High-school dropout George Gershwin (1898-1937) entered the workforce at the age of 15 as a promoter for a music publishing firm in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. His job was to play the piano and sing the firm’s songs to prospective buyers. He thus got to know contemporary song styles inside out. Gershwin soon started to compose his own music and set his sights on Broadway. He got his first break in the theatre as a rehearsal pianist and quickly worked his way up the ladder, first of all by composing songs that were included in shows and then, with La La Lucille (1919), his first full-length musical. Al Jolson made Gershwin’s song ‘Swanee’ a hit and Fred and Adele Astaire starred in the 1924 show Lady be Good! In the same year Gershwin appeared as soloist in his recently completed work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue. From this point on Gershwin wrote for traditional ‘classical’ genres (the Piano Concerto followed a few years later and the opera Porgy and Bess in 1934) as well as for Broadway. He met Maurice Ravel in Paris in 1928 and evidently asked him for composition lessons. Ravel supposedly replied, ‘Why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?’ Gershwin’s career came to an abrupt and unexpected end when he fell into a coma in July 1937. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour. An operation was performed but he never recovered.

© Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra