitzgerald performed the song, she altered the lyrics. These reformed lyrics changed the context of the song from innocently comparing family and romantic kisses, to comparing kisses whilst working in clubs and romantic kisses. Having Fitzgerald’s hazy vocals paired with a solo pianist, it creates a painful and emotive song, far removed from Gershwin’s up-tempo approach. Despite initial criticism, adaptations of the song show Gershwin’s original had, at its core, something brilliant from which musicians wanted to build from in their own rendition.
‘Summertime’ was composed for Porgy and Bess – an opera based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. The opera explores themes of gambling, violence and drug dealing, which sets the insidious tone. By listening to the song, the opera’s tone is understood through the sultry voice and extended lines. ‘Summertime’ is the opening aria in Porgy and Bess and demonstrates Gershwin’s jazz and blues influences; the lyrics, by Heyward, were inspired by the southern lullaby ‘All My Trials’. 25,000 recorded covers have been produced of this song demonstrating not only its popularity, but its ability to transcend time.