George Gershwin

American composer and pianist (1898–1937)

Jacob Gershowitz (September 26, 1898July 11, 1937), better known as George Gershwin, was an American songwriter and composer who worked in both popular and classical styles. Most of his songs were written to words by his brother Ira Gershwin.

My people are American, my time is today.

Quotes edit

  • The European boys have small ideas but they sure know how to dress 'em up.
    • Remark quoted in Vernon Duke "Gershwin, Schillinger and Dukelsky: Some Reminiscences", The Musical Quarterly vol. 33 (1947).
  • I frequently hear music in the heart of noise.
    • Letter to Isaac Goldberg; published in Joan Peyser The Memory of All That (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993) p. 80.
  • My people are American, my time is today…music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the times.
    • Quoted in Merle Armitage Accent on America (New York: E. Weyhe, 1944) p. 292.
  • The composer does not sit around and wait for an inspiration to walk up and introduce itself…Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion. In composing we combine what we know of music with what we feel.
    • Isaac Goldberg Tin Pan Alley (New York: John Day, 1930) p. viii.
  • Jazz I regard as an American folk music; not the only one, but a very powerful one which is probably in the blood and feeling of the American people more than any other style of folk music.
    • "The Relation of Jazz to American Music", in Henry Cowell (ed.) American Composers on American Music (1933); reprinted in Gregory R. Suriano (ed.) Gershwin in His Time (New York: Gramercy, 1998) p. 97.

"The Composer in the Machine Age" (1933) edit

Gershwin's essay is cited here from Daniel Albright (ed.) Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
  • Modern European composers ... have very largely received their stimulus, their rhythms and impulses from Machine Age America. They have a much older tradition of musical technique which has helped them put into musical terms a little more clearly the thoughts that originated here. They can express themselves more glibly.
    • p. 386
  • Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas.
    • p. 386
  • A skyscraper is at the same time a triumph of the machine and a tremendous emotional experience, almost breath-taking. Not merely its height but its mass and proportions are the result of an emotion, as well as of calculation.
    • p. 387
  • When jazz is played in another nation, it is called American. When it is played in another country, it sounds false. Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.
    • p. 387
  • An entire composition written in jazz could not live.
    • p. 388
  • I like to think of music as an emotional science.
    • p. 388

