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George Gershwin’s Influence upon other Composers

George Gershwin was born in 1898 in the state of New York. Most musical commentators have described him as one of the greatest musical composers of all time (Verna, Chris, & Edward 98). Most of his work can be traced to the Broadway musical theater where his orchestral and piano compositions resulted in major classical compositions. He was not good in school and had to drop out of school to pursue his musical career. In 1923, he made his first musical debut when he made an appearance alongside Eva Gauthier in a concert in New York (Pollack 54). He lived till 1937 and left a huge impact in pop and classical music. Gershwin was not brought up in a musical family. However, he cut a niche for himself as a young teenager to be a musician. His musical history began when he was 12 years old and his family bought a piano (Crnovale 29). He spent most of his time studying the piano and this gave him a valuable background in musical composition. He also had some preliminary classical training that also shaped his musical abilities as a teenager. He also took some musical lessons from well-known composers. By the time he was 20 years old, he had already begun stretching his niche beyond the commercial limits. People who attended his concerts would fall in love with his music on the first sight. His music was finely composed and was appealing to the listeners. Upon his death, his music still continues to influence thousands of composers across the globe. This paper describes the Gershwin’s influence upon other composers.

In his early life, Gershwin studied piano under the instructions of Charles Hambitzer. During this time, Hambitzer was one of the most respected musical composers and producers. Hambitzer introduced the young Gershwin to the composition of classical and jazz music. During the trainings, Hambitzer was so much impressed with the zeal and musical determination he saw in the young boy. He explained to his friends that young Hambitzer was a generous (Butler 1). Later in life, the young Gershwin learned some composition techniques from American composers such as Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger. He also learned some grounding approach to musical composition from distinguished traditionalist, Edward Kilenyi and Joseph Schillinger. Gershwin’s dexterity and innovation in improvisation and transposing was also enhanced during his three-year stint in “plugger’s purgatory”.  During his teenage years, Gershwin had already established himself as the most talented young pianist within New York. These experiences made the young Gershwin to have a good ground in musical composition.

Maurice Ravel and a group of other French composers of the early 20th century were some of the musicians the young Gershwin was looking up to (Barrymore 3). Ravel was impressed by Gershwin abilities in playing jazz music and commented that Gershwin was very talented in handling rhythms and the melodies. Ravel accepted that he was already pleased with Gershwin’s work even before he met him. When they met, they realize that they can work together to enhance the influence of music. Most observers have argued that the music and words of Gershwin symbolize their time. Their proliferating performances and recordings of his music testify its enduring popularity.

According to John, Gershwin’s experience at an early age shaped his perception and skills in music, especially concerning the jazz and pop (4). Most people who knew him during his early life explain that he enjoyed the songs of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Gershwin is quoted saying that Jerome Kern made his appreciate the quality of musical composition. He made the young Gershwin realize that most pop and jazz music were of inferior quality and needed some improvements from composition perspective (Kanny 6). Therefore, he saw the need to improve the quality of music through proper musical composition. Through him, Gershwin also realized that musical comedy was more appealing and he decided to perfect it at the Broadway stage. In 1919, Gershwin became an overnight celebrity after Al Jolson performed his song “Swanee” (Lichtman 12). The performance was electrifying and the song sold millions of copies. Thereafter, Gershwin worked on several pieces of musical composition. Most of them were of resounding success and awarded him international fame. In one of his most famous sayings, he asserts……

Music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today” (Armitage 71)

 At one time when he was being interviewed, he asserted that there had been much limitations associated with jazz music together with a misunderstanding of its functions (Pollack 17). He talked with zeal like somebody who was determined to deal with the limitation of jazz and subsequently show people its real function. It was long held that jazz had to be in strict time and also cling to dance rhythms. However, Gershwin was determined to kill this misconception about jazz music.

The Influence of Gershwin is more evident among the American composers. Most of his successors such as Leonardo Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and William Bolcom among others were greatly influenced by his work (Armitage 82). He influenced a bunch of hitherto young students take control of music and come up with whatever pleases them. He instilled in them the vernacular yet inspiring themes of musical culture. The music of these young people eventually became intense as it blended the European and American music in a manner that was highly desired by many.

Despite his influence, Gershwin was still inexperienced in the field of music as was other musicians by the time he was dying. The people he influenced agreed that he had a unique naiveté concerning the form and the harmony of his language. He was very much interested in the way music is being composed from a tender age. He was too much in awe of his European seniors that he went to them to learn how a concerto was being written before initiating his own piano concert. He was always ready to learn any musical skill from his seniors (Pollack 133).

