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September 1998


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George Gershwin, 1927, by Edward SteichenIra Gershwin, 1954

Ira Gershwin's favorite photo of his brother George (by Edward Steichen) appeared in Vanity Fair in 1927; Ira works on the score for the film A Star Is Born, 1954.

The Gershwin Legacy

Library Celebrates Contributions of George and Ira

By Raymond A. White

On Sept. 26, 1898, one of America's most important composers was born. George Gershwin of Brooklyn, N.Y., alone and with his brother, Ira, wrote many of the finest American popular songs and orchestral pieces. The premiere institution for Gershwin studies is the Library of Congress Music Division, which this year celebrates the Gershwin legacy. In March, the Gershwin room opened in the Library's Jefferson Building, where it serves as a permanent exhibition area for materials relating to the brothers. The following was written by the curator of the George and Ira Gershwin Collection.

The music of George and Ira Gershwin has long been a part of the American consciousness. The opening clarinet glissando from Rhapsody in Blue, the taxi horn theme from An American in Paris and the songs -- "I Got Rhythm," "Embraceable You," "The Man I Love," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Fascinating Rhythm," and so many others -- are instantly recognizable. Even the mention of the name "Gershwin" brings to mind the glamour and sophistication of the 1920s and 1930s, personified by the brothers who helped to give a musical voice to the time.

Gershwin Parents

Morris and Rose Gershwin at about the time of their wedding, July 21, 1895

But if the Gershwins symbolize a time, their music and words transcend it. The proliferating performances and recordings of their music testify to its enduring popularity, and George and Ira continue to be the subjects of popular as well as scholarly study. Yet, no matter how familiar one becomes with their music or the details of their lives, there remains a unique acquaintance and an immediacy that are gained only through seeing the original documents found in the George and Ira Gershwin Collection in the Library of Congress.

This collection is the world's preeminent body of primary source materials for the study of the life and work of the Gershwins. Chief in importance is the music -- that written by George and Ira together, as well as songs composed by George and Ira with other collaborators, and George's concert pieces. There are orchestrations, piano-vocal scores, sketches, lyric sheets and librettos -- much of it in the handwriting of the Gershwins. George's beautiful manuscript full score for Porgy and Bess conveys his care in creating the opera and the importance he attached to it. Song manuscripts with erasures and corrections present the youthful composer whom Edward Jablonski has called the "Jazz Age Meteor." Similarly, Ira's lyric sheets, with experimental rhymes, unused couplets and various corrections, show us Jablonski's "Contemplative Craftsman." No fewer than 17 pages of lyric drafts survive for the Ira Gershwin-Jerome Kern classic "Long Ago (And Far Away)." Also included are the so-called Secaucus manuscripts (scores and lyric sheets found in a Secaucus, N. J., Warner Bros. warehouse), George's harmony exercises, and eight of his musical sketchbooks.

Cast of Porgy and Bess

The cast of Porgy and Bess is pictured during the first week of the show's Boston tryout, prior to its Broadway opening, Oct. 10, 1935 (photo by Richard Tucker); below, original cover art for Gershwin compositions reflected styles from Jazz to Art Deco.

SwaneeThe continually expanding Gershwin Collection includes a wealth of correspondence that provides details of the brothers' lives and personalities. Twenty-four-year-old George (1898-1937) writes to Ira (1896-1983) from London on his first trip abroad: "When I reached shore, a woman reporter came up to me and asked for a few words. I felt like I was [composer Jerome] Kern or somebody." To longtime friend Mabel Schirmer in 1936, George reports: "Of course, there are depressing moments too, when talk of Hitler and his gang creep into the conversation. For some reason or other the feeling out here [in California] is even more acute than in the East." To Emily Paley, sister of Ira's wife, Leonore, George writes: "Stravinsky and Mother got on famously. Isn't Hollywood wonderful?"

I Can't Get StartedIra's letters concentrate on his work: lyric writing and attending to matters Gershwin. Particularly informative is his correspondence with impresario and biographer Merle Armitage and composer Kurt Weill, with whom he collaborated on Lady in the Dark. Ira's meticulous attention to detail is always in evidence, along with his literary finesse. He comments to Weill: "Naturally, I'm interested in anything you think might be the basis of a show that is at once novel and entertaining and yet commercial." He responded to an article by music critic Albert Goldberg: "I lived with my brother at the time he was composing Rhapsody and he was about as influenced by [Milhaud's ballet] Creation of the World as by Frescobaldi's Chaconne and Passacaglia or Patagonian Bebop." Reserved as he was, Ira never hesitated to set the record straight regarding his brother's work.

