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The Life and Music of George Gershwin: Part 2


Less than two months after "Funny Face” debuted, the brothers were hired by Ziegfeld to write the music for his new show, "Rosalie". Sigmund Romberg was co- composer and PG Wodehouse co-lyricist. Because of the obligation to frequently revise "Funny Face", Gershwin found his creative time cut short and tried to extricate himself from the show. Ziegfeld pleaded with George for a few songs for his stars, Marilyn Miller and Jack Donahue, so they ransacked their bag of earlier tunes and offered seventeen, ten of which were chosen. Even the song unceremoniously booted from two previous scores, "The Man I Love", found a home in "Rosalie" and began its splendid march to melodic immortality. "Rosalie" was a remarkable success for Ziegfeld despite his investment of sixty players in the orchestra and sixty-four in the chorus. It reached New York on January 10, 1928 at the New Amsterdam Theatre and ran for 327 performances.

Treasure Girl

1928 resumed with another flop as "Treasure Girl" opened to dismal reviews and closed after sixty-eight performances. Book and casting were the major hitches. Billboard found the book "vapid, humourless, and absolutely inane". The casting of Gertrude Lawrence, such a success in "Oh, Kay!", failed because the role called for wisecracks and caustic dialogue, not grace and charm. Gertrude Lawrence was not a good candidate for screwball comedy. None of Gershwin’s songs from "Treasure Girl" have made their way into lasting success.

Study in Europe and An American in Paris

George, Ira, and Ira’s wife Leonore overlooked this failure with a fifteen-week European tour. George hoped to "benefit my technique as much as possible from a study of European orchestral methods". While he did meet with such European giants as Kurt Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya, Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, he did not manage to find a tutor willing to alter any of his techniques. The time was hardly wasted because he had the opportunity to experience Paris, far from the comforts of his customary New York City apartment. Walter Damrosch, who had commissioned the "Concerto in F", wanted him to write another serious work and George chose a tone poem based on the French capital, a suitable subject for what developed into "An American in Paris". A tone poem refers to a piece of music for orchestra that represents a particular story, image or mood and customarily follows a programme, often with a written description.

"An American in Paris" comprises five sections, each with its own theme. The score was completed on August 1 and George’s orchestration was finished a couple of weeks before the December 13 world premiere. George scored the piece creatively and richly and included such orchestral rarities as a baritone saxophone, a bass clarinet, bells, a triangle, a woodblock and, of course, its unique taxi horns which Gershwin had brought back from Paris. Reviews were excellent and it was generally deemed better crafted, less pretentious, and a marked advance over the "Concerto in F". Other orchestras soon took up the piece and it was added to the permanent repertoire. This tone poem has become one of the most performed and recorded orchestral works of the twentieth century.


Early in 1929 Ziegfeld once again came calling on the Gershwin brothers for still another backstage musical, "Showgirl". Casting included the comic trio of Lew Clayton, Eddie Jackson and Jimmy Durante as well as a nineteen-year-old native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Ruby Keeler. Unlike their experience with "Rosalie" the previous year, the Gershwins struggled mightily with Ziegfeld’s demands. The producer wanted the score completed swiftly, something Gershwin later described as "a rush job". Then Ziegfeld hired the lyricist Gus Kahn to "help out" because he lacked faith in Ira. Ziegfeld had little interest in plot or character development and wanted as many songs as possible, which resulted in an undeniable sparseness in dialogue.

Even though Gershwin offered twenty-five new songs (thirteen of which did make it into the show), Ziegfeld found them "distinctly under par" and "the work of a tired man or else of a lazy man". He then directed George and Ira to be physically present to revise any found problems. They had had enough of this particular producer and refused. Ziegfeld then had his lawyer write to George telling him that some of his royalty payments would be withheld and then went about hiring Vincent Youmans to doctor the score. The result was neither a flop nor a hit and the show ran for 111 performances after its July 2 opening. There is one song that was well received at the time and still is today: "Liza".

Girl Crazy

In 1930, the Gershwins returned to more familiar and congenial producers, Aarons and Freedley, and a writer they knew and respected, Guy Bolton. This Gershwin musical takes place on a dude ranch and contains a few cowboy songs. But you can’t keep George Gershwin down on the dude ranch after he seen Paree and he produced four remarkable standards for "Girl Crazy". These are: "Bidin’ My Time", "But Not for Me", "Embraceable You" and what has become one of his most recorded songs, "I Got Rhythm". Ethel Merman was only twenty-one and making her Broadway debut. Not for the last time, she stole the show and "I Got Rhythm" became her signature tune. She is one of the last of the great note-holders. Also in the cast was nineteen-year-old Ginger Rogers, just starting out on her long and sparkling career.

