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Summertime with George Gershwin

To celebrate the creative brilliance of American composer George Gershwin.

by Tim and Vicky Scott

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To celebrate the creative brilliance of American composer George Gershwin.

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1. Play the ‘Summertime’ recordings and ask the students whether they have heard it before and if they know who composed the song.

    ‘Summertime,
    And the livin’ is easy.
    Fish are jumpin’
    And the cotton is high.’

    Those famous words are from George Gershwin’s song ‘Summertime’, composed for his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess (Gershwin wrote the music; the lyrics were written by the American writer duBose Heyward). The song quickly became a jazz classic and according to Wikipedia is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music, with more than 33,000 covers by groups and solo performers.

    Ask students whether they can name any other music by Gershwin. (His best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, as well as the opera Porgy and Bess. Individual songs include ‘I got rhythm’, ‘Swanee’, ‘Strike up the band’, ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, ‘They can’t take that away from me’.)
  2. So, who was George Gershwin?

    He was one of the most famous and popular of twentieth-century classical/jazz composers. His music has had a major impact on popular music and on contemporary film (being used in Four Weddings and a Funeral and countless others). He wrote complete scores for Broadway musicals and for Hollywood musical films, as well as classical works, often experimental jazz compositions, solo works for the piano and a large number of popular songs.

    On the radio, in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was voted the twenty-second most popular classical composition of all time.

    He worked in partnership with writers. Often the lyrics to his music were written by his brother Ira.

    George Gershwin said, ‘Music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.’
  3. George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 September 1898, the second of four children. His parents were immigrants to New York. His father was Ukrainian and his mother was Russian, both of Jewish descent.

    It was a friend’s violin playing that first inspired George to learn music. When he was 10 years old he started to practise on his family’s piano. When he was 12 he was introduced to a pianist, Charles Hambitzer, who became his teacher and mentor. Charles Hambitzer taught him good piano technique, encouraged him to attend concerts and helped George develop an interest in European classical music.

    George published his first song when he was 17, earning $5. His first big success was his song ‘Swanee’, written three years later and performed by Broadway star Al Jolson.

    George’s first major classical work, and his most popular piece of music, was Rhapsody in Blue, composed in 1924 for jazz band and piano.

    In 1927 he wrote the stage musical Strike up the Band, and gave the title song as a gift to the American University, UCLA, for their football team to use at matches.

    George composed ‘a symphonic tone poem’, An American in Paris, in 1928 while briefly studying classical music in Paris. His work was particularly influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century, notably Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In 1928 George asked to study with Ravel in Paris but the French composer rejected him because he feared that intense classical study would ruin the jazzy style that had made Gershwin world renowned. Allegedly Ravel said, ‘Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?’

    George experienced significant failure as well as resounding success. In 1929, he was greatly frustrated and depressed when his first Hollywood film score was largely rejected by the Fox Film Corporation. And Porgy and Bess, which he composed in 1935, was disliked by the critics and was a failure at the box office. (It is now said to be one of the most significant American operas of the twentieth century.)

    In 1936, seven years after the rejection of his first film score, he composed the score for a Hollywood jazz-ballet dance film called Shall We Dance. In 1937, Gershwin received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, for ‘They can’t take that away from me’, written for this film, with lyrics by his brother Ira. Sadly the nomination came shortly after his death.

    Gershwin’s life was tragically cut short by a malignant brain tumour. He died on 11 July 1937 when he was just 38.

    The love of Gershwin’s life was composer Kay Swift, and he often asked her advice about his music. They never married, however, possibly because George’s mother disapproved of Kay, who was a Gentile (non-Jew). This meant, ironically, that on his death, Gershwin’s considerable wealth passed to his mother. (In 2005, the Guardian newspaper, taking the criterion of earnings accrued during a composer’s lifetime, estimated that Gershwin was the wealthiest composer of all time. Today, film and musical theatre composers such as John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Webber are among the wealthiest living composers.)
  4. Today, there is a theatre in Broadway named after George and his brother Ira. The American university UCLA has established a Musical Achievement Award in honour of George and Ira Gershwin (winners have included Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie).

    It is rumoured that film director Stephen Spielberg is considering doing a biopic film about George Gershwin to feature Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto. Watch this space!

Time for reflection

Think again about Ravel’s reason for refusing to teach Gershwin: ‘Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?’

Each of you is unique and special. Don’t try being someone else but be yourself, the way God made you to be – whole and happy in your own skin. That’s really what it means to be successful. There has never been someone exactly like you before and there never will be again!

Jesus taught that true happiness comes from knowing that you are loved by God. You can know the happiness that God gives no matter what your circumstances, no matter what you may find yourself going through.

Prayer
Dear Lord,
thank you for the creative genius of George Gershwin.
The music he composed lives on and is loved by many.
Teach us to live in such a way
that our lives are like a beautiful melody of praise for all your goodness.
Amen.

Music

Play any piece of Gershwin that your students will enjoy.

Publication date: August 2012   (Vol.14 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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