I Got Rhythm VariationsThe pictorial material in the collection includes many photographs of George and Ira and other members of their family and circle of friends. The brothers' skill in the visual arts is generously represented in the collection. Among the photographs are some 20 images taken by George, including exceptional portraits of Irving Berlin and Leonore Gershwin. As well, there are paintings and drawings by both George and Ira, including George's portrait of Arnold Schoenberg and a self-portrait oil painting of each brother.

The scrapbooks, which number 34 volumes, record the Gershwin story as it was chronicled by the contemporary press. Book 1 begins in 1913 with a number of poems and other short pieces that Ira wrote for and published in the Townsend Harris Hall high school Academic Herald, of which he was co-editor with lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. The scrapbooks continue until early 1986, 2-1/2 years after Ira's death, and cover projects that Ira had worked on. Seven books are devoted solely to Porgy and Bess; another book, to Ira's memoirs, Lyrics on Several Occasions; and two others, to fellow composers and lyricists, performers and the music industry in general. There is also a scrapbook of obituaries and editorials assembled after George's death by his mother, Rose Gershwin, and two scrapbooks compiled by the adolescent George and Ira: George's deals chiefly with music and Ira's, with topics of general interest.

The legal and financial papers comprise contracts, business correspondence, royalty statements and bank statements, including a large cache of papers received in 1997 from the estate of Emanuel Alexandre, Rose Gershwin's attorney. As well, there are programs, posters, scores from George's music library, the drafts and printer's galleys of Ira's Lyrics on Several Occasions, scripts for radio broadcasts, other biographical texts and the Congressional Gold Medals that were struck in honor of the brothers Gershwin and their contribution to American life and culture.

Shall We Dance?

On the set of Shall We Dance, 1936, are dance director Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire, director Mark Sandrich, Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and musical director Nathaniel Shilkret.

That this collection should be housed in the Library of Congress is the result of the interest and efforts of several people, foremost among them, Ira and Leonore Gershwin. After George's death in 1937, Ira devoted considerable energy to organizing his brother's documentary legacy. Early on, he recognized the importance of George's music and its preservation for future generations, but, with characteristic modesty, he was slow to be convinced of the significance of his own papers. Nevertheless, he organized and preserved his lyric sheets along with George's music manuscripts and the correspondence, photographs and other documents that would become the core of the Gershwin Collection.

George and Ira via Plane

George and Ira Gershwin leave for Hollywood from Newark Airport on Aug. 10, 1936.

The development of the collection at the Library traces its beginnings to a 1939 exchange of letters between Ira Gershwin and Harold Spivacke, then chief of the Music Division. The first item that Ira gave to the Library was George's sketch for "The Crap Shooter's Song" from Porgy and Bess, acknowledged on May 24 of that year. In 1953 came the manuscripts of the large-scale works, including Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the Concerto in F from the estate of George and Ira's mother, Rose. These were followed by generous gifts from various other members of the Gershwin family and their friends, including the Gershwins' sister, Frances Gershwin Godowsky; their brother, Arthur Gershwin; sister-in-law, Judy Gershwin; nephews, Marc George Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky III and Michael Strunsky; cousins, Daniel Botkin and Dorothy Botkin Rosenthal; and friends Joseph Schillinger, Mabel Schirmer, Albert Sirmay, Kay Swift and Rosamond Walling Tirana.

During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Ira Gershwin made periodic donations to the Library of manuscripts and other materials -- along with his detailed descriptions of many of the items. The importance of this commentary, virtually unknown in other archival collections, can scarcely be overstated. From time to time, Ira purchased items for the Gershwin Collection, and his interest in the collection continued until his death in 1983. In the course of the next eight years, Leonore Gershwin sustained and expanded her husband's efforts on behalf of the collection and the Library. In 1987 she donated the remainder of the music manuscripts and lyric sheets from their home; on a number of occasions she, too, purchased music manuscripts and correspondence for the collection. Since her death, her very generous bequest has enabled the Library to acquire additional materials, including the files relating to Porgy and Bess from the archives of the Theatre Guild.

George Gershwin signatureGeorge and Ira Gershwin enriched millions of people with unforgettable music and lyrics. Those forward-looking and generous individuals who have supported the establishment and continuing growth of the Gershwin Collection in the Library of Congress have seen to it that generations to come will also enjoy the Gershwin legacy.

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