The son of Russian immigrants, George Gershwin – born Jacob Gershvin – was fascinated by music.
He took piano and harmony lessons in New York with a composer of popular light music, Charles Hambitzer, of whom Gershwin would later say, "He made me harmony-conscious". A fervent admirer of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, Gershwin became a vaudeville accompanist, then a rehearsal pianist for the musical Miss 1917. His first songs brought him to the notice of music publisher Max Dreyfus, who engaged him in his regular team of composers. In 1918, George began what would prove to be a very productive partnership with his lyricist brother Ira.
George Gershwin was an extremely prolific composer. In addition to his songs, he produced a large number of musicals, in which he made a novel and ingenious use of popular jazz riffs. Always on the borderline between classical and jazz writing, in 1924 he composed one of the landmarks of his career, Rhapsody in Blue, for piano and jazz band. His most ambitious and probably also most criticised musical endeavour was Porgy and Bess, an American opera for black singers, first performed in Boston in 1935. Despite the cool press reception, the melodies from this opera, and in particular Summertime, went on to become enormously popular.
The composer's sudden death at the age of 38 prompted the creation of a series of concerts given in his honour each year at New York's Lewisohn Stadium.
Six landmark dates in the life of George Gershwin:
1919: First big hit with the song Swanee
1924: First performance of Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin at the piano and Paul Whiteman conducting.
1928: Met the composer Maurice Ravel, who Gershwin admired.
1932: His musical Of Thee I Sing was awarded the Pulitzer Prize
1934: Produced and presented a twice-weekly radio show, "Music by Gershwin".
1955: Porgy and Bess earned international acclaim during a tour of Europe and South America
Six key works by George Gershwin:
1924:Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band
1928:An American in Paris, orchestral piece, later used for Vincent Minnelli's eponymous film in 1951.
1931:Delicious, original score for David Butler's film
1934:Variations on 'I got rhythm', for piano and orchestra
1935:Porgy and Bess, opera
Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, January 2014