The concert he had in Brooklyn was more of his unique musical personality as opposed to his concert personality. The concert reflected the true nature of his influence in music. He did not appeal to his followers due to his freshness, seriousness, invention or melodic richness. However, he impressed them due to his shining success of being himself. After that concert, he won the respect of the classical world. Eventually, he became the father of a linked group of American composition. During this time, most of the classical composers felt constrained by the iron hand of modernism. By this time, most of the composers had realized that the traditional jazz and pop was increasingly becoming more uncommunicative, complicated, and dissonant. Some composers, such as Ned Rorem and Virgil Thompson felt hostile to this movement and clanged on the French neo-classical tradition. However, such an act became increasingly isolated next to the judgment of Germanic modernisms epitomized by composers such as Elliot Carter and Rodger Sessions (Carnovale 158).

In some cases, the musical thought seems inexorable and this calls for a completely new line of thought. Such a scenario calls for the music to be viewed from a particular direction. True to this word, the popular music inspired by Gershwin became the beacon of hope for the younger generation of composers. Gershwin became the model of musical composers who perfected the art of connecting the traditional music with the contemporary American musical style (Pollack 191). He won the rewards of fame and money together with serious attention in lively concerts. Through his influence, he freed a generation of young composers from the modernist influences imposed by people such as Schoenberg and Hindemith. He taught the young generation of composers how to maneuver easily between the cultivated and the vernacular to the new direction. Gershwin is known to provide serious directions to musical composers across the American theaters.

There was a time some began to believe that the Gershwin influence could be affected by the electronic influence of rock-and-roll. During his time, there was an intellectual climate supported by populism that called for the evolution of the American vernacular music. The evolution of the American music tends to bend towards a new kind of indigenous form of music. However, the shock of electrified instruments only provided a violent break with traditional music and paved way for the conception of a new kind of pop and jazz (Armitage 312). During the same time, the counterculture of the mind 20th century was so eager to break from the past to the extent that any attempt to transform the European classical was not easy. These people believed that taking popular music very seriously should not be done with new terms, but under its own terms. The rock and jazz ideologies occupied a central place in the American music and was not ready to give space to the development of popular music.

However, the evolution of art is inevitable. The ideological extremes of the mid-20th century have moderated and a new group of composers have emerged from the popular side whose music tend to differ from the traditional musical forms. One of such composers is the American Grammy award winner, Paul Simons. He was a veteran American music composer and songwriter. Despite not aspiring to the older classical music forms associated with Gershwin, Carnovale asserts that he did not reject the melody or the verbal wit or musical sophistication (214). On the other hand, he did not sound like Gershwin, but his inspiration reflected the musical ordeals of Gershwin. It also seems that the musical theaters follow the same suit. All these developments are attributed to the efforts of Gershwin. He is credited for pushing the boundaries of classical music to new levels. Also, he is credited for transcending the song forms and the limited harmonic language he started with (Verna, Chris, & Edward 98). Actually, that is was most pop-art song composers such as Steve wonder, David Byrne, and Simon learned from Gershwin.

The musical artists tend to survive through their creations. The creation of Gershwin is still evident today. However, his influence among the composers is more of an inspirational force. The composers like David Byrne who seem to have recognized that force sends a strong message concerning Gershwin legacy. The recognition of that force may involving coming closer to rare emotional response musical charms and not necessarily though the contemplation of his historical impact. The recognition is even more impactful when heard in the original arrangements that are once fashionable and appealing to the musical consumers.

If a young composer, whether popular or classical, is captivated by the music, they may feel motivated to let their charm and musical creativity to take control of their music. This is where Gershwin continues to influence the young generation of composers. The composers influenced by Gershwin appreciate that musical composition can be created in a more self-involved or defiant idioms. The music that inspires the listeners tends to be good on their record and that is where Gershwin achieves the miracle.

The most piquant “Rhapsody in Blue” remains one of Gershwin’s outstanding musical composition. From this recording and other solo piano recording, he influenced several composers such as Jeffrey Siegel and Leonard Slatkin. According to Armitage, Gregg Smith also recorded the experimental chamber of opera of 1922 courtesy of Gershwin’s influence (71). According to Armitage, most of the Gershwin’s own piano recordings can be found on various Mark Label LP’s. A collection of Gershwin songs are also offered by renowned pianist-composer William Bolcom.

