Gershwin’s music really is hard to label. With a creative range that won him successes both on Broadway and in Carnegie Hall, it could scarcely be otherwise for this pioneer “crossover” artist. But why try to pigeonhole such brilliance? Better simply to enjoy it’ His parents, Moshe Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, emigrated separately from Russia to America in the 1890s.They married in 1895 and settled in New York’s tough Lower East Side neighborhood. They had four children: sons Ira, George and Arthur, and a daughter, Frances. Father ran a Turkish bath. Ira dabbled in writing song lyrics while helping out with the customers, sowing the seeds of his long, marvellous partnership with his kid-brother composer.
George was a vigorous, active child, playing street hockey and roller-skating through the area. He had little interest in schooling. There was hardly any music in the household until a piano arrived in 1910. Intended primarily for Ira, it was George who was drawn to it most strongly. If it hadn’t appealed to him, he might have followed many of his friends’ paths and become a gangster.
One of his piano teachers gave him Chopin, Liszt and Debussy to play, inspiring an early ambition to become a concert pianist. But the family’s need for money led him to drop out of high school at 15. He got a job as a song ‘plugger’ in the retail department of Jerome H. Remick & Co., one of several major popular music publishers located in Tin Pan Alley. His job was to sell their songs by playing and singing them for performers. That was how he met and befriended Fred Astaire, destined to be one of his greatest interpreters.
He gradually broke into the pop song market he had come to know so well from the inside. The first of his songs to see print appeared in 1916. It bore the memorable title When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em, When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em. He had to start somewhere! By the early ’20s, he was earning a healthy income from his own material. For several years he had also been taking private instruction in classical techniques. Sooner or later these two streams were bound to merge.
The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue took place as planned on February 12, 1924, in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Gershwin himself played the solo part. It came at the end of a long, varied program, but it was still received with overwhelming enthusiasm. This irresistible blend of ’20s jazz and daredevil classical virtuosity remains one of the most beloved and frequently performed of all American compositions. Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, was in the audience when Gershwin’s rhapsody made its debut. Impressed by its unprecedented amalgamation of popular and classical styles, he commissioned Gershwin to compose a full-scale piano concerto. “Many persons had thought that my rhapsody was only a happy accident,” Gershwin wrote. “Well I went out, for one thing, to show them that there was plenty more where that came from. I made up my mind to do a piece of ‘absolute’ music.