George Gershwin, 1898-1937: He Wrote More Than 500 Songs 

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.  Today we continue our report about the life and music of one of America's greatest composers, George Gershwin.

(MUSIC: "Rhapsody in Blue")

As we reported last week, George Gershwin published his first song when he was just eighteen years old. During the next twenty years, until his death, he wrote more than five hundred more songs. He also wrote an opera, and music for piano and orchestra.

Many of George Gershwin's songs were first written for musical plays performed in theaters in New York City. These comedies, with plenty of songs, were a popular form of entertainment in the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties.

One of Gershwin's musical plays, "Girl Crazy," introduced a young singer named Ethel Merman. She became one of the most celebrated performers in America. In the play, Ethel Merman sang a song George Gershwin wrote just for her. It was called "I Got Rhythm. "

Many songs that George Gershwin wrote for musical plays and movies have remained as popular as ever. Over the years, they have been sung and played in every possible way -- from jazz to country.

One example is the song, "Someone to Watch Over Me."  It was written for the nineteen twenty-six musical "Oh, Kay!"  Here is a modern version of the song, sung by Willie Nelson.

In the nineteen twenties, there was a debate in the United States about jazz music. Could jazz, some people asked, be considered serious music?

In nineteen twenty-four, jazz musician and orchestra leader Paul Whiteman decided to organize a special concert to show that jazz was serious music. George Gershwin agreed to compose something for the concert before he realized how little time he had to do it. The concert was just a few weeks away. Gershwin got busy. And, in that short time, he composed a piece for piano and orchestra. He called it "Rhapsody in Blue."

Gershwin himself played the piano part of "Rhapsody in Blue" at the concert. The audience included some of the greatest classical musicians of the time. When they heard his music, they were electrified. It seemed to capture, for the first time, the true voice of modern American culture.  Today, we can still hear Gershwin playing "Rhapsody in Blue." An old mechanical piano recording has been reproduced exactly on this recording.

"Rhapsody in Blue" made George Gershwin famous all over the world. Several hundred thousand copies of the printed music sold immediately. Gershwin was satisfied that he had shown that jazz music could be both serious and popular.

Gershwin also wrote an opera, "Porgy and Bess. " It was based on a book by DuBose Heyward.  It is a tragic love story about black Americans along the coast of South Carolina.

"Porgy And Bess" opened in Boston, Massachusetts, in nineteen thirty-five. Audiences loved it. But most critics did not know what to think of it.  It was not like any other opera or musical play they had ever seen.

Gershwin was not affected by the critics' opinions. He believed some of his greatest music had gone into the opera. He said he had created a new musical form -- an opera based on popular culture. Here is the song "Summertime" from a later production of "Porgy and Bess" in nineteen fifty-two.  Leontyne Price, who played Bess, sings the song.

Another well-known Gershwin piece is "An American in Paris. " It is a long tone poem for orchestra. Its first public performance was by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in nineteen twenty-eight. Here is a modern recording from "An American in Paris."

Once again, opinion was mixed. Most people loved "An American in Paris," as they loved all of Gershwin's music. Some critics liked it, too. They called it happy and full of life. Others hated it. They called it silly and long-winded. Still, it remains one of his most popular works.

George Gershwin died in nineteen thirty-seven, just days after doctors learned he had brain cancer. He was only thirty-nine years old. Newspapers all over the world reported his death on their front pages. Everyone mourned the loss of the man and all the music he might have written.  George Gershwin is still considered one of America's greatest composers. His works still are performed by many singers and groups. They are probably performed more often than any other serious American composer.

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the people who praised George Gershwin.  Schoenberg said Gershwin was a man who lived in music and expressed everything through music, because music was his native language.

(MUSIC: "Rhapsody in Blue")

This program was written by Shelley Gollust.  It was produced by Lawan Davis.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.