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Gershwin centennial a reminder of potential

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Mozart died at 35; the quality and quantity of his music would indicate a life of many more decades. Schubert died at 31, yet his symphonies and songs seem the product of a long, full life. Mendelssohn died at 38, having defined the oratorio and saying all he needed to say. Chopin, dying at 39, left an unmatched body of piano music. Even Bizet, who died at 36, left us with one work, "Carmen," that seems enough for one lifetime.

But there is one composer whose life's work was obviously left unfinished. George Gershwin, whose 100th birthday is Saturday, was just starting out when he died at 38.Once upon a time, the cliche of American politics was to be born in a log cabin. In American music, the equivalent cliche was to be born in the tenements of New York - as was Gershwin. Like other musical geniuses, he was a slave to his talent, drawn to the making of music more than to anything else in life.

Fortunately for us, he was surrounded by the energy and the music of early 20th-century New York.

Gershwin captured the fizz and rattle of the new urban America, noisy with streetcars and speak-easies and filled with European Catholic and Jewish immigrants and northward-migrating African-Americans.

First for Gershwin came success on Tin Pan Alley, then Broadway. Virtually without formal training, he found new twists of harmony that make the songs he wrote for Broadway shows stand out from those of his contemporaries like diamonds surrounded by charcoal. Only Cole Porter, who was just getting warmed up in the 1930s when Gershwin died, comes close.

Thus came into being "Rhapsody in Blue," the Piano Concerto in F and "An American in Paris," the works that epitomize Gershwin's music, and, to many, American music.

And, of course, "Porgy and Bess," that sprawling but irresistible hodgepodge, the great American opera, the one work of art that captured the agony and bittersweet reality of life in America.

Gershwin died from bad advice: psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg assured him that if he came to grips with his greed and ego, those terrible headaches would go away.

But Zilboorg was wrong. By the time Gershwin's brain tumor was discovered, it was too late.

And a rare synthesis of art music and popular spirit died with him.