Rhapsody in Blue and Gershwin

Essentially self-taught, he was first a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley and an accompanist. In his teens he began to compose popular songs and produced a succession of musicals from 1919 to 1933 (Lady, be Good!, 1924; Oh, Kay!, 1926; Strike up the Band, 1927; Funny Face, 1927; Girl Crazy, 1930); the lyrics were generally by his brother Ira (1896 1983). In 1924 he became famous: he wrote Rhapsody in Blue as a concerto for piano and Paul Whiteman's jazz band. Its success led him to devote increasing energy to 'serious' composition. His more ambitious works include the Piano Concerto in F (1925) and the tone poem An American in Paris (1928). But he contiuned composing for the musical theatre, and some of his most successful musicals (Strike up the Band, Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing) date from this period. In 1934-5 he wrote his 'American folk opera' Porgy and Bess, which draws on African-American idioms; given on Broadway, it was only a limited success. Gershwin went to Hollywood in 1936 and wrote songs for films. He was a sensitive songwriter of great melodic gifts and did much to create syntheses between jazz and classical traditions in his concert music and black folk music and opera in Porgy and Bess.

In 1923 George Gershwin first appeared on the concert stage at New York's Aeolian Hall, accompanying singer Eva Gautier in a program which included American jazz songs. Subsequently Paul Whiteman, who had conducted and was impressed with Blue Monday, asked the young composer for a serious piece to be performed during a concert Whiteman was planning to present with his band in Aeolian Hall. Gershwin promised a piece, and promptly forgot about it. In January, 1924, he was surprised to read in the New York Tribune that Paul Whiteman's concert at Aeolian Hall on February 12th would feature a jazz concerto by George Gershwin. With little time before the concert and occupied with writing the music for Sweet Little Devil, George feared he would be too busy to write anything, but Whiteman persuaded him that he need only write a piano copy and Whiteman's arranger Ferde Grofe, would develop the orchestration. On the train to Boston for the tryouts of Sweet Little Devil the plot of his new piece, "which was," he said, "as its title implied, a blues impression," formed in his mind and Gershwin wrote the substance of his music in a week, handing over the pages to Grofe, almost as quickly as he finished them. The Aeolian Hall program was called an "Experiment in Modern Music," and was intended to demonstrate "the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of discordant Jazz " It opened with several trivial selections, but the audience was delighted by the appearance of George Gershwin at the piano (he improvised the piano part at this first performance) and became electrified at the sound of the opening glissando by Ross Gorman, Whiteman's virtuoso clarinetist. At the end of the piece they broke into enthusiastic applause, although the critics were deeply divided in a polarity about Gershwin's serious music which continued for the remainder of his life.

The Rhapsody in Blue, as Ira Gershwin titled the work, was subsequently arranged for piano and orchestra, as well as for just about every imaginable combination of instruments, and remains the most well-known and popular of all twentieth century American compositions. The Rhapsody was extremely important to the future of American music because it introduced what Rudy Vallee called symphonized syncopation to sophisticated audiences in the serious setting of the concert hall. The Rhapsody in Blue, which owes much to the influence of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and the Russian music Gershwin heard as a young student, has beautiful, recognizable, and unforgettable melodies, and the entire piece is characterized by Gershwin's energy and rhythmic sense.

A few works create new worlds of music: Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Schubert's Unfinished, Mendelssohn's Octet, Wagner's Ring, Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Debussy's Images, Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, and this among them. With his first major piece, Gershwin invented a unique symphonic idiom, to this day still argued over. Gershwin, of course, was not the first to blend jazz and classical music. One could make cases for Debussy, Scott Joplin, or Milhaud as important pioneers and, even better, as creators of masterworks which used jazz. All of them, however, had exploited jazz's "chamber" qualities. From the Rhapsody's opening clarinet wail, Gershwin created not symphonic jazz, but the Gershwin idiom: an outdoor, urban, big-hearted, super-Romantic, and thoroughly assured poetry. The Rhapsody in Blue (a wonderful title, courtesy of George's brother, Ira) has its detractors, mostly those who know so much about music that they forget to listen to it. As its title implies, the work is a bit loose - if you want Beethoven cohesion, look someplace else - but its invention carries most listeners along. Gershwin put in a slew of great tunes, probably enough for three different works. Is this a bug or a feature? Relax and enjoy. The final plunge to the finish line will most likely bring you to your feet. Gershwin builds in a standing ovation.

Notes by Fiona Salisbury, 1999

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