Rhapsody in Blue
Commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman, the composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, "theater orchestra" setting published in 1926, and the symphony orchestra scoring published in 1942, though completed earlier. The piece received its premiere in the concert, An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks opined that "The Rhapsody in Blue (1924) established Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works."
After the success of an experimental classical-jazz concert held with French-Canadian singer Eva Gauthier at Aeolian Hall (New York) on 1 November 1923, band leader Paul Whiteman decided to attempt something more ambitious. He asked Gershwin to contribute a concerto-like piece for an all-jazz concert he would give in Aeolian Hall in February 1924. Whiteman became interested in featuring such an extended composition by Gershwin in the concert after he had collaborated with Gershwin in the Scandals of 1922, impressed by the original performance of the one-act opera Blue Monday, which was nevertheless a commercial failure. Gershwin declined on the grounds that, as there would certainly be need for revisions to the score, he would not have enough time to compose the new piece.
Late on the evening of January 3, at the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at Broadway and 52nd Street in Manhattan, while George Gershwin and Buddy De Sylva were playing billiards, his brother Ira Gershwin was reading the January 4 edition of the New York Tribune. An article entitled "What Is American Music?" about the Whiteman concert caught his attention, in which the final paragraph claimed that "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite."
In a phone call to Whiteman next morning, Gershwin was told that Whiteman's rival Vincent Lopez was planning to steal the idea of his experimental concert and there was no time to lose. Gershwin was finally persuaded to compose the piece.
Since there were only five weeks left, Gershwin hastily set about composing a piece, and on the train journey to Boston, the ideas of Rhapsody in Blue came to his mind. He told his first biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1931:
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.
Gershwin began his work on January 7 as dated on the original manuscript for two pianos. The piece was titled "American Rhapsody" during composition. The title Rhapsody in Blue was suggested by Ira Gershwin after his visit to a gallery exhibition of James McNeill Whistler paintings, which bear titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and Arrangement in Grey and Black (better known as Whistler's Mother). After a few weeks, Gershwin finished his composition and passed the score to Whiteman's arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the piece, finishing it on February 4, only eight days before the premiere.
Rhapsody in Blue premiered in an afternoon concert on February 12, 1924, held by Paul Whiteman and his band Palais Royal Orchestra, entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which took place in Aeolian Hall in New York City. Many important and influential composers of the time such as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff were present. The event has since become historic specifically because of its premiere of the Rhapsody.
The purpose of the experiment, as told by Whiteman in a pre-concert lecture in front of many classical music critics and highbrows, was "to be purely educational". It would "at least provide a stepping stone which will make it very simple for the masses to understand, and therefore, enjoy symphony and opera". The program was long, including 26 separate musical movements, divided into 2 parts and 11 sections, bearing titles such as "True form of jazz" and "Contrast: legitimate scoring vs. jazzing". Gershwin's latest composition was the second to last piece (before Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1). Many of the numbers sounded similar and the ventilation system in the concert hall was broken. People in the audience were losing their patience, until the clarinet glissando that opened Rhapsody in Blue was heard.
The Rhapsody was performed by Whiteman's band, with an added section of string players, and George Gershwin on piano. Gershwin decided to keep his options open as to when Whiteman would bring in the orchestra and he did not write down one of the pages for solo piano, with only the words "Wait for nod" scrawled by Grofé on the band score. Gershwin improvised some of what he was playing, and he did not write out the piano part until after the performance, so it is unknown exactly how the original Rhapsody sounded.
The opening clarinet glissando came into being during rehearsal when; "... as a joke on Gershwin, [Ross] Gorman (Whiteman's virtuoso clarinettist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favourably to Gorman's whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a 'wail' as possible."
By the end of 1927, Whiteman's band had played the Rhapsody eighty-four times, and its recording sold a million copies. Whiteman later adopted the piece as his band's theme song, and opened his radio programs with the slogan "Everything new but the Rhapsody in Blue."
This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master.... In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form.... His first theme ... is no mere dance-tune ... it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin's colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice.... There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin's composition.