Ethel Merman

"Girl Crazy" opened in New York at the Elgin Theatre on October 14, 1930. Merman became an immediate supernova and pandemonium would erupt in the audience when she belted out her patent extended notes and calls for encores were a nightly feature. It ran for 272 performances on Broadway, but the Depression thwarted both a national and a European tour.


When sound arrived in Hollywood films, foremost composers and writers followed it there. Cole Porter went westward in 1929 and Irving Berlin the next year. George and Ira’s first contract in Hollywood called for them to write the music for a movie called "Delicious". They were paid $100,000 plus first-class round-trip travel for fourteen weeks of work, which were extremely attractive inducements. The excellent payday did not compensate for their woeful lesson that moguls and money men ran Hollywood and that anything they produced could be and was cut, revised, or maimed by businessmen relatively uninformed in music. George enjoyed exercising outdoors in winter but longed to return to his New York which they did as soon as they were free to do so, forwarding revisions cross-country. "I was very disappointed in the picture we wrote…. It could’ve been so swellable (sic) if some imagination was used in producing and utilising it". A critic agreed: "Gershwin is said to have written the music involved; but you’d never know it". It took five years to get the Gershwins back to California.

"Delicious" opened in December 1931 and was dead on arrival. Musicals had suddenly become box office poison because of their artistic limitations and raised expectations. It wasn’t until Busby Berkeley arrived two years later to choreograph "42nd St." and to demonstrate how to successfully translate music and movement onto the screen, that musicals again became a central genre on the movie screen.

Of Thee I Sing

Upon their return to New York, they hooked up again with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind on still another political satire they called "Of Thee I Sing". This time the writers made sure that a romantic relationship would play a significant role and that it not be dominated by a cynical political story. The brothers correspondingly blended the romantic and the satirical in ways that surpass anything they had previously attempted. "Of Thee I Sing" alternated scenes of all dialogue with scenes of all music in a new and winning manner. And for this score George and Ira chose to work in tandem, in the same room at the same time. The musical opened at the Music Box Theatre on December 26, 1931, before a star-studded first night audience in formal dress. Critics used singular words like watershed, classic, milestone, and landmark in recognizing the successful reconfiguring of the musical -comedy genre. Because the songs were so tightly coupled to the book and furthered the plot, they were a bit less melodic than usual and none entered the standard repertoire. This disconcerted nobody and the musical was a major artistic and financial success for all concerned, running for 441 performances.

Kaufman, Ryskind, and Ira Gershwin won the Pulitzer Prize for the best American play that year. Ira was furious that the composer, his brother, was ineligible for the Prize. It wasn’t until 1944 that the Pulitzer committee began to award the prize also to composers of musical comedies. Richard Rodgers was the first recipient for "Oklahoma" as well as the second recipient, this time for "South Pacific".


In 1932, the publisher of Random House, Bennett Cerf, put out the "George Gershwin Song-Book" which contained eighteen of his songs, organised chronologically from "Swanee" to "Who Cares?". It justified its price with some fine Art Deco drawings by the illustrator Constantin Alajalov. It sold well in many editions and has become the unadorned structure of innumerable Lps by countless artists. An example: "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book".

A winter 1932 vacation to Havana to relax, play tennis, and nightclub led to Gershwin’s next serious composition. He had been passionately enthralled with the local music. "Cuba was most interesting to me, especially the small dance orchestras, who played the most intricate rhythms most naturally". Upon his return to New York, he continued his Cuban studies by catching the latest phenomenon, Xavier Cugat and his Rhumba Orchestra, at the Waldorf-Astoria. Cugat wrote in his memoir, "Gershwin would listen to my band as if he were making mental notes. Several times he invited the boys in the band to visit his Riverside Drive apartment where we would have a jam session with George sitting in at the piano".

A rhumba orchestra attains its singular resonance via its percussion ensemble. Like the Parisian taxi horns, George returned from Havana with a collection of Cuban percussion instruments and set about composing an orchestral piece. The work was completed over the summer of 1932 and the New York Philharmonic performed its premier at Lewisohn Stadium on August 16. This was the "Cuban Overture", which consists of a single movement of three sections. George’s orchestration included bongos, gourd, maracas and Cuban sticks to provide the rhumba flavour. The grouping was emphasized even further by their placement "right in front of the conductor's stand". A packed house of 17,000 responded enthusiastically.