Gershwin also influenced other musical composers through collaborations. One of his outstanding collaborations was through the song “I got Rhythm” where he featured Ethel Merman in 1930. In 1931, he scored an elaborate piano arrangement of the same song and it was of great success. In 1933, he arranged the piece into a set of variations of piano and orchestra in what was named “I Got Rhythm Variations” and it eventually became the most performed orchestral piece. The 32-bar structure of the variations has since become the second most frequently used harmonic progression in jazz improvisation. Ethel Merman was so much impressed in their collaboration with Gershwin that he regarded him as one of the greatest musicians of their time. Later, “I got Rhythm” was coined in one of Gershwin’s project that became part of George Gershwin’s Songbook. This piece of art was a collection of Gershwin personal favorites.

The influence of Gershwin among his fellow composers was influenced by his huge ego and genuine magnetic personality. Those who knew him at personal level asserted that he approached every assignment with enthusiasm and was never attached to “composer’s block”. He was so much popular at social gatherings such that his presence could not pass unnoticed. He was very aware of his own lack of formal education and would listen keenly when people were discussing arts and literature. Such listening abilities enabled him to learn more from people and use the new knowledge to further his music.

During his free time, Gershwin would sit quietly and endlessly improvise his music. In this way, he was able to make lots of improvements to his music to enhance their appeal to the audience. He was the first American-born musician to appear in the Time magazine as recognition for his outstanding musical composition abilities. Later, he became the first musical composer to win Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding musical attributes. However, the price was awarded to his brother Ira, the lyricist, since the policy never recognized composers. Ira felt extremely angry for such injustice and this prompted the Pulitzer committee to change their policy and began considering composers in their musical awards.

Gershwin died in 1937 and by the time he was dying, he was already reaching out a more complex and sophisticated musical language and his influence was openly evident. After he died, Ira Gershwin was so devastated that his greatest musical influencer was no more. He could not work more than a year after his death and decided to be a keeper of his brother’s legacy. Therefore, he supervised the release of several unpublished Gershwin compositions to help store his legacy. Most of these songs were of great success. Ira also put lyrics to the new Gershwin that featured in the movie “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim”. Other musicians such as Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen were also influenced by Gershwin music.    Had Gershwin lived long enough, then we would have had a body of work that would enrich the musical life of the composers. Also, he would have established a place in musical history that is abundantly clear. Also, this would have made it clear who his true disciples and students were. However, all is not lost since his influence is still felt almost a century after his death. Even after his death several decades ago, George Gershwin still inspires several composers. According to Zaslow (89), his death came as a shock to the musical world. He left a large gap that could not be easily be filled by any other musical composer. Currently, the neo-Romantic composers are reaching out to their audience courtesy of Gershwin influence. Several musical traditions have been institutionalized by leading classical recording companies due to Gershwin influence.

In conclusion, Gershwin was one of the greatest musical composers who left a great impact on other musical composers. He began his musical career at a tender age and learn from several people who impacted his life positively. In addition, he was always motivated to improve the quality of music after realizing the traditional music was not up to the standards. The influence of Gershwin among his fellow composers was influenced by his huge ego and genuine magnetic personality. Most of these songs and collaboration with other composers were of great success. His music won several awards and his influence upon other composers is still evident.


Work Cited

Armitage, Merle. George Gershwin, man and legend. Ayer Co Pub; 1st edition (September 1958)

Barrymore, Laurence S. “By George (and Ira): The Gershwin Centennial.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed.: 1. Oct 06 1998. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017 .

Butler, Jim. “Gershwin on Tap at Symphony Concert.” McClatchy – Tribune Business News: 1. Feb 01 2007. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017 .

Carnovale, Norbert. George Gershwin: A Bio-bibliography. Greenwood; Annotated edition edition, 2000. Print

John, Von R. “Gershwin Gala a Success, by George.” McClatchy – Tribune Business News: 1. Jul 17 2006. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017 .

Kanny, Mark. “Gershwin’s Melodies Shine in Pittsburgh Pops’ ‘Tribute’.” McClatchy – Tribune Business News: 1. Jan 27 2007. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Lichtman, Irv. “One Hundred Years of George & Ira.” Billboard 107.34 (1995): 37. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. University of California Press; 1 edition (January 15, 2007)

Verna, Paul, Chris Morris, and Edward Morris. “Album Reviews — Gershwin Plays Gershwin/The Piano Rolls by George Gershwin.” Billboard 105.51 (1993): 98. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Zaslow, Barry. “The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin.” Library Journal 124.2 (1999): 88-9. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.