5 Things You Might Not Know About Gershwin – curious arts

At our inaugural piano concert on May 13th, guest pianist Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy will be performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the new Steinway piano.

Thanks to the help from U of A musicology professor, Christina Gier, we were able to learn more about George Gershwin’s life as he went from a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley, to one of the biggest names in composition.

Here are some fun facts about Gershwin you may not know:

1) George Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of New York which, which was at the time, an incredibly poor neighborhood. He was also very popular among the street gangs. Therefore, had he not discovered the piano, it is likely his life would have followed a very different path. In fact, growing up, George was “pegged by his parents as the one most likely to end up in perpetual trouble.”

2) He fell in love with his best friend’s wife, Katherine (Kay) Warburg. The two of them carried on a continuous affair, until her eventual divorce from Jimmy Warburg in 1934.

3) Gershwin’s proposal to collaborate was rejected by two different influential musicians; Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger. Although Gershwin believed working with Ravel would help further his career, Ravel rejected his offer, arguing “it was better to be a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel.” Instead he suggested Gershwin contact Parisian piano and composition instructor, Nadia Boulanger. She also refused to work with him after hearing him play, claiming she had nothing to teach him. There is still some speculation around what exactly she meant.

4) George Gershwin’s brother Ira wrote the lyrics for several of his compositions, including “Of Thee I Sing,” for which Ira won a Pulitzer Prize. At the time there was no Pulitzer Prize for music, so George received no recognition for his contribution. It was reported Ira and George got into a huge argument regarding this award. Ira insisted he would not accept unless George received an award as well, while George demanded he accept it anyway. In the end, Ira did accept the Pulitzer Prize, but he hung it in his bathroom, “slightly askew.”

5) Gershwin died on July 11th, 1937 at the age of 39 from an inoperable malignant glioblastoma. He suffered from symptoms for many years – but doctors were unable to find the cause and blamed his symptoms on hysteria. The illness began to significantly affect his ability to perform in early 1937 when he both fell of the stage and made mistakes while performing his own compositions.

We hope to see you at the 88 Keys Concert on May 13th at 3 PM in Convocation Hall. Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy’s performance of Rhapsody in Blue will definitely be an amazing experience.

Visit our showpage if you would like to purchase your tickets in advance to make sure you don’t miss out!


Rimler, Walter. George Gershwin : An Intimate Portrait. University of Illinois Press, 2009. Music in American Life. EBSCOhost,

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