Another reviewer, Lawrence Gilman, a Richard Wagner specialist who later wrote a devastating review of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, commenting on the Rhapsody in the New York Tribune on February 13, 1924, said:
How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!
Some critics described the piece as formless, and claimed that Gershwin only glued his melodic segments together into one piece. Pitts Sanborn wrote that the music "runs off into empty passage-work and meaningless repetition". In an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1955, Leonard Bernstein, who nevertheless admitted that he loved the piece, wrote:
"The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don't think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it's still the Rhapsody in Blue."
Gershwin had agreed that Ferde Grofé, Whiteman's pianist and chief arranger, was the key figure in enabling the piece to be successful, and critics have praised the orchestral color. Grofé confirmed in 1938 that Gershwin did not have sufficient knowledge of orchestration in 1924. After the premiere, Grofé took the score and made new orchestrations in 1926 and 1942, each time for larger orchestras. Up until 1976, when Michael Tilson Thomas recorded the original jazz band version for the very first time, the 1942 version was the arrangement usually performed and recorded.
The 1924 orchestration for Whiteman's band of 24 musicians (plus violins) calls for the following orchestra:
- woodwinds (3 players): flute, oboe, clarinet in E-flat, clarinet in B-flat, alto clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet in B-flat, heckelphone, sopranino saxophone in E-flat, soprano saxophone in B-flat, alto saxophone in E-flat, tenor saxophone in B-flat, baritone saxophone in E-flat;
- brass: 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 flugelhorns, euphonium, 3 trombones, tuba;
- percussion: drums, timpani, trap set;
- keyboards: 2 pianos, celesta, accordion;
- strings: banjo, violins and string basses.
Many musicians, especially the reeds, played two or more instruments; the reed "doublings" were especially calculated to take advantage of the full panoply of instruments available in that section of Whiteman's band. Indeed, Grofé's familiarity with the Whiteman band's strengths is a key factor in the scoring. This original version, with its unique instrumental requirements, had lain dormant until its revival in reconstructions beginning in the mid-1980s, owing to the popularity and serviceability of the later scorings, described below.
The orchestration published in 1926, rarely heard today, is an adaptation of the original for a "pit" orchestra, which includes a single flute, oboe and bassoon, two horns, two trumpets and one trombone, as well as the same percussion and strings complement as the later 1942 version.
The orchestration published in 1942 for full symphony orchestra is scored for solo piano and the following orchestra:
- woodwinds: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones in E-flat, tenor saxophone in B-flat;
- brass: 3 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba;
- percussion: timpani, crash cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, gong, triangle, Glockenspiel and cymbals;
- strings: banjo, first and second violins, violas, violoncellos and double basses.
It was completed some years earlier, as it was conducted by Grofe at the 1937 Gershwin Memorial Concert in New York (Harry Kaufman, piano), and must have been the scoring used by Gershwin when soloing with symphony orchestras in the 1930s.
Grofe's other settings of the piece include those done for Whiteman's 1930 film, King of Jazz, and the concert band setting (playable without piano) completed by 1938 (pub. 1942).
The prominence of the saxophones in the later orchestrations is somewhat reduced, and the banjo part can be dispensed with, as its mainly rhythmic contribution is provided by the inner strings.
Gershwin also made versions of the piece for piano as well as two pianos.
Gershwin's intent to eventually do an orchestration of his own is documented in 1936–37 correspondence from publisher Harms ("reissuance of the The Rhapsody in Blue re-scored by yourself for large symphony orchestra").
Two audio recordings exist of Gershwin performing an abridged version of the work with Whiteman's orchestra: an acoustic recording made June 10, 1924, released on two sides of Victor 55225 and running 8:59 (this recording includes the original clarinetist, Ross Gorman, playing the glissando) and an electrical recording made April 21, 1927, released on both sides of Victor 35822 and running 9:01 (about half the length of the complete work). The latter version was actually conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret after an argument between Gershwin and Whiteman. (For an explanation of "acoustic" and "electrical", see gramophone record). A 1925 piano roll captured Gershwin's performance in a two piano version. Whiteman's orchestra also performed the piece in the 1930 film The King of Jazz featuring Roy Bargy on piano.
Since the mid-20th century, the "1942" version has usually been performed by classical orchestras playing the expanded arrangement. In this form, it has become a staple of the concert repertoire. It has direct popular appeal while also being regarded respectfully by classical musicians.
In 1973, the piece was revived by jazz-rock artist (Eumir) Deodato. The single reached Billboard peak positions #41 Pop, #10 Easy Listening.
In the late 1970s, interest in the original arrangement was revived. Reconstructions of it have been recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band in 1976, and by Maurice Peress with Ivan Davis on piano as part of a 60th-anniversary reconstruction of the entire 1924 concert. Andre Watts (1976), Marco Fumo (1974), and Sara Davis Buechner (2005) released recordings of the work for solo piano as did Eric Himy (2004) in a version that featured the uncut original short score. Meanwhile, such two-piano teams as Jose Iturbi and Amparo Iturbi, France Veri and Michael Jamanis and Katia and Marielle Labèque, also recorded the piece.
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Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to write a "jazz concerto", which became the Rhapsody in Blue; like a concerto, the piece is written for solo piano with orchestra: a rhapsody differs from a concerto in that it features one extended movement instead of separate movements. Rhapsodies often incorporate passages of an improvisatory nature (although written out in a score), and are irregular in form, with heightened contrasts and emotional exuberance; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is typical in that it certainly has large contrasts in musical texture, style, and color. The music ranges from intensely rhythmic piano solos to slow, broad, and richly orchestrated sections.
The opening of Rhapsody in Blue is written as a clarinet trill followed by a legato 17-note rising diatonic scale. During a rehearsal, Whiteman's virtuoso clarinetist, Ross Gorman, rendered the upper portion of the scale as a captivating (and fully trombone-like) glissando: Gershwin heard it and insisted that it be repeated in the performance. An American Heritage columnist called it the "famous opening clarinet glissando ... that has become as familiar as the start of Beethoven's Fifth". The effect is produced primarily using the tongue and throat muscles to change the resonance of the oral cavity, thus controlling the continuously rising pitch. Many players also gradually open the left-hand tone-holes on the clarinet during the passage from the last concert F (or earlier if possible, thus employing the right hand as well) to the top concert B-flat as well. This effect has now become standard performance practice for the work.
Rhapsody in Blue displays both rhythmic invention and melodic inspiration, and demonstrates Gershwin's ability to write a piece with large-scale harmonic and melodic structure. The piece is characterized by strong motivic interrelatedness. Much of the motivic material is introduced in the first 14 measures. David Schiff identifies five major themes plus a sixth “tag”. Of these, two appear in the first 14 measures, and the tag shows up in measure 19. Two of the remaining three themes are rhythmically related to the very first theme in measure 2, which is sometimes called the Glissando theme (after the opening glissando in the clarinet solo) or the Ritornello theme. The remaining theme is the Train theme, which is the first to appear (at rehearsal 9) after the opening material. All of the themes rely on the blues scale, which includes lowered sevenths and a mixture of major and minor thirds. Each theme appears both in orchestrated form and as a piano solo. There are considerable differences in the style of presentation of each theme.
The harmonic structure of Rhapsody is more difficult to analyse. The piece begins and ends in B flat, but it modulates towards the sub-dominant direction very early on, returning to B flat at the end, rather abruptly. The opening modulates "downward", as it were, through the keys B flat, E flat, A flat, D flat, G flat, B, E, and finally to A major. Modulation through the circle of fifths in the reverse direction inverts classical tonal relationships, but does not abandon them. The entire middle section resides primarily in C major, with forays into G major (the dominant relation). Modulations occur freely and easily, though not always with harmonic direction. Gershwin frequently uses a recursive harmonic progression of minor thirds to give the illusion of motion when in fact a passage does not change key from beginning to end. Modulation by thirds was a common element of Tin Pan Alley music.
The influences of jazz and other contemporary styles are certainly present in Rhapsody in Blue. Ragtime rhythms are abundant, as is the Cuban "clave" rhythm, which doubles as a dance rhythm in the Charleston jazz dance.
Gershwin's own intentions were to correct the belief that jