Today is the 126th anniversary of the birth of lyricist Ira Gershwin (12/6/1896-8/17/1983).
While his brother George had the reputation as the celebrity composer beloved by movie stars and international classical composers alike (although less so by American ones of his era), Ira was the quiet, somewhat shy older brother. George was a notorious commitment-phobe; Ira was married to his wife Leonore for 57 years. George died at 38 of a brain tumor; Ira lived a long life, dying at 86 at his home in Los Angeles.
Ira is the one who wrote the lyrics to George’s music, and, according to biographer Joan Peyser, those lyrics chronicled George’s life.
“Ira would generally be seen at parties standing in the corner and watching George’s every move… Ira wrote in his lyrics what he believed George should have felt about the situations he found himself in.”
–Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That (Simon & Schuster)
And what wonderful lyrics they were!
Stephen Sondheim would disagree with me, and did vociferously in his book Finishing the Hat, where he describes Ira’s writing as “an insatiable need to rhyme,” often at the expense of common sense. He hated one of my favorite lyrics, from “By Strauss” (which I have sung many times):
“Oh give me the free and easy waltz that is Viennese-y”
Personally, I don’t think that rhyme is all that different, in terms of cleverness, from
“Or else we’d be left bereft of F – D – R” (“How I saved Roosevelt,” Assassins)
Ira’s career did not end with George’s death; he continued to write with Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, and Harold Arlen, mostly for movies. He stopped writing for the stage in 1946, and ended his career with Arlen with A Star is Born in 1954. It’s most well-known song, “The man that got away,” considered one of the top movie songs of all times by the American Film Institute.
Ira outlived his brother by 46 years. George’s music, both instrumental and vocal, will live on forever, played by symphonies and opera companies. Ira’s lyrics will be sung by performers in cabaret and jazz for many years.
Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note – though by tomorrow you’re gone. The song has ended but as the songwriter wrote – the melody lingers on*
*reference to Irving Berlin’s “the song has ended but the melody lingers on”
On his 100th birthday, Ira was the first lyricist to be recognized at Carnegie Hall in a special tribute performance. While I couldn’t find any videos from that performance, I was able to find a tribute concert held around the same time at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Enjoy!