Rhapsody in Blue
Born in Brooklyn, New York, September 26, 1898; died in Beverly Hills, California, July 11, 1937
Like Mozart, George Gershwin was a natural. His Russian-Jewish immigrant family did not acquire a piano until he was 12 years old, yet within a short time he was playing the songs he heard around him with intuitive harmonizations and the beginnings of the rhythmic flair that would become a trademark. At 15, he quit school to become a "song plugger" for the publishing firm Remick's on West 28th Street, immortalized as "Tin Pan Alley." While pounding out other people's songs, he began to write his own and was soon contributing melodies for Broadway musicals. By his mid-20s, he was one of the leading composers on Broadway and already a wealthy and celebrated young man.
But what set Gershwin apart from his peers — Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter — was his appetite for musical growth. If he had already conquered Broadway with his music, why not the classical concert hall? But in 1924, when Rhapsody in Blue was introduced, American composers were hardly welcomed by American concert impresarios. As Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski wrote: "It was a time of musical conservatism, when in order to have your works performed in Carnegie Hall, it seemed essential to be foreign-born or dead — preferably both. Gershwin, more than any other American composer of the period, helped to ameliorate the situation."
But if Gershwin was such a perfect reflection of America in the 1920s and '30s, why do we still find him so appealing today? He himself pondered immortality — he often asked his friends "Do you think anything of mine will live?" — yet he had few illusions. However, his special genius — his gift for writing unforgettable melodies, his dashing, inventive rhythmic sense, his rich, instinctive ear for harmony, his ability to translate words (often his brother Ira's) into the most expressive tones — has captivated several more generations since he died at the untimely age of 38 in 1937.
That Rhapsody in Blue became an American legend from its very first performance is attributable to two factors. First, Gershwin was a pianist of spectacular charisma and virtuosity who could present his music better than anyone else. And, more importantly, he had the genius to tap into the spirit of his country and his times and translate it into music that possessed, as another composer of the day Frederick Jacobi said, "that high attribute of making people fall in love with it." Instead of imitating European models, he drew on American popular song and dance, African American jazz, and the rhythm of the New York streets to create a potent new hybrid for the concert hall.
Rhapsody in Blue marked the 25-year-old Gershwin's debut as a "serious" concert artist and composer. The occasion was a highly publicized concert on February 12, 1924 at New York's Aeolian Hall devised by band director Paul Whiteman and given the rather ominous title "Experiment in Modern Music." Whiteman wanted to demonstrate to the New York musical establishment that American jazz had come of age and was worthy of the same respect as European art music. Although Whiteman had talked vaguely with Gershwin about writing a piano concerto for the occasion, Gershwin didn't actually learn he was on the program until he read about it in The New York Tribune on January 3rd. Panicked, he called Whiteman who agreed there was not sufficient time to create a full-scale concerto and suggested a shorter free-form rhapsody instead. To help Gershwin meet his tight deadline, he offered the services of composer-arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the work as fast as it emerged from Gershwin's pen. The title referred not just to the blue notes of jazz, but also to the composer's love of the visual arts; having recently attended a Whistler exhibit with paintings such as "Nocturne in Black and Gold," he chose "Rhapsody in Blue."
On that snowy Sunday afternoon, Whiteman's over-long concert seemed to be turning into a bust as the audience dribbled toward the exits. Then for the 22nd and penultimate number, Gershwin strode to the keyboard. With that famous clarinet glissando, he immediately riveted the audience's attention, and his buoyant composition and high-energy playing proclaimed a fresh and very American new voice for the concert hall. Incidentally, the wailing blues-style of playing that clarinet opener was not in Gershwin's original score. Fooling around in rehearsal, Whiteman's clarinetist Ross Gorman improvised the jazzy slide, and a delighted Gershwin urged him to keep it and add as much wail as possible.
Though we usually encounter Rhapsody in Blue in its later arrangement for full symphony orchestra, tonight we will hear it in the original jazz-orchestration arrangement made for the Paul Whiteman Band — exactly as it sounded at its first performance.
Piano Concerto in F
While Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has become an ubiquitous showpiece on both classical and Pops concerts, it is by no means the only work that America’s favorite composer wrote for piano and orchestra. Well worth discovering and every bit as appealing is his longer and more adventurous Concerto in F, which takes the Rhapsody’s attractive mixture of jazz and classical elements and builds them into a full-fledged three-movement concerto.
Although he had only the Rhapsody under his belt as a concert-hall piece, Gershwin boldly set to work on his Concerto just one year later, completing it with characteristic speed between July and November 1925. Commissioned by Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony, it represented a far more ambitious step into the alien world of classical music than the Rhapsody, written for Paul Whiteman's congenial jazz orchestra. Originally feeling ill-equipped as an orchestrator, Gershwin had turned the scoring of the Rhapsody over to Ferde Grofé, but with the Concerto he tackled the formidable job of scoring for a large symphony orchestra himself. The results were felicitous: Gershwin taught a classical orchestra to swing while handling the various instruments with sympathetic skill.
The premiere, before a packed house at Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925 with the composer as soloist, was a smash, with only a few dissenting critics unable to accept Gershwin's dashingly hybrid work as a "real" concerto.
The composer provided us with a helpful roadmap to his creation, as quoted below:
"The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm [introduced by winds after the brash opening fanfare from timpani and cymbals]. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. … The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano." That second theme, a gorgeously romantic Gershwin tune, is the concerto's signature melody and will return, played grandioso by the full orchestra, to conclude both the first movement and the finale. Throughout, we hear Gershwin the great keyboard improviser in the piano part.
"The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated." With its first mournful theme introduced by muted solo trumpet, this movement is a masterpiece of atmosphere and perhaps the highlight of the work.
"The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout." The piano's relentless hammering gives way periodically to reminiscences of the second movement's themes and, in its spectacular conclusion, to the first movement's big romantic theme as well. With its joyous bravura, the Concerto’s last moments express the confidence of a young, vital America and of the fearless young genius who gave it a voice all its own.
"I Got Rhythm" Variations
To conclude this all-Gershwin program, we’ll hear a less-often performed keyboard-and-orchestra piece: the “I Got Rhythm" Variations, based on Gershwin's famous and infectious song from the 1930 musical Girl Crazy. The composer wrote this vivacious work as an additional showpiece for himself on a concert tour with the Leo Reisman Orchestra in the winter of 1934 celebrating Rhapsody in Blue's tenth anniversary. Lasting about a month, this tour opened in Boston and then played to sold-out audiences in cities across the U.S. and Canada before returning in triumph to New York City. On the program, Gershwin played all three of the works we’re hearing tonight, including the Concerto in F. Simultaneously, he was working on his most ambitious opus, the opera Porgy and Bess.
Orchestrated by Gershwin, the Variations has a different instrumental sound because Leo Reisman Orchestra was a specialty orchestra of 30 players — neither a jazz band nor a traditional symphonic ensemble, for which the Rhapsody and the Concerto were composed respectively.
Opening like the Rhapsody with a clarinet solo, the piece lays out the well-loved tune, then treats it to six contrasting variations. Gershwin provided a very succinct outline of these variations. The first was “simple”; the second had the melody in the orchestra with a “piano chromatic variation”; the third was a “rich melody” in 3/4 time, a sentimental waltz; the fourth was a “Chinese variation”; the fifth a “modal variation”; and the sixth and final variation a “hot variation” in contemporary jazz style. Gershwin was probably inspired to write a “Chinese” variation because the tune of “I Got Rhythm” follows the five-note pentatonic scale used in traditional Chinese music.