Head to Head: Gershwin vs. Bernstein

Posted on: October 23, 2013 in: Composer Focus, Hot Tunes Cold War

With Jazz Kings, the grand finale of our Hot Tunes/Cold War series, drawing nigh, we thought it was time to bring out the big guns. Duck and cover ladies and gentlemen, and prepare yourselves for a showdown between two titans of orchestral jazz: George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Although their careers barely overlapped, they were seemingly united by a penchant for staring moodily into the camera. Keep reading to find out which one almost forgot to write their most famous work, and who earned the respect of New York’s notoriously hard-to-please construction workers. 

Gershwin moodyName: George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershvin)

Age: Born 1898 and died 1937, aged 38.

Nationality: American

Background: Born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer. Hambitzer was so impressed by his new pupil that he refused to take payment, saying, “He will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”  Gershwin dropped out of school and began playing piano professionally at age 15 and swiftly became one of the most sought-after musicians in America, writing Broadway theatre works with his brother, Ira. Unfortunately, Gershwin was diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumour in 1937, and died whilst undergoing surgery to remove it.

Big break: In 1919 Gershwin hit the big time with his song, “Swanee”. Al Jolson, a famous Broadway singer, heard Gershwin perform “Swanee” at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows, catapulting George into stardom.Gershwin blog

Repertoire: Gershwin’s best-loved piece, Rhapsody in Blue, was composed when he was working for bandleader Paul Whiteman, who asked him to create a jazz number that would enhance the genre’s reputation. Gershwin allegedly forgot all about the request, and completed the work in a panic in order to meet the deadline. Some of his other well-known works include An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess.

Hot Tunes Cold War Performances: The original arrangement for Paul Whiteman’s band of Gershwin’s masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, will be performed in our Jazz Kings concert on October 31st, featuring Gwilym Simcock on piano.

Bernstein blogName: Leonard Bernstein (born Louis Bernstein)

Age: Born 1918 and died 1990, aged 72.

Nationality: American

Background: Born in Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents. Bernstein attended Harvard, where he studied music, and then enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His career as a composer and a conductor truly flourished following the Second World War, during which he produced some of his best-loved work:  was his collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim to create West Side Story. He is also known for his outspoken leftist political views and his strong desire to further social change. He announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990 and died of a heart attack five days later. During his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and yelled, “Goodbye, Lenny.” He was buried with a copy of Mahler’s Fifth lying across his heart.

Big Break: On November 14, 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein made his major conducting debut at sudden notice—and without any rehearsal—after Bruno Walter, the principal conductor, came down with the flu. He became instantly famous because the concert was nationally broadcast, and afterwards started to appear as a guest conductor with many U.S. orchestras.Bernstein1

Repertoire: Along with West Side Story, Bernstein composed three operas, seven other musicals and innumerable pieces of orchestral, chamber and vocal music, including a song, Big Stuff, for Billie Holiday.

Hot Tunes/Cold War Performances: Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs will also be performed in our Jazz Kings concert on the 31st October.

Jazz Kings takes place on Thursday 31st October, at 19.30 in Cadogan Hall. Tickets for this climactic end to our Hot Tunes/Cold War series can be purchased here.