Pardon My English

That success was followed by still another Broadway disaster. Aarons and Freedley engaged the Gershwin brothers and Morrie Ryskind to write a new musical comedy specifically for the debonair English musical star, Jack Buchanan. Production of the musical began with troubles and progressed to tribulations and finished in disaster. The Gershwin brothers were pessimistic as regards a book about a dual personality but accepted the commission to help out Aarons, who was nearly broke. The October opening had to be delayed because of multiple snags and the preview audiences were unimpressed by the sheer musical complexity of George’s score. Buchanan was shrewd enough to buy himself out of his contract and was replaced by the unsubtle radio comedian, Jack Pearl. When "Pardon My English" finally made it to Broadway on January 28, 1933, it received the worst notices of any musical of Gershwin’s career – tedious, lifeless, silly, complicated, boring and shambles characterised the critics’ sentiments. Not a surprising result when a musical specifically written for a particular artist loses that artist. Can you imagine if Ethel Merman had been cut from "Gypsy"? The show managed but forty-six performances. Much money was lost at an inconvenient time for all concerned. Only Jack Buchanan got out relatively unscathed.

Let 'em Eat Cake

Later in 1932, George S Kaufman suggested they all get together again and write a sequel to the lucrative "Of Thee I Sing". The score for "Let ‘em Eat Cake" was completed and rehearsals began in August 1933, with the show opening at the Imperial Theatre on October 21. It turned out to be a caustic satire in the astringent Kaufman mode, much darker than its predecessor. They had produced a fantasy about a totalitarian America and the book took no prisoners. The love interest was eliminated and George wrote the most acerbic musical comedy score of his career, often spiked with pungent dissonance. Critics judged it less successful and found it difficult to grasp Gershwin’s music: "for all I know the music may be great stuff, but you can’t whistle to it or take it out for dancing in the streets". Audiences seemed to agree and Time Magazine described "an embarrassing dearth of applause". It managed only ninety performances and guaranteed that George and Ira and George S. and Morrie would not try another kick at the can. Lessons had been learned, at great cost.

Massey Hall

While this most recent show was tanking on Broadway, Gershwin and the Leo Reisman orchestra jointly planned an extensive road tour to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the "Rhapsody in Blue". In addition, George had written a new serious work for piano and orchestra, composed specifically for the tour, the "Variations on I Got Rhythm". This was written in the traditional classical theme-and-variation form and numbered six variations framed by an introduction and a coda. Leo Reisman broke his hip prior to the tour but his orchestra soldiered on with substitute conductor Charles Previn. Beginning in January 1934, the tour stopped in twenty-eight cities in twenty-nine days. They covered so many cities that they even included Toronto on January 19 for a performance at Massey Hall. Attendance was consistently good but too many bookings in smaller towns resulted in a financial deficit. Critics were generally positive – the Toronto Mail wrote "Gershwin’s music had two vital elements of art: truth and intelligence. Besides that, it was great fun". George was disheartened that the audiences were made somewhat uncomfortable by the complexity and the occasional dissonance of the "Variations" and it was hardly mentioned by reviewers.

Porgy and Bess

We have now come to the last, but definitely not least, of George Gershwin’s extraordinary works in the classical form. In 1925, DuBose Heyward, a writer born in Charleston, South Carolina, published a novel based on his close contact with the local Gullah population of the sea islands off of South Carolina and Georgia. It became a nationwide success praised for its unusually sympathetic and vivid portrayal of the black community. The next year Heyward's wife Dorothy adapted "Porgy" for the stage. It quickly became one of the Theatre Guild’s most successful productions, with long runs on Broadway and in London.

George had long thought of writing an opera, maybe a folk opera, possibly a Negro folk opera. He read the novel early on and immediately contacted Heyward and his wife about adapting it. The Heywards were encouraging but it took George another few years to feel sure enough of his ability to write in this challenging genre. It wasn’t until March 1932 that George and Heyward finally resolved to get it done. Heyward insisted that Gershwin travel down to South Carolina and do a bit of fieldwork among the Gullah. In a couple of short visits, George had reportedly transformed himself into "an eager student of Negro music" and wrote Heyward in February 1934 that he "has begun composing music for the first act". The first song completed was the iconic "Summertime".

