Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

George Gershwin
George Gershwin

George Gershwin’s biggest hit almost didn’t happen.  Imagine if the work that established Gershwin as a serious composer never happened.

In 1924, George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist, with compositions spanning both the classical and popular sectors.  Together with his brother, Ira, he composed for the Broadway stage.  He penned his first hit, Swanee, {made famous by Al Jolson} just three years earlier.

Bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin, along with composers Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert, to write pieces that combined the new jazz genre with classical melodies.  His plan was to present a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music.”  At the time Whiteman had one of the most popular dance bands in America.

Paul Whiteman described the concert as “to be purely educational…at least provide a stepping stone which will make it very simple for the masses to understand, and therefore, enjoy symphony and opera”.

Whiteman and Gershwin had collaborated together earlier on a composition “The Scandals of 1922.”

Gershwin agreed to write a concerto for the concert.  When Whiteman contacted him five weeks before the scheduled performance, Gershwin still had not written anything.  He contacted Whiteman to explain that he had been working on a Broadway show and had not had time to come up with anything.  Whiteman refused by informing him that a rival, Vincent Lopez, was planning to steal his concert idea.  “There was no time to waste,” Whiteman said and refused to let Gershwin break their agreement. He persuaded the twenty-five year old to get to work on the composition.  Gershwin agreed to compose a rhapsody for Whiteman.  A rhapsody is a free-form orchestral piece with just a hint of bluesy improvisation.

Paul Whitman
Paul Whitman

Gershwin began squeezing in writing sessions whenever he had a free moment, even if it was in a taxi cab.  The original manuscript is dated January 7, the day Gershwin began work on his future hit.  The piece was initially titled “American Rhapsody“.

Three weeks before the performance, Gershwin was taking a train ride from New York to Boston.  The “steely rhythm” and “rattley-bang” of the train inspired Gershwin.  He began to write and composed the piece in a “fury of inspiration.”

Gershwin stated to his biographer, Isaac Goldberg in 1931, “I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. 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 metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

George Gershwin wanted the composition to feel emotional and spontaneous.  He included a blank page that said “Piano Solo: Wait for Nod.”  This left plenty of room for free expression, which contrasted the structure of classical music.

 

Brothers George and Ira Gershwin George is sitting at the piano
Brothers George and Ira Gershwin
George is sitting at the piano

Ira Gershwin suggested the title “Rhapsody in Blue” after a visit to a local gallery that was exhibiting James McNeill Whistler paintings.  Both Gershwin brothers felt the new title “better captured the bluesy feeling of the piece”.

After George Gershwin finished the composition he passed the score to Whitman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé.  Grofé finished orchestrating the piece just eight days before the premiere.  His original orchestral arrangement was for a small orchestra of twenty-one musicians.  Grofé grew to love the composition so much that he kept expanding the orchestration.  He wanted to capture the “full grandeur” of the musical piece.    Critics later praised Ferde Grofé’s orchestral color.

The prominent clarinet glissando was not in Gershwin’s original manuscript.  During reversals, clarinetist, Ross Gorman, decided to pull a joke on George Gershwin.  Gorman “played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favorably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.” Gershwin loved the effect so much that he added it to the manuscript.

Clarinet
Clarinet

Rhapsody in Blue premiered at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924.  The composition was scheduled at the end of a long program. Gershwin’s composition was next to last on the program consisting of twenty-six separate musical movements.  Many composers of the time, including John Philip Sousa and Sergi Rachmaninoff, were present.  However, the afternoon concert is historically significant because of the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.

After two “sluggish hours,” the audience was bored, restless, and ready for the program to be over.  To make matters worse, the hall had a broken ventilation system leaving the patrons drenched in sweat.  Suddenly, a lone clarinet pierced through the room and everyone was riveted.  On the night of the premiere, Gershwin improvised the solo on the spot.

Halfway through the piece, there is a shift into a romantic mood that is dreamy like.  This mood is described as “a swollen hymn to Eros.”   This theme has since been used numerous times. When the orchestra finished performing the composition, the audience commanded three curtain calls.

The classical music with jazz influenced piece received mixed reviews from critics.  Some critics claimed the composition was too “rigid” for jazz and too “formless” for Classical music.

Gershwin described the composition as “a musical kaleidoscope of America”.  William Saroyan said of the piece, it is “an American in New York City; at the same time it is an American in any city… It is also an American in a small town, on a farm, at work in a factory, in a mine or a mill, a forest or a field.”

Rhapsody in Blue New York critic Olin Downes said of Gershwin after the show, “This is no mere dance-tune set for piano and other instruments. This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.”

The original performance in 1924 was recorded and released on a 78-rpm record {12-inch} on June 10, 1924.  The total play time, on both sides of the record, ran almost 9 minutes.  Much of the middle section is reportedly omitted. The composition embodied the fun of the Roaring 20s.  Rhapsody in Blue became Gershwin’s crowning achievement “when he captured the spirit of a modern nation.”

By the end of 1927, Whiteman’s band had performed Rhapsody in Blue eighty-four times, including twice at Carnegie Hall, and sold millions of recordings.  The piece later became his band’s theme song.

Rhapsody was a stepping stone for George Gershwin’s career.  Gershwin would go on to write other hits such as An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin became the first American born composer to appear on the cover of Time magazine. George and Ira Gershwin are only two of the five songwriters to ever be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

Ferde Grofe
Ferde Grofe

Grofé made new orchestrations for large audiences in 1926 and 1942.  The 1926 orchestration is rarely heard today, while the 1942 version is the most commonly performed version.  Gershwin hoped to score his own orchestration, but died in 1937 of a brain tumor before he had the opportunity.

Today, the ad-libbed page remains in the score.  No two performances of Rhapsody in Blue are ever the same. At least seventy-five recordings have been made of the ground breaking composition. The music has been used in various movies and inspired composers such as John Williams.  The Rhapsody has also influenced numerous other musicians and genres including The Beach Boys.

Many consider the Rhapsody to be a “musical portrait of New York City” due to its effect in numerous films that occur in the famous city.

United Airlines has been using the Rhapsody in advertisements since the mid-1980s.

Rhapsody in Blue has come to be regarded as “one of the most important American musical works of the 20th Century.”
Rhapsody in Blue has come to be regarded as “one of the most important American musical works of the 20th Century.”

In the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, eighty-four pianists simultaneously played the Rhapsody in the opening ceremonies.

Rhapsody in Blue was played extensively throughout the 2013 hit, The Great Gatsby.

Rhapsody in Blue has come to be regarded as “one of the most important American musical works of the 20th Century.” The composition opened the doors for serious jazz composers to draw on the elements of the piece, but it has no direct descendants that can rival it in power and style.

What movies have you heard Rhapsody in Blue in?

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The Untold Story: Rhapsody in Blue

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