Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
7 minutes for reading

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
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Keeping the heading ROOTS AND WINGS is quite interesting, but sometimes it can be frustrating. How many of such people have achieved success at home? I will not find fault, in the USSR and the Russian Empire, a significant part of them also worked on their native land. We do not count them.

The numbers turn out to be creepy – only two out of five were not forced to go to unknown lands. Three out of ten have achieved fame in the United States. Every sixth is in France, and there are enough other countries as well … So why is it that we are not raising geniuses for ourselves?

If someone says that it was so because Ukraine was not independent, and now everything is different, here is the following fact: three of those listed became famous precisely in independent Ukraine. How many of them did it in the USA? That’s right, three out of three possible.

We are not alone. There have been others in a similar situation. Ilf wrote in 1935, “I have just come from the play Porgy and Bess… It was staged by the Armenian Mamoulian, the music was written by the Jew Gershwin, the scenery was done by Sudeikin, and the African American played. In general, the triumph of American art.”

Ilf also forgot to mention the conductor Alexander Smallens, in the homeland of Smallens (a native of St. Petersburg), and Gershwin’s brother Ira, who wrote the libretto. In general, all the white frontmen of the production were potentially ordinary Soviet people, and, as they were supposed to, performed miracles everywhere…

All of these “Americans” let us pay attention to the main figure of the opera, its composer. His mother is our countrywoman, and sometimes they write it about his father, although, according to other sources, Gershwin came from St. Petersburg. But his mother, Rosa Bruskina, is certainly a woman from Odessa, it is clear by her last name!




The composer’s father was Moishe Gershowitz. But when in 1890, he boarded a steamer and swam across the ocean in search of a country where there are no Jewish pogroms, he had to turn into Morris Gershwin. His former name was unusal for his new countrymen.

After hearing the proverb “Grow where you are planted”, Gershwin resolutely rejected other popular wisdom “A chicken is not a bird, a woman from Odessa is not a wife” (this is generally invented by the inhabitants of other cities out of envy). Rose has lived in the United States for two years and helped him to adapt.

Their family turned out to be quite prosperous. Morris found a good job (nowadays he would be called a shoe designer). It was quite enough for a tolerable life and education of three sons and a daughter. Rosa dreamed of children who became businessmen or teachers. It could have worked out…

The only trouble was that her second son Jacob, whom his American peers quickly renamed George (why not James – I’m not sure), did not want to become a teacher at all, as his mother had planned. He was doing badly, dawdling all the time.

If he stood out in anything, then in ice skating. The boy won more than once in street competitions. But Morris and Rosa did not see their child to be a famous athlete and therefore simply did not know what to do with this fool. It seemed that there would be a trouble, but a lucky chance helped.




Once twelve-year-old George, as usual, was doing something in the schoolyard (I suppose, he skipped lessons!) and suddenly heard the delightful sounds of a violin! To get acquainted with the wonderful musician, he was waiting three hours in the yard under the rain and achieved his goal!

It was a ten-year-old violin prodigy Max Rosen,  a very famous performer musician in the future. The boys quickly became friends and kept this friendship for a long time. George had a new and very strong interest in life, even stronger than skates – music.

The parents decided to make George’s older brother Ira a musician, sent him to the appropriate school and bought a piano, so that he could study. But, to the surprise of his parents, George, who was not trained by anyone, learned to play the piano himself, moreover, he began to play better than Ira.

The parents did not mind much: to a Jewish mother, a son as a music teacher, is somehow more understandable than a son as a champion in skating. They began to send their son to different music schools, but he never graduated from one. Regular education did not matched his tastes. But what the boy wanted, he taught hard.




At the age of 16, George decided that he had already learned, and went to work as a plugger at the music publishing house of Jerome Remik. It was rather a serious and an unusual job. How to translate it into modern Russian is not very clear, perhaps, a popularizing pianist.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
George Gershwin in his youth

His job was to advertise new songs. He performed new songs under slides with their text in restaurants, theatres, music halls, and then he sang the chorus with accompaniment and without several times. People remembered the tune and could hum or whistle it to someone else…

In 1915, Gershwin had a new wonderful friend – the composer Charles Hambitzer. He helped George a lot. Hambitzer recommended excellent teachers for him, and just gave a bunch of kind and sensible advice. Gershwin did not only become a brilliant pianist, but also began to write his own music.

Any composer has the same question at the beginning of his career. Should he work in the time-tested classical style or start creating popular music? For that time, the main popular music in the United States was jazz  and it was called the “era of jazz”.

Musical critic Damrosch later said that many composers were fascinated by jazz, but at the same time frightened. In his opinion, it was Gershwin who acted with jazz, like a fairy-tale prince with Cinderella. He took its hand and declared to the whole world that it was a real princess.




Gershwin’s first published work of authorship titled When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get’ Em was not a sensational success, but it was noticed and performed to our days. You can listen to it.


But the song Swanee, which attracted the attention of one of the largest jazz singers of the time, Al Jolson, entered his Sinbad show and was a resounding success. Jolson performed it in several films and repeatedly recorded it on his records. Here it is.

Financially, Swanee was also super successful. Over a million copies of its sheet music and two million records with it were sold. It was not only Gershwin’s first superhit, but also the best-selling song of his entire career, immediately making him financially independent.

And already in 1919, the musical La La Lucille was released, in which all the music, until the last note, was written by Gershwin. He withstood 119 performances, then toured all over America and even Canada, and was repeatedly staged. The last production was in 2019.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
Sheet music La La Lucille




Most of the successes of the first years of his work are associated with scandals… Not debauches and fights, but Scandals of George White – a cycle of fashion shows, which their creator George White called an imitation of another similar cycle, Ziegfeld Follies, that is The Siegfeld Folly.

He wrote a lo.Several dozen works a year for these shows. But Gershwin was not limited to such a considerable amount of work. In 1922, he wrote his first opera Blue Monday. It translates as Sad (or bluesy, or just blue) Monday.

In his great opera Porgy and Bess, of which it was clearly an anticipation, all of its characters were African Americans. In the first performance, they were played by white singers, and it was unsuccessful. Later it was called 135th Street and was staged more than once. That time with black performers.

After this opera, the famous Paul Whiteman, the leader of the jazz orchestra, who was called the “jazz emperor”, invited Gershwin to work together and immediately surprised him with an unusual request – to create a serious classical piece for his orchestra.

Gershwin did not take this order very seriously, but it turned out that Whiteman had already given the upcoming premiere a newspaper advertisement! There was nothing to do – it took just a month to create Rhapsody in Blue (look above – it means both Rhapsody in Blue and Rhapsody in Blues. Choose yourself).




The premiere of the rhapsody turned out to be an event. Two such world-famous composers as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff came and sat in the first row. Both rated the work very highly, and over time this assessment became generally accepted everywhere.

It is said that shortly after the premiere, Gershwin approached Stravinsky with a request for composition lessons. He asked him, “How much do you earn?” Gershwin replied, “One hundred thousand a year. Maybe two hundred.” “Then I have to take lessons from you,” the classic summed up.

Stravinsky himself denied it and said that he had heard a similar story from Maurice Ravel, to whom Gershwin made a similar request. However, it does not even matter. It is much more interesting that such a story arose at all and did not seem implausible.

Having become even more rich, Gershwin bought a five-story house and set off to travel around Europe. He brought back the symphonic poem An American in Paris from there. It was also received with enthusiasm. Here it is.


And here is Rhapsody in Blue, in which Leonard Bernstein himself is the soloist.




In 1924, Gershwin, together with his brother Ira, who chose the pseudonym Arthur Francis (these are the names of their brother and sister), created the extremely successful musical Lady, Be Good! (Lady, Please!). At the Freedom Theater on Broadway, he withstood 326 performances, and at the Empire Theater in London’s West End – 326. Both the famous Fred and Adele Astaire played there.

For the next 10 years, the Gershwin’s brothers were the most sought-after creative union on Broadway. Their musical Of Thee I Sing was the first in the genre to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was awarded only to Ira and two other librettists, since it is not musical, but literary. But in 1998, George was also awarded this prize. However, only an honorary one.

