George Gershwin: His Life and Work

George Gershwin: His Life and Work

George Gershwin: His Life and Work

George Gershwin: His Life and Work


This comprehensive biography of George Gershwin (1898-1937) unravels the myths surrounding one of America's most celebrated composers and establishes the enduring value of his music. Gershwin created some of the most beloved music of the twentieth century and, along with Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, helped make the golden age of Broadway golden. Howard Pollack draws from a wealth of sketches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, books, articles, recordings, films, and other materials--including a large cache of Gershwin scores discovered in a Warner Brothers warehouse in 1982--to create an expansive chronicle of Gershwin's meteoric rise to fame. He also traces Gershwin's powerful presence that, even today, extends from Broadway, jazz clubs, and film scores to symphony halls and opera houses.

Pollack's lively narrative describes Gershwin's family, childhood, and education; his early career as a pianist; his friendships and romantic life; his relation to various musical trends; his writings on music; his working methods; and his tragic death at the age of 38. Unlike Kern, Berlin, and Porter, who mostly worked within the confines of Broadway and Hollywood, Gershwin actively sought to cross the boundaries between high and low, and wrote works that crossed over into a realm where art music, jazz, and Broadway met and merged. The author surveys Gershwin's entire oeuvre, from his first surviving compositions to the melodies that his brother and principal collaborator, Ira Gershwin, lyricized after his death. Pollack concludes with an exploration of the performances and critical reception of Gershwin's music over the years, from his time to ours.


This book builds upon the work of the main chroniclers of George Gershwin’s life and work, including Isaac Goldberg, Merle Armitage, David Ewen, Edward Jablonski, Lawrence Stewart, Robert Payne, Robert Kimball, Alfred Simon, Charles Schwartz, Deena Rosenberg, Joan Peyser, and William Hyland. These writers had the advantage of knowing members of Gershwin’s intimate circle—and in some cases, Gershwin himself— and any investigation of the composer has no choice but to take stock of their collective and in many ways notable achievement. However, their writings largely predated not only the appearance of a number of important publications, dissertations, recordings, and performances, but the availability of a variety of archival materials, including a large cache of Gershwin manuscripts discovered in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, in 1982. Accordingly, the time seems ripe for a broad reexamination of Gershwin’s life and work.

The current study is organized along partly thematic, partly chronological lines. Part I contains chapters devoted to Gershwin’s childhood and family, musical education, early relation to popular music, achievement as a pianist, youthful activities on Broadway, friendships and love affairs, continuing study of music, involvement with serious music, mature thoughts on popular music and jazz, creative process, and lifestyle and character.

Part II surveys Gershwin’s output from his earliest compositions to those pieces brought forth posthumously by his brother Ira. Unlike most other books on Gershwin, this one pays close attention to music, shows, films, recordings, and critical writings from both the composer’s own time and after his death. Again, the coverage is not strictly chronological. The chapter on Girl Crazy (1930), for instance, includes some discussion of that musical’s various revivals and film adaptations, as well as the importance of one of its songs, “I Got Rhythm,” to the history of jazz; while the chapter on Gershwin’s Song-Book (1932) considers some of the wide uses of the Gershwin songbook on record, on film, and in theaters.

In light of the book’s organization, a few chronological markers might be helpful to keep in mind. Born in New York on September 26, 1898 . . .

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