A Kaleidoscope of America: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

A Kaleidoscope of America: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

On January 4, 5 and 6, conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane performs Gershwin’s legendary Rhapsody in Blue in its rarely heard original form for jazz band and piano. In this post, discover the circumstances surrounding the genesis of this iconic masterpiece. Get tickets and more information here.

On January 3, 1924, the Gershwin brothers were up late, George playing a game of pool with a friend and Ira perusing the morning edition of the next day’s The New York Herald. Among its pages Ira discovered an announcement for a concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music” featuring Paul Whiteman’s jazz band on February 12. The concert would be attended by a who’s who of the classical music world, including the composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, the conductor Leopold Stokowski and the violinist Jascha Heifetz, and would showcase new music inspired by jazz. Much to their surprise, the highlight would be a new “jazz concerto” by George Gershwin.

George Gershwin

Apparently, Gershwin had completely forgotten about the concert, and four days later he began writing down what would become Rhapsody in Blue. He had already been working out much of the piece in his head, however, during the month before, as he revealed in a letter several years later:

“Suddenly an idea occurred to me. There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz….Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing with unwonted rapidity. No set plan was in my mind—no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not a plan.

“At this stage of the piece I was summoned to Boston for the première of Sweet Little Devil. I had already done some work on the rhapsody. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer….And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind, and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.

“As for the middle theme, it came upon me suddenly, as my music sometimes does. It was at the home of a friend, just after I got back to Gotham….Well, there I was, rattling away [at the piano] without a thought of rhapsodies in blue or any other color. All at once I heard myself playing a theme that must have been haunting me inside, seeking outlet. No sooner had it oozed out of my fingers than I knew I had found it….A week after my return from Boston I completed the Rhapsody in Blue.”

At 25, Gershwin was already the toast of Broadway. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gershwin had taken piano lessons as a kid growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After dropping out of high school to become a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley, he landed his first Broadway show at 20 and began his meteoric rise as one of America’s leading popular song writers. His ambitions extended beyond Broadway’s stages, however; Gershwin had always had an interest in classical music, and even attended a New York performance of Schoenberg’s avant-garde song-cycle Pierrot lunaire.

Making History

Though Gershwin later claimed that his knowledge of music theory at this time could have fit on a three-cent postage stamp, he nevertheless wrote an iconic piece that remains a landmark in the history of music. Controversial from the first, Rhapsody in Blue challenged notions regarding the divide between classical and popular music; its relatively free-form structure flew in the face of symphonic traditions; and perhaps most importantly, it combined freshness and originality with an irresistible accessibility. Few other purely instrumental works of its length so successfully grab the attention of even uninitiated listeners from its first note to its last.

Ferde Grofé, composer and arranger

Its genesis was also much more collaborative than is traditional for a piece of classical music. In keeping with the practice of Broadway composers of the time, Gershwin wrote the piece in short-score form for two pianos (one representing the soloist and the other the band). It was then arranged by Ferde Grofé, a composer and orchestrator who often made arrangements for Paul Whiteman’s unique ensemble. Gershwin also originally wrote the famous opening clarinet glissando as a scale; it took its unforgettable final form when the band’s clarinetist Ross Gorman played it that way in rehearsal, possibly as a joke. The name of the piece, too, was originally An American Rhapsody; Rhapsody in Blue was suggested by George’s brother, Ira, who as George’s lyricist always had a way of finding words that went with his brother’s music. Ira was likely inspired by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler, which sported titles such as “Symphony in White,” or “Nocturne in Blue and Silver.”

When that chilly February day arrived, the concert began at 2:45 pm and lasted until well after 5:00. Paul Whiteman, the band leader, recalled that “It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get in the door, pulling and mauling each other as they do sometimes at a baseball game, or a prize fight, or in the subway […] It was a strange audience out in front. Vaudevillians, concert managers come to have a look at the novelty, Tin Pan Alleyites, composers, symphony and opera stars, flappers, cake-eaters, all mixed up higgledy-piggledy.”

After twenty-one other selections, the moment for Rhapsody in Blue, the penultimate piece on the program, finally arrived. Olin Downes, the esteemed music critic of the New York Times, related the scene in his review: “Then stepped upon the stage, sheepishly, a lank and dark young man—George Gershwin. He was to play the piano part in the first public performance of his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra. […] the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with a sensation of a new talent finding its voice […] There was tumultuous applause for Mr. Gershwin’s composition.”

Since Gershwin’s untimely death at age 38, his most famous composition has rarely been heard in the original form that thrilled listeners at the premiere. Even during his life early recordings invariably cut the work down drastically so that it would fit on two sides of a record, such as this one he made with Paul Whiteman’s band not long after the premiere in 1924:

As early as 1926, Grofé reorchestrated the work for a more standard theater orchestra ensemble, but his 1942 version for full orchestra has become standard. Published in 2018, the new critical edition prepared by Ryan Raul Bañagale restores not only Grofé’s original jazz band orchestration, but also various cuts and alterations Gershwin made to the piano solo part in later years. This edition will serve as the basis for the Houston Symphony’s upcoming performances and is perhaps the closest we will come to what audiences actually heard that snowy afternoon in 1924.

Don’t miss Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on January 4, 5 and 6, 2019! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.

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