That spring, he and Heyward worked together but at long distance. Heyward once again reminded George that he "really hasn’t scratched the surface of the native material yet". George agreed and that summer spent five weeks on Folly Island, just off the coast and 10 miles from Charleston. There they collaborated by day while George spent his evenings attending recitals and church services, immersing himself in black southern life.

Catfish Row

By January of 1935, George had completed a draft of the score which he described as perhaps the most difficult but most rewarding endeavour of his career. The score and orchestration were essentially completed by the summer of 1935. George took on primary responsibility for casting the work, scouring dozens of theatres and nightclubs and recital halls for black singers who had had some operatic training. His two stars, Todd Duncan as Porgy and Annie Brown as Bess, were both very well-educated and experienced singers. The libretto for "Porgy and Bess" was an exceptional semi-collaboration between DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin in which they worked on individual songs separately and agreed to co-writing credits for anything in which both had played any sort of role.

"Porgy and Bess" opened at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935, before a celebrity-laden audience. One aria after another received thunderous applause. There were seven curtain calls for the cast, a few more for the Gershwin brothers and Heyward. After the performance, a reception was held at the penthouse apartment of publisher Condé Nast for 400 invited guests. The show ran for 124 performances, an exceptional accomplishment for an opera.

"Porgy and Bess" took a few years to be fully accepted by audiences and Gershwin had concerns about its legacy. A longer life would have reassured him of its distinguished and permanent place in the repertoire. It is well-established that "Porgy and Bess" is not only one of Gershwin’s finest works, it may well be his masterpiece.

Shall We Dance

Following his strenuous efforts on "Porgy and Bess", George and Ira again looked westward. When they were last in Hollywood, the musical film was in a slump but, since the arrival of Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers and Jeanette MacDonald, it had become a profitable mainstay. In June 1936 they came to an agreement with RKO to write an Astaire-Rogers musical for $55,000 with an option for a second film. They would be required to remain in California for at least sixteen weeks for each film. They entrained to Hollywood in August 1936 and completed the score for "Shall We Dance" in early December. At George’s suggestion, the writers devised a scenario that allowed for some featured instrumental sections in addition to the all-singing, all-dancing sequences. It was their best score in several years with music and lyrics of enormous charm and originality. Four wonderful songs from the movie are still with us: "Slap That Bass", "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off", "They Can’t Take That Away from Me" and the title song. George complained that everyone from the director to the key grips wanted to put in their oars requesting one rewrite after another. It received excellent reviews but did not do quite as well financially as the previous Astaire- Rogers musicals. It remains a classic film.

Damsel in Distress

RKO picked up the option for a second film, "A Damsel in Distress". The miscasting of nineteen-year-old Joan Fontaine as Astaire’s love interest – Ginger sat this one out – was problematic as she could neither sing nor dance. Astaire pleaded that she be replaced and Fontaine was miserable, "For me, the title of the film was appropriate". Radio’s Burns and Allen were given more significant prominence in the film. Two songs achieved immediate and long-term success: "A Foggy Day in London Town" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It". Alas, movie audiences were wise to the studio’s efforts to endorse Ms. Fontaine in this sort of role and it became the first movie starring Fred Astaire to lose money.

Their contract with RKO completed, Sam Goldwyn (a.k.a. Mr. Malaprop) approached the brothers to write a score for what he hoped would become an annual series of filmed revues with casts assembled from radio, vaudeville, ballet and opera, all in glorious Technicolor. Goldwyn modestly planned to call these films "The Goldwyn Follies". George readied five songs, the last five he would ever write, which included two of the finest he ever wrote: "Love Walked In" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay". The producer looked over these treasures and complained to the composer, "Why don’t you write hit songs like Irving Berlin?". Oscar Levant, who was present, recalled that "It was one of the few occasions in my experience when George was genuinely offended".

George died before the score could be completed. Goldwyn, never a moral paragon, then chose to fire Ira because he claimed that their joint contract had ended with George’s death. Ignoring most of the Gershwins' efforts, Goldwyn released this mishmash of a musical film. It was the one and only "Goldwyn Follies" ever produced. Samuel Goldman was now and forever cured of his ambition to become a second Ziegfeld or even a second George White.

"Our Love Is Here to Stay" was the last song of George Gershwin. His dreams of writing a symphony and a string quartet, of collaborating again with Kaufman and Ryskind, of writing another opera with Heyward: all these, to our great loss, remained undone. No sketches for any of these pipedream projects have survived.

