George Gershwin will join the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from beyond the grave in the SSO’s A Night at the Speakeasy concert. Gershwin’s ghostly appearance at the concert, playing “live” from the 1930s, will be made possible by Peter Phillips, a leader in the digitisation of piano rolls – which allowed player pianos to capture the performances of pianists and reproduce them – using Yamaha’s state of the art Disklavier technology. The concert, conducted by Guy Noble, also features soprano Ali McGregor and burlesque queen Imogen Kelly. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at the life and career of George Gershwin in this piece by Graham Abbott.

George Gershwin, Speakeasy, Sydney Symphony OrchestraOboist Shefali Pryor and flautist Emma Sholl. Photo © Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Very few composers have spoken the languages of both popular and classical music as fluently as George Gershwin. Born in 1898 to Russian migrants, he began piano lessons around the age of ten, and was lucky to find, in Charles Hambitzer, a teacher who encouraged him, taking him to concerts and teaching him works from the standard repertoire.

At 15, Gershwin dropped out of school and started working as a song plugger. For the sum of $15 a week he spent his days at a piano, playing and singing the firm’s songs for customers at Jerome H. Remick and Co., a music publishing company in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. It was at this early age that he began writing his own songs.

It’s often thought that composing Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 was a departure for Gershwin, moving into so-called serious music after nearly a decade as a writer of popular songs – but this isn’t true. From the outset, Gershwin studied harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration and built on the training he’d received from Hambitzer.

In 1917, Gershwin started working as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway, and by the end of 1918 three shows featured his songs. La La Lucille, completely made up of Gershwin songs, opened in May 1919. In 1920, Gershwin had his first hit when his song Swanee was recorded by Al Jolson. In that year alone Swanee netted him about $10,000 in royalties.

In the early 1920s, Gershwin began to establish himself as a major songwriter on Broadway and in London. Most of the shows are forgotten today, but many of the songs became “standards”, such as Primrose, written in 1924, which is remembered today only for ‘S Wonderful – a standard if ever there was one ‘S Wonderful is one of the many songs with lyrics penned by George’s older brother Ira. The two became one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time. In the same year, 1924, they produced Lady Be Good! – including its classic title song and Fascinating Rhythm.

1924 also saw Gershwin produce perhaps his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, which was hugely popular from day one. The success led him to take concert music more seriously and in 1925 he produced his Concerto in F.

In 1926, Gershwin produced two works which have remained in their respective repertoires ever since. Someone to watch over me (written for the musical Oh, Kay!), and on the classical front, the Three Preludes for solo piano. These wonderful miniatures – as is the case of all Gershwin’s concert works – blur the lines between the jazz and classical worlds, without doing either a disservice.

Gershwin travelled to Europe for a few months in 1928, meeting Prokofiev, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel, Walton and Berg. Legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger refused his application for lessons, fearing his natural affinity for jazz might be compromised; Ravel is said to have had a similar response. Apparently, when Ravel heard how much money Gershwin was making, he said, “You should give me lessons”. This European trip led to Gershwin’s next major concert work, the tone poem An American in Paris.

In 1930, he produced two new Broadway shows – at the age of 32 he had all the makings of a long and illustrious life. Sadly, he had less than seven years to live, but over those years he produced some marvellous works: the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, the Cuban Overture, the “I got rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra, and his magnum opus, the folk opera Porgy and BessPorgy and Bessopened in October 1935 and ran for 124 performances in its initial run. Gershwin, to quote Grove, seemed “on the threshold of new musical achievements”. But in early 1937 he started to suffer from dizziness and emotional instability. On July 9 he fell into a coma. A brain tumour was diagnosed and surgery attempted, but two days later, on July 11 1937, George Gershwin died. He was 38.

This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Limelight Magazine.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs A Night at the Speakeasy at the Sydney Opera House June 29 and 30