Fredonia Shakespeare Club learns about George Gershwin

Submitted Photo Fredonia Shakespeare Club President Joyce Haines shared a presentation on George Gershwin at the Club’s Dec. 6 meeting.

The seventh meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club was held on Dec. 6 at the Edwards Waterhouse Inn hosted by Florence McClelland. President Joyce Haines welcomed 11 members.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the November 15 meeting. The minutes were approved as written.

Haines reported that she visited with Pat McQuiston and Page Woodbury. They both enjoyed receiving a Christmas cactus from the Club as a memento of their years as members.

The Club’s area of study this year is The World Between WWI and WWII. Haines presented her paper “George Gershwin,” which is summarized as follows:

George Gershwin’s story is one from rags to riches. George was born in 1898 of Russian Jewish parents who immigrated to America. Morris and Rose Gershowitz had four children: Ira, George, Arthur and Frances, all who pursued areas of music. When George was twelve his parents bought a piano for Ira to take lessons, but it was George that expressed an inclination and interest in learning to play. While he had several teachers through the years, it was Charles Hambitzer who had the most influence on him. Hambitzer introduced George to music of European classical traditions and encouraged him to attend concerts.

George left school in his teens and became a song plugger-playing constant repetition of sheet music to sell a song publicized by a salesman. George earned $15 a week, but soon became tired of not being able to play his own songs. He was motivated to compose when hearing the noises and sounds of Tin Pan Alley in the Yiddish Theater District in the east side of Manhattan. His next job was researching and arranging piano roils under his own and assumed names. With the exposure of radio, it further promoted the works of many composers. He worked on a radio show with Rudy Valee and then had his own show.

Probably Gershwin’s most popular achievement at the time was “Rhapsody in Blue,” composed in 1924 for orchestra and piano at the request of Paul Whiteman who wanted a composition combining blues and jazz. With this Gershwin established his style of blending vastly different musical styles in revolutionary ways. His second popular composition was commissioned as a piano concerto for full orchestra by Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony. The “Concerto in F Major” was orchestrated by George himself and one of the moments was written at Chautauqua, which he found to be a delightful place. “Porgy and Bess,” a folk opera, was his most ambitious effort. It was a box office failure presented during the Great Depression, but became a success after his death in 1937. When he went to Paris he began writing “An American in Paris,” which is a captivating tone poem that includes a ballet and uses taxi horns. And while all that was going on, he and his brother, Ira, as his chief lyricist, were composing show tunes for Hollywood and Broadway musicals.

Gershwin began painting in 1929. He studied the works of others and had a collection of some of the masters. His own painting was an eclectic style. He had a strong desire to become successful in anything he undertook.

He never married but had many relationships with female musicians and actresses. He loved parties and playing his own compositions usually surrounded by celebrities. Gershwin suffered headaches and it was suggested by his family that he consult a psychiatrist for possible mental problems. But by July 1937 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died during an operation at the age of 38.

George and Ira Gershwin received many awards and honors but the most memorable of all is the legacy of their tunes, which can still be heard and remembered today. How fortunate we are to know George Gershwin lives on through his music.