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Best of Both Worlds
Here's another classical music trivia question for you: which composer was the first musician to earn a million dollars (or equivalent in local currency) from one piece of music alone? You might decide that in order to answer that question, you would have to think not of the composer, but of the most popular works in music history, then go through them in turn to decide if they were spectacular enough to warrant attention.
There is enough of a clue in the question itself - a composer who benefitted financially to that tune would have to be one in recent times, since composers from Baroque times such as Bach relied on royal patronage and did not sell their works. A composer who earned a million dollars from one piece of music would have to be from a recent time when music was commercially sold, either in terms of recordings or sheet music.
The answer to that question is the American composer George Gershwin.
But which was the piece of music that benefitted him to such a tune? Among the first titles that come to mind might be the song "Summertime", for which his name will be inevitably intertwined with. However, Gershwin's 'money song' is in fact 'Swanee'.
Swanee? If you're thinking "never heard of it", you're not alone.
The song did not attain immediate success - it was only after it had been recorded by the singer Al Jolson, that it attained public prominence and did well. The popularity of the work fuelled record sales of over two million copies, and sheet music sales reached a million copies. All this made Gershwin a rich, happy and smiling man. Perhaps the financial security from the work allowed him to devote more time and attention to his art instead of worrying about to day to day financial issues.
What is surprising about the success of Swanee is that Gershwin claimed to have whittled off the tune in just a few minutes while on a bus ride, and if that were not convincing enough, he was only twenty years old at that time.
At the age of sixteen Gershwin left school and worked as a promoter for the songs of music publishers. His experience in the music industry gave him an edge and insight into what songs would be popular, and he used this knowledge to his advantage. Swanee topped the charts for nine consecutive weeks.
Swanee was a groundbreaker for Gershwin but his later works such as Rhapsody in Blue were also pioneering ones in their own right. His Preludes for Piano, for example, follow the classical tradition but are infused with jazz harmonies. Among other things, he is revered for combining what seemed like the diverse worlds of jazz and classical music and showing that they could co-exist together in the same work.
Thinking of taking up the piano? Learn by playing music you know and like with an encouraging piano teacher.
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