Morris Gershovitz left St. Petersburg, Russia, in the early 1890s to seek a new life in America. He married Rose Bruskin in 1895, and they were blessed with four children. The first son, Isidore, was born in December 1896. Another son, Jacob, was born in 1898.
Isidore (called Ira by his friends) and Jacob (called George by the family) were vastly different in appearance, talents and aspirations; but nonetheless, they maintained a close friendship during their entire lives. Ira was reflective, shy, bookish; while George was gregarious, adventuresome and immensely self-assured. Ira drifted toward books while George, at age 10, developed a passion for the piano. In 1910, the family purchased an upright piano, and the destinies of both Gershwin boys were then irreversibly determined.
Ira, the erudite brother, entered City College, majoring in English literature and poetry. George, impatient, dropped out of high school and took employment as a pianist for a music publisher on Manhattan’s East 28th St. This street was known then as Tin Pan Alley because of the cacophony issuing from the windows of the many music publishers on the block.
The two brothers roamed the streets of Manhattan each evening, absorbing the vernacular voices of vaudeville, Yiddish musical comedies and black jazz. Before the age of 18, George’s unique keyboard skills earned him a job traveling as an accompanist to such singers as Nora Bayes. Ira worked as a clerk while writing poetry and lyrics in the evenings.
In 1919 George wrote a song called “Swanee,” popularized then by Al Jolson. It became the most popular new song of the year on both sides of the Atlantic. Its success moved the producer George White to ask Gershwin to write songs for his annual Follies. These songs included such unforgettable melodies as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Found a Four-Leaf Clover.”
In the next few years the brothers created an authentic American musical voice – brash, incisive, irreverent, spirited, intensely rhythmic and memorable. Their melodies and lyrics dominated the Broadway theaters for more than a decade. They refashioned the musical comedy from its stereotyped Lehar-style middle European format to a lively, indisputably American musical idiom.
Since popular music was regarded as frivolous and fleeting, George felt obliged to establish himself as a serious composer, to create enduring music for the concert hall. His opportunity came with a commission from Paul Whitman, the orchestra leader. His efforts culminated in a piece called “Rhapsody in Blue;” its first performance was in Aeolian Hall with such musical luminaries as John Philip Souza, Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff in the audience.
Gershwin’s was now a career with two parallel courses, each immensely productive. His Broadway activities were hugely successful with memorable songs such as “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “ ‘S Wonderful.” Gershwin’s more serious efforts yielded the Concerto in F, “American in Paris,” and his masterpiece, the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
By the 1930s, the dual skills of the Gershwin brothers were now authoring satiric operettas which explored social issues substantially more complex than their earlier love songs. A succession of three shows, “Strike Up the Band,” “Of Thee I Sing” and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” probed such sensitive subjects as pacifism and the hypocrisy of political campaigns.
Hollywood beckoned them in 1936, and the West Coast climate in no way diminished their productivity. The songs poured out, including such melodies as “Shall We Dance?” “Love is Here to Stay” and “A Foggy Day in London Town.” The two brothers composed the songs for many of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, those improbable mid-depression tales with glorious songs, no failed mortgages and happy endings. Increasingly, George sought the companionship of the many established composers residing in California, persons such as Copland, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He now began to write another opera.
George, a bachelor, was fanatical about few things in life; one was his music and the other – his health. He exercised each day, maintained a prudent diet and morbidly brooded over any symptom. While giving a concert in late spring of 1937, friends noted that he uncharacteristically stumbled over a few piano passages and complained of dizziness and headache.
During the next month, his headaches increased. His behavior also was altered; he became less demonstrative, tending to sit mutely, staring at the lawns. On July 9 he suddenly lapsed into coma. Emergency surgery was undertaken, and a very large brain tumor, said to be the size of “a grapefruit,” was resected. He never regained consciousness and died on July 11, 1937. His brother Ira survived for another 46 years, continuing as this country’s outstanding lyricist.
It is idle, if not impertinent, to speculate on what might have been and what singular masterpieces George Gershwin might have created had he lived another few decades just as it is pointless to wonder what Mozart, Schubert or Mendelssohn might have composed had their tragically abbreviated lives been lengthened. Perhaps, as Edna St. Vincent Millay had once suggested, candles that burn too brightly may not last the night.
STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (email@example.com) is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.