In February 1937 George Gershwin was thirty-eight years and five months old, a trim, energetic man in excellent physical condition from exercising in his New York City apartment, in the gymnasium which he added, or on a California tennis court. There was no reason to think that he would not be around for many years to continue sharing his gift with the world.

That month Gershwin was playing his "Concerto in F" with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra when suddenly his mind went blank and he very uncharacteristically forgot several bars of the score. He recovered sufficiently to resume playing and finished the Concerto. But soon afterwards he began experiencing pungent odours similar to the smell of burning rubber. He consulted his psychiatrist who recommended a medical checkup, during which nothing was found. But as he continued to experience these unpleasant olfactory hallucinations in addition to headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts, he was again referred to a physician who examined him on June 9 and ordered an EEG, urinalysis, blood work and other tests. Once again, no abnormalities were discovered but, due to the recurring symptoms, he was punted to a neurologist who saw him two weeks later. George was then transferred on to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for more elaborate tests, but George refused a lumbar puncture and the sum total of all investigations was again inconclusive. George was released from the hospital on June 26 with a diagnosis of, "most likely hysteria".

Things rapidly deteriorated and his worsening condition became dangerous. His motor coordination deteriorated and he could be seen stumbling up stairs, dropping objects and spilling liquids. He became listless and, in the unkindest cut yet, he forgot how to play the piano. On July 4, he and a male nurse moved into the quiet and empty home of his long-term friend Yip Harburg. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t turn the corner as he experienced two seizures known as automatisms and once smeared a box of chocolates all over his own body.


Providentially, he fell into a coma and was rushed back to the Cedars of Lebanon, never again to regain consciousness. At this time he was administered a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) which showed unambiguous evidence of a brain tumor. A neurosurgeon was flown in to operate during the early morning hours of July 11, 1938. The procedure lasted five hours and a tumor was located in the right temporal lobe. The surgeon was able to remove a large glioblastoma mass, but it was far too late. George died at 10:35 AM that day.

This man of impeccable timing and great fortune finally had a stretch of bad luck and it had killed him. His body was returned to his city, New York, and funeral services were held on July 15. Nearly 3500 people jammed into the Temple Emanu-El to pay their respects while a simultaneous service was held in Los Angeles, with a eulogy delivered by Oscar Hammerstein II. George was buried in the family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, north of New York City. His mother converted the plot into a family mausoleum shortly thereafter. Memorial concerts were held later that summer at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl.


At his death, George Gershwin was widely cherished as a writer of elevated popular music. This despite the fact that the lightweight musical comedies whence his songs came were essentially historical curiosities. His name is not associated with the history of American jazz. You can watch Ken Burns’ PBS series over and over for its entire length and you will not hear George’s name at any time. This despite the enormous value jazzmen have placed in the bones of many of these songs from which many full-on jazz interpretations have blossomed.

Can Gershwin be considered a classical composer? Gershwin was always mindful of the deficiencies in his formal music education and the lack of acceptance he was accorded by serious musicians and composers. He was constantly working to improve his knowledge of music and its formal compositional techniques. He had hoped his "Concerto in F", his opera and the smaller works for orchestra and piano solo would have been assessed as seriously as any composed by Mozart or Prokofiev. While he had immense confidence in his own capability, it was yet undermined by anxieties about how he was perceived by classically-trained composers.

What we have today is a tragically incomplete sample of his potential. Those who knew him best believed that, had he lived longer, he would have written many more works of a classical nature, broadening and deepening his musical legacy. His classical output consisted of one piano concerto, one opera, one Rhapsody, one tone poem and a few smaller works. in a world that loves to put people into neatly defined boxes, George Gershwin defied categorization. He was sui generis. Perhaps one can argue that Leonard Bernstein joins him as a member of this classification, but it would be very tenacious to attempt to unearth any other American composer who was so accomplished in so many ways.

The writer John O’Hara summed it all best: "George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to".

Works Consulted

  • Feinstein, Michael. The Gershwins and Me. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012.
  • Hyland, William G. George Gershwin: A New Biography. Praeger, Westport, CT., 2003.
  • New York Times Archives, October 2, 1979, p.1, The Doctor’s World: Gershwin’s Illness.
  • Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. U. of California Press, Berkeley CA., 2006.
  • www.gershwin.com