Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


New Forms, New Ideas

George Gershwin

Born in Brooklyn in 1898 to Russian immigrants, George Gershwin showed musical genius early and success came quickly. By the age of 20, he had written his first national hit, "Swanee," and between 1924 and 1931, Gershwin and his brother Ira co-created six successful musicals.

The sounds he developed resonated across the musical theater stage to the classical stage, with pop and jazz in between. "Fascinating Rhythm," from Lady Be Good (1924) and "I Got Rhythm," featured in the musical Girl Crazy (1930), were two timeless jazz classics he composed.

Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which premiered in 1924, is seen as a seminal American classical masterpiece. In composing and performing "Rhapsody in Blue," Gershwin drew on both classical and popular traditions. Piano improvisation skills learned during early years promoting his songs in New York's Tin Pan Alley prepared Gershwin for the difficult piano part featured in the song. Of "Rhapsody," Gershwin said, "I succeeded in showing that jazz is not merely a dance, it comprises bigger themes and purposes." As strongly influenced by African-American and Yiddish street sounds as by great modern composers Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and others, Gershwin's genius elevated the sounds and life of the street into the new classical American music.

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Love and kisses to Gloria from George Gershwin [Self portrait]
Love and kisses to Gloria from George Gershwin [Self portrait]
George Gershwin

This self-caricature was drawn by George Gershwin on a restaurant card and presented to his friend Gloria Swanson. Note the opening bars to "Rhapsody in Blue" above his head.

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