Quotes about Gershwin edit

  • While the doctors were sawing away at Ira's midriff, I submitted a variety of ideas to George. One of the most successful was the title of the best song in the show, "Someone to Watch Over Me." I wrote and was credited with two songs: "Oh, Kay" and "Heaven On Earth." I wrote the verse for the spiritual number "Clap Yo' Hands" and a lyric called "That Certain Something You've Got," but Ira changed the lyrics and called it "Oh, Kay, You're O.K. with Me." It was the title song of the show and the least distinguished. Ira made me a present of the credit for it. It was the opposite of plagiarism; we call it donorism. George, realizing that any sum he paid me would have to come out of Ira's royalties, paid me next to nothing. It was decided that I was to get 1¢ for every copy of sheet music that was sold. When Ira sent me my first paycheck it was for 96¢. Some time shortly thereafter, Ira wrote asking if I minded canceling the arrangement which involved a lot of bookkeeping for such small sums. I said no, I didn't mind. I was proud to work with the great Gershwin. I would've done it for nothing, which I did.
    • Howard Dietz, on his early, largely uncredited collaboration with Gershwin (serving as a temporary fill-in for the hospitalized Ira), during the writing of Oh, Kay!; in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 74
  • There is no better way to spend an evening than listening to George Gershwin at the piano. Fortunately for his audience, he seldom was away from it. He played his own tunes to Ira's special lyrics and though his voice was pure gravel it was special entertainment.
    • Howard Dietz, in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 93
  • It certainly will be if you are still around.
    • Oscar Levant, in response to Gershwin's query, "I wonder if my music will be played a hundred years from now"; as quoted in "George the Ingenuous" by Alexander Woolcott, in Cosmopolitan (November 1933); reprinted in Ch. IV: "'...A Young Colossus...'" from Gershwin Remembered (1992) by Edward Jablonski, pp. 44-45 (see Alexander Woolcott below)
    • If George is around, it will. (This version was recounted by Howard Dietz in Dancing in the Dark (1974), p. 61, in response to a virtually identical query—i.e. as to whether Gershwin's music would still be played in 100 years—posed by Newman Levy.)
  • Tell me, George, if you had it to do all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?
    • Oscar Levant, as recounted by Levant in A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); quoted in "Books and Things" by Lewis Gannett, in The New York Herald Tribune (January 13, 1940), p. 11
  • It would have been better if you had died and Gershwin had written the elegy.
    • Oscar Levant, critiquing a musical tribute composed shortly after Gershwin's death (July 11, 1937) by an unnamed mutual friend; as recounted by Levant in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965); and quoted in "On San Diego: You Can Bet On It" by Tom Blair, in San Diego Magazine (September 2007), p. 272
  • When Sam Harris was preparing a Chicago company of Of Thee I Sing after it won the Pulitzer Prize, George, Ira, Harris and I were on the train to attend the opening. I thought it would be fun to ask Harris, with George sitting there, who his favorite composer was. Without hesitation Harris answered, "George Cohan," and began to sing Cohan songs and tell Cohan stories. George wasn't irritated at all, as anyone else might have been; he was just amused.
    • Oscar Levant, as quoted in "Mr. Levant Discusses Mr. Gershwin; Composer's Best Friend Also Speaks Up About 'Rhapsody in Blue'," The New York Times (July 8, 1945), Sec. II, p. 3
  • He never raised his voice. When he asked for something, it was usually in an apologetic tone. I know he had this reputation for being brash, but that was just the way his music was. His death was a tragedy. When we were on tour, many times he would complain that he smelled garbage. Today, physicians will tell you that's a clue that you might have a brain tumor, but back then nobody knew. He often would be fighting depression, and when he went out on tour, it wasn't to make money. The whole point was to go out and get some quick adulation to boost himself up.
  • Well, if I were thus rationed in this article and could have but one adjective for George Gershwin, that adjective would be "ingenuous." Ingenuous at and about his piano. Once an occasional composer named Oscar Levant stood beside that piano while those sure, sinewy, catlike Gershwin fingers beat their brilliant drum-fire—the tumultuous cascade of the "Rhapsody In Blue," the amorous languor of "The Man I Love," the impish glee of "Fascinating Rhythm," the fine, jaunty, dust-spurning scorn of "Strike Up the Band." If the performer was familiar with the work of any other composer, he gave no evidence of it. Levant (who, by the way, makes a fleeting appearance in the new Dashlell Hammett book, under the guise of Levi Oscant) could be heard mutterIng under his breath, "An evening with Gershwin Is a Gershwln evening." "I wonder," said our young composer dreamily, "if my music will be played a hundred years from now." "It certainly will be," said the bitter Levant,"if you are still around."

Criticism edit

  • The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together – with a thin paste of flour and water… I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky…but if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter.
    • Leonard Bernstein, "Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?", in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1955.
  • Gershwin's tragedy was not that he failed to cross the tracks, but rather that he did, and once there in his new habitat, was deprived of the chance to plunge his roots firmly into the new soil.
    • Leonard Bernstein, in Charles Schwartz Gershwin: His Life and Music (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973) p. xii.
  • If jazz should threaten to become a hampering stereotype, a "tradition" in its turn, George would go forward to the next fresh impulse that arose in him. You may call him the King of jazz and associate his name with the lifting of jazz into musical artistry. Very well, and his best thanks. But not on that account is he to be thrust into a pigeonhole. George Gershwin did not begin as a jazzer; he will not end as one.
    • Isaac Goldberg George Gershwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931) p. 289
  • Gershwin's melodic gift was phenomenal. His songs contain the essence of New York in the 1920s and have deservedly become classics of their kind, part of the 20th-century folk-song tradition in the sense that they are popular music which has been spread by oral tradition (for many must have sung a Gershwin song without having any idea who wrote it).
    • Michael Kennedy The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 251.
  • [I]t's only good songs that last, not good rhythm, and in the first six years or so of his composing George was interested mainly in developing new rhythms.
    • Oscar Levant, on why so few of his early tunes were deemed suitable for use in the 1945 Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue; as quoted in "Mr. Levant Discusses Mr. Gershwin; Composer's Best Friend Also Speaks Up About 'Rhapsody in Blue'," The New York Times (July 8, 1945), Sec. II, p. 3
  • George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe that if I don't want to.
  • Porgy is…an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad setup. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has a considerable power.

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