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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."
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.
Instrumentation: 1 oboe, two clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, violins, double bassi, two soprano saxophones, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, guitar, and banjo.
Le Tombeau de Couperin
Born in Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, December 28, 1937
During the 16th century, a literary tradition developed in France of creating poetic tributes to deceased luminaries that were known as tombeaux or "tombstones." By the 17th century, composers had adopted the concept as well. So when Maurice Ravel decided to compose his own tombeau in honor of the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668–1733), whose music he very much admired, he was reaching back to a very old form.
However, by 1917 when the composer created his first version of Le Tombeau de Couperin — a suite of six short piano pieces based on Baroque dance forms — he was thinking of tombeau in a much broader sense. The First World War had been an agonizing time for him (too small to be a soldier, he enlisted as a frontline ambulance driver and medic), and he was now literally surrounded by tombstones. Ravel decided to dedicate each movement to a different friend who had been killed in the war. He also stated that his suite was not so much a tribute to Couperin "as to 18th-century French music in general." All his life, the 18th century represented Ravel's aesthetic ideal, and it seemed particularly precious to him at this time of death and destruction.
Thus when Ravel decided to orchestrate four of Le Tombeau's movements in 1919, he chose a small orchestra that, except for the addition of a harp and an English horn, closely resembled the standard 18th-century court orchestra. And master orchestrator that he was, he knew exactly how to use the tint of each instrument to perfection.
Rather than being the stately processional of the Baroque era, the opening Prélude is all high-speed lightness — like a breeze of fresh air blowing through a window. The whirling theme introduced by the oboe dominates the music, as does that instrument's spicy color.
In the Forlane, formerly an elegant court dance, the top note of the upward-bounding idea that serves as a refrain is always marvelously colored by mysterious-sounding harmonies. In the intervening episodes, Ravel devises some extraordinary woodwind combinations, especially a pungently bright ensemble of oboe, English horn and clarinets — later joined by flutes — over the magical chiming of the harp.
Emphasizing woodwinds and especially solo oboe, the Menuet has a lovely rustic charm evoking an idealized past. But its middle trio section — in the style of a peasant musette dance with the strings mimicking the bagpipe drone — becomes something much darker, almost threatening. Then the Menuet music returns, now made more lush by strings and ending in a striking, tremulous discord.
The small brass section of trumpet and two horns jumps into the foreground to fuel the brilliance of the lively closing Rigaudon. But this movement, too, contains something more serious: a pensively melancholy middle section featuring a lovely oboe solo over delicate pizzicato strings that speaks of beauty that can never be recovered.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 1 trumpet, harp, and strings.
Piano Concerto in F
While George 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 theme 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 entire 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.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008