Gershwin’s Reluctant Kaleidoscope of America in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

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With reluctance, George Gershwin, commissioned by the self-styled King of Jazz in 1920s New York, composed his “musical kaleidoscope of America,” Rhapsody in Blue. Stephen Vessels curates the discussion in his series on classical music rarities.

 James Abbott McNeill Whistler, George Gershwin

An inspiration for George Gershwin, this painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, entitled “Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket.”

A Nuanced Chamber of Silence – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

By Stephen Vessels

This has to be the one. I’ve loved this piece since I was a kid. Not just this piece, this particular recording, which my father had on 8-track, and which we listened to many times together.

George Gershwin, Rhaspsody in BlueLike Tchaikovsky with his Nutcracker Suite, George Gershwin initially didn’t want to compose what would become his best known and most loved piece of music. Paul Whiteman, the self-styled King of Jazz, approached him in early 1924 with the idea of writing a “jazz concerto” and Gershwin declined. He’d had little experience with orchestration and did not feel he could meet the deadline. He changed his mind, thank heaven, and collaborated with Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé, on the orchestration. They finished the score only eight days before the scheduled performance. The rehearsal schedule was so grueling that, at one point, it had a defining impact on the composition. The opening of the concerto, scored for B-flat clarinet, was initially written as a 17-note rising scale. During one of the final sessions, the clarinetist, Ross Gorman, in a joking expression of fatigue, played the scale as a lazy glissando. Gershwin loved the effect and altered the score to incorporate it.

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 Gershwin in the 1931 Isaac Goldberg Biography

The piece received its premiere at the concert, An Experiment in Modern Music, held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano.

I’ve listened to many, many renditions of this piece. None of them, not Bernstein, not Oscar Levant, none of them, touch what Eugene Ormandy and Philippe Entremont accomplished in their 1967 recording for Sony. Ormandy, who had recorded it with Levant in 1945, knew the score intimately. He more communes with than conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, like they share one mind, and Entremont, on the piano, articulates every note, however fleeting, as if it inhabits it’s own nuanced chamber of silence.

So here, composed in 1924, is the marvelous Rhapsody in Blue. Happy New Year, everyone. I wish you all love and happiness.

George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Orchestrated by Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Series Curated By Stephen Vessels

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