George Gershwin

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My people are American, my time is today.

Jacob Gershowitz, better known as George Gershwin (1898-09-261937-07-11), was an American songwriter and composer who worked in both popular and classical styles. Most of his songs were written to words by his brother Ira Gershwin.


  • The European boys have small ideas but they sure know how to dress 'em up.
    • Remark quoted in Vernon Duke "Gershwin, Schillinger and Dukelsky: Some Reminiscences", The Musical Quarterly vol. 33 (1947).
  • I frequently hear music in the heart of noise.
    • Letter to Isaac Goldberg; published in Joan Peyser The Memory of All That (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993) p. 80.
  • My people are American, my time is today…music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the times.
    • Quoted in Merle Armitage Accent on America (New York: E. Weyhe, 1944) p. 292.
  • The composer does not sit around and wait for an inspiration to walk up and introduce itself…Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion. In composing we combine what we know of music with what we feel.
    • Isaac Goldberg Tin Pan Alley (New York: John Day, 1930) p. viii.
  • Jazz I regard as an American folk music; not the only one, but a very powerful one which is probably in the blood and feeling of the American people more than any other style of folk music.
    • "The Relation of Jazz to American Music", in Henry Cowell (ed.) American Composers on American Music (1933); reprinted in Gregory R. Suriano (ed.) Gershwin in His Time (New York: Gramercy, 1998) p. 97.

The Composer in the Machine Age (1933)

Gershwin's essay is cited here from Daniel Albright (ed.) Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

  • Modern European composers…have very largely received their stimulus, their rhythms and impulses from Machine Age America. They have a much older tradition of musical technique which has helped them put into musical terms a little more clearly the thoughts that originated here. They can express themselves more glibly.
    • Page 386
  • Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas.
    • Page 386
  • A skyscraper is at the same time a triumph of the machine and a tremendous emotional experience, almost breath-taking. Not merely its height but its mass and proportions are the result of an emotion, as well as of calculation.
    • Page 387
  • When jazz is played in another nation, it is called American. When it is played in another country, it sounds false. Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.
    • Page 387
  • An entire composition written in jazz could not live.
    • Page 388
  • I like to think of music as an emotional science.
    • Page 388


  • It was on the train,with its rattle-ty bang,that is often so stimulating to a composer that I suddenly heard the complete construction of the Rhapsody. Comment on his Blue Rhapsody composition.


  • The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together – with a thin paste of flour and water… I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky…but if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter.
    • Leonard Bernstein, "Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?", in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1955.
  • Gershwin's tragedy was not that he failed to cross the tracks, but rather that he did, and once there in his new habitat, was deprived of the chance to plunge his roots firmly into the new soil.
    • Leonard Bernstein, in Charles Schwartz Gershwin: His Life and Music (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973) p. xii.
  • If jazz should threaten to become a hampering stereotype, a "tradition" in its turn, George would go forward to the next fresh impulse that arose in him. You may call him the King of jazz and associate his name with the lifting of jazz into musical artistry. Very well, and his best thanks. But not on that account is he to be thrust into a pigeonhole. George Gershwin did not begin as a jazzer; he will not end as one.
    • Isaac Goldberg George Gershwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931) p. 289
  • Gershwin's melodic gift was phenomenal. His songs contain the essence of New York in the 1920s and have deservedly become classics of their kind, part of the 20th-century folk-song tradition in the sense that they are popular music which has been spread by oral tradition (for many must have sung a Gershwin song without having any idea who wrote it).
    • Michael Kennedy The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 251.
  • George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe that if I don't want to.
  • Porgy is…an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad setup. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has a considerable power.

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