George Gershwin is way up there on my mental list of favorite American composers. From Rhapsody in Blue to the many wonderful songs ("Summertime," "Someone to Watch over Me," "Embraceable You," and "I Got Rhythm," just to name a very small portion of the man's output), his music bridges the gap between the Broadway stage and the classical concert hall.
Gershwin was the son of poor Russian emigrants who arrived in the U.S. a few years before he was born in 1898. At age twelve, he began to play the piano, and by age fifteen, had dropped out of school to hold down a job as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley. It was here that he became well-known among singers and other song-writers. His first song ("Swanee") was published less than two years later, and singer Al Jolson's recording of the song in 1920 received great acclaim.
With his brother Ira, George wrote many successful songs and musical comedies throughout his life. The now-famous songwriter sought out well-known composers for instruction in harmony and composition, and took sporadic lessons with musicians such as Rubin Goldmark and Henry Cowell. Besides the well-known Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and opera, Porgy and Bess (1935), Gershwin's classical works include a piano concerto (1925), a set of variations for piano and orchestra based on his song, "I Got Rhythm" (1934) and Cuban Overture (1932), along with several other pieces.
Anna Harwell Celenza has a perfectly lovely book featuring the story of how the composer came to write his first major classical orchestral composition: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In it she mentions some of the influences on Gershwin's compositions, including ragtime and Klezmer. The book includes a CD of the piece, as well, as played by the composer himself on a piano roll.
I have two favorites of Gershwin's that are among his lesser known classical pieces: Lullaby for Strings, and Prelude No. 2 from a set of three Preludes for Piano (1926). There is a YouTube video of a string quartet playing the Lullaby in its entirety here. The video quality isn't great, but the audio quality is pretty good, and the quartet is decent, even if they play the piece too fast for my taste (faster than I played it back in my wedding gig-playing days, anyway). Here it is (in Amazon exerpt form) at the "right" speed, which makes it just, well, dreamy:
Recording by Vesko Eschkenazy "and friends" on the CD, The Fascinating George Gershwin.
And my other favorite, another somnolent selection--the second of three Preludes for Piano:
as played by the equally delightful Michael Tilson Thomas (one of my heroes) on the CD, Classic Gershwin.