Nevertheless, the idol’s life was not easy. He constantly practiced to compensate for the lack of education, often sat on a strict diet due to stomach ailments and regularly attended psychoanalyst sessions in order to somehow sort out his personal affairs.

His affairs were complex and confusing too. The handsome and wealthy composer had many romances, but never got a family. He had a long love story with a woman composer Kay Swift, an unrequited love for Chaplin’s wife Paulette Goddard, an almost constant relationship with his talented student Alexandra Belykh… But it did not come to marriage.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
George Gershwin and Paulette Goddard
ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
George Gershwin and Kay Swift




The pinnacle of his work was a real big opera based on the novel Porgy by the writer DuBose Heyward. He lived for months in South Carolina to delve into the world of its heroes, and wrote it for two years. Its premiere took place on September 30, 1935 at the Colonial Theater in Boston.

The production immediately became a sensation. Maurice Ravel himself said about it, “This is the best opera I’ve ever seen.” While touring the United States at the Washington National Theater, the troupe demanded that black audiences be allowed into the theater (this was a problem at the time). The leadership gave up, and this was the first show in the US history to allow people of different races to be admitted.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
Scene from Porgy and Bess

And in March 1943, the European premiere of Porgy and Bess took place, and where? At the Royal Danish Opera in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. The performance was a huge success, all tickets were sold out. All the performers were, of course, white, but the occupation authorities still banned the opera by the Jew Gershwin after 22 performances.

The very first aria of this opera, Summertime, has become one of the world’s most popular musical performances. There are over 18,000 of its performances in various arrangements, both by opera and jazz singers. I like one of it. Here it is.


I am delighted with the piano arrangement by Rick Wakeman.


By the way, about the sources of this hit. The head of the Ukrainian choir, Oleksandr Koshyts, is sure that this is just an adaptation of the Ukrainian folk song Oh, sleep is a walk around. You can listen to it and decide for yourself if it is so.




Gershwin works day and night. His success has just taken place, but his creative life is just beginning. Everything is still ahead: new hits, and the arrangement of personal life. There is already enough money for it, but there will certainly be enough time… We all think so, and almost always. Why?

Recently, a study was conducted that showed that it was Gershwin who was the highest paid composer during his lifetime in the history of world music. He generally became a millionaire at the age of 20. Then everything should only get better, he thought so…

And suddenly, right during the concert on stage, George fainted! At first, he was not very worried. Well, it happens with workaholics, work is a good thing, but you also need to rest… However, then it became clear that it was not a matter of overwork. The diagnosis was terrible – brain cancer.

Gershwin was operated on at the famous Cedars-Sinai clinic, the tumor was removed, but it was clearly the last hope. He did not wake up after anesthesia. He lived only 39 years in the world… He was buried in the Westchester Hills cemetery, which is located in the suburbs of New York.

The day after the death of the composer Arnold Schoenberg said, “Music was for him the air he breathed, the food that nourished him, the drink that refreshed… His works were a contribution not only to American music, but also to music of the whole world.”

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
Mausoleum of George Gershwin


It is absolutely correct to consider Gershwin both a classical and a jazz composer. Both styles in his work were inseparably fused. But he is undoubtedly a classic in some important sense. His music has not become outdated at all over the past decades, and is not going to.

Back in 1945, a film was shot about him with the logical name Rhapsody in Blue. In 1937, for the song They Can’t Take That Away From Me, which he wrote for the film Shall We Dance, George received an Oscar, but already posthumously.

In 1983, one of the Broadway theatres was renamed the Gershwin Theater. In 1985, he and his brother Ira were posthumously awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal for “outstanding and invaluable contributions to American music, theatre, and culture”. The Popular Song Award, established by the Library of Congress, was named after him.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: George Gershwin, the son of an immigrant from Odessa (Ukraine), is internationally famous pianist and composer
Gershwin Theatrе on Broadway

Does the Odessa mother remember Odessa of the great composer, do they remember him in Ukraine? I think that the works of Gershwin, this wonderful and harmonious fusion of classics and jazz, have not become worse over the years. He doesn’t need more. And what about us?

All illustrations and audio/video materials from open sources

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