George Gershwin (1898-1937) was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898. His parents were Russian immigrants and had very little money when he was growing up. In 1910 they had enough money to buy a piano and that was Gershwin’s first significant exposure to music. He developed quickly and within a few years was studying the piano pieces of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
In 1914 Gershwin quit school to work as a piano player and song-plugger for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher. At this time in the music industry, publishing companies earned their incomes from the sales of sheet music. Customers would listen to musicians like Gershwin play through the latest hit pieces, and they would then buy the songs that they liked. This job exposed Gershwin to popular music on a constant basis and by 1916 he was publishing his own songs.
Gershwin wrote a great deal of music for Broadway shows but also wanted to be recognized as a “serious” composer. He wrote several pieces for orchestra — An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, and a piano concerto all combine elements of popular music with classical orchestral styles. He also composed an opera, Porgy and Bess, which produced many enduring songs.
Almost all of Gershwin’s music, including his orchestral pieces, was influenced by early jazz, especially in its rhythms. In turn, many of his songs became standards in the repertoire of jazz musicians, and to this day, songs like Summertime and Embraceable You are played on a regular basis.
Gershwin was very successful in his lifetime and was a wealthy celebrity. He socialized with the “in” crowd and was romantically involved with more than one movie star. Gershwin also collected modern art and even took up painting in the last few years of his life.