April 2013

Rhapsody in Blue

by George Gershwin

George Gershwin was originally named Jacob Gershowitz. He was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents (originally from the Ukraine). Jacob's father, Moishe, changed his family name to "Gershvin" and called his children by their "American" names. Jacob's name became "George". After he became a professional musician, George changed his last name from "Gershvin" to "Gershwin".

George became interested in music at age 10. George's parents purchased a piano with the intention of having George's older brother Ira learn to play. To their surprise (and Ira's relief), George took to the piano.

When George was 15, he left school and made his way as a songwriter. His brother Ira often wrote lyrics to his songs. He would go on to write songs and Broadway musicals to great acclaim, but he would die young (age 38) of a brain tumor.

In early January 1924, a local bandleader named Paul Whiteman wanted to put on a concert in Aeolian Hall in mid-town Manhattan. He called his concert: An Experiment in Modern Music. The idea was to present jazz and other more modern forms of music in a concert hall to show that they could be appreciated just as much as the classics. Paul had worked with Gershwin a couple of years previously and had asked him to compose a piece for the concert. At first, George declined saying that he didn't have enough time (the concert was booked for February 12), but eventually he was talked into it.

With only five weeks to come up with something, George started composing a piece of music while on a train ride from New York to Boston. He describes it this way:

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer — 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 started writing the piece on January 7. He wrote a piece for two pianos called "American Rhapsody". His brother Ira suggested the name "Rhapsody in Blue", after having visited a James McNeill Whistler exhibit at a local art gallery (this was an artist known for giving paintings such titles as "Nocturne in Black and Gold" and "Arrangement in Grey and Black"). Paul Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofé, orchestrated the piece, and it was finished on Februrary 4 (just 8 days before the concert).

Paul Whitemans's concert was a prestigious event, attended by such musical giants of the day as John Philip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The concert ran long and contained a lot of similar sounding music toward the beginning, but the second to last piece performed was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Paul Whiteman conducted the orchestra, and Gershwin himself played the piano. It was a great success, and sealed a prestigious place for Gershwin in the world of music.

A "rhapsody" (pronounced RAP-soh-dee) is a type of music that is a little more freeform. A symphony, which was the standard form for orchestral instrumental music through the 18th and 19th century, follows a specific form and formula. A rhapsody could be a few minutes long or several minutes long. It could tell a story or just be a mesh of musical ideas.

Probably the most famous portion of Rhapsody in Blue is the clarinet solo at the very beginning. Originally, Gershwin wrote a simple trill (fast moving notes near each other) that climbed up to a final note. Paul Whiteman's clarinetist, Ross Gorman, did a silly rendition of that opening during a rehearsal where he played a long glissando (think of a slide-whistle) to reach the note (rather than play individual notes). He did it as a joke, but Gershwin insisted that he play it just like that for the concert, and, in fact, told him to add as much of a "wail" as he could. The style stuck, and is still performed that way today.

This is easily the most well-known of Gershwin's music. It is very frequently performed in concert halls and on recordings. In fact, for the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles, California, the games opened with 84 pianists simultaneously playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

This piece is considered an icon of America, and specifically, New York. It's not uncommon for TV and movies to include excerpts from this piece when describing New York.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I'm not sure when I first heard this. I suspect it was early High School (probably late 1986). I'm not sure I had a recording of it until after I was married.


So, here's George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Enjoy!

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (16:10)

For those interested, this recording was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine.

Jon's Interpretation:

I'll come right out and confess it: I'm not really a huge fan of Gershwin. I've heard much of his music. He definitely had a way of dressing up jazz music to be more presentable in more of a concert hall setting. His style was revolutionary. I'm just not a big fan.

That said, I do enjoy the imagery in Rhapsody in Blue. There are points where you clearly feel like you're riding a train. The piano solo in the middle is crazy. It's a great demonstration of his brilliance, and he wrote it in a relatively short amount of time.

Extra Credit:

I didn't think I was going to be able to get this, because it's less than 100 years old, but here's the conductor's score to Rhapsody in Blue:

Conductor's Score for Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

I have a unique recording of this piece. While there were two recordings made of Rhapsody in Blue back in the late 1920s, the quality is terrible. This "recording" sounds great. It was a piano roll that Gershwin himself made in the late 1920s. A piano roll was a roll of a special paper that you could feed into a player piano. The player piano would play back what had been "recorded" on the piano roll automatically. A piano roll has a series of holes that were created when the pianist "recorded" his performance. When played, the player piano looks for these holes and plays notes based on the location and size of the holes. It's the same technology that would produce punch cards for early computers. Anyway, Gershwin created a piano roll which was later discovered and fed into a modern player piano. This is a recording of that performance.

George Gershwin (piano roll) performing Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (14:25)

And finally, in the year 2000, the Walt Disney company released a new "Fantasia" movie. The idea was the same: animation to well-known classical music pieces. Included was a performance of Rhapsody in Blue animated by cartoons in a style of Al Hirschfeld. Enjoy!