Rhapsody in Blue

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            George Gershwin was arguably the most successful and talented of America’s composers of popular music.  His songs constitute the core of the “American Songbook,” whether composed as part of his immensely successful Broadway shows, or as stand alone popular tunes.  Born of Russian Jewish immigrants, he didn’t evince his formidable musical talents until about the age of ten, when a piano was purchased for his older brother and later collaborator, Ira.   Much to the latter’s relief, George soon commandeered the piano, and the rest is, as they say, history.   His audiences rewarded him substantially—he is estimated to have become the wealthiest composer in modern times.   He earned over a quarter of a million dollars for Rhapsody in Blue during the first decade of its life, and it still is bringing in the bucks, as witnessed by the commercials for United Airlines.

            Rhapsody in Blue was written in great haste for a 1924 concert in New York’s Aeolian Hall given by Paul Whiteman--billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.”  Notwithstanding the description, you wouldn’t have heard Stravinsky or Schoenberg that night, rather Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, and others of that ilk.   However, Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninov, and other luminaries of music were in the audience. The poster read that Whiteman would be “assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin”—notice that the composer of “Kitten on the Keys” and “Dizzy Fingers” received top billing to the young Gershwin.  Gershwin had been asked late in 1923 to write a piece for the Whiteman orchestra, but he had turned his attention to more pressing matters, and was horrified to read in the New York Tribune on the 4th of January, 1924 that he was to première a “jazz concerto” on February 12.  Gershwin plunged in and presented his brilliant succession of “American” themes to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s orchestrator, to arrange for large jazz band and piano  (the symphonic version came later)—Gershwin didn’t have the skill to do this at this point in his career.

            The composition opened the second half of the concert, with Gershwin as soloist—using no music, and probably considerably “enhancing” the solo part.   The opening clarinet glissando evocative of traditional Jewish Klezmer music kicked it off, and the now-familiar tunes came rushing by.  While Rhapsody in Blue really is not “jazz,” and certainly not a concerto in the traditional sense, Gershwin turned out a masterpiece that is a model of what came to be called “symphonic jazz.”

            What is specifically germane to appreciating this composition is the importance of so-called “serious” or “classical” musical interests and training in Gershwin’s life that is quite unprecedented for someone who enjoyed his kind of success.  He certainly was not some sort of untutored musical genius who later sought “legitimacy” after having proven himself in the popular world.   Rather, early on, as a young boy he studied and performed under traditional piano teachers the music of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.  Later, he journeyed to Paris to study under the famed teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger, as well as Maurice Ravel. However, both rejected him, more or less afraid to compromise the genius evident in his burgeoning success.  While in Paris he met and admired the music of eminent composers such as Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Milhaud. Gershwin’s ambitions were such, that long after he had achieved the kind of success that any popular composer would have envied, he assiduously studied formal composition with established teachers.   And he was successful.   His Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess are masterpieces of his unique bridging of the so-called gap between popular art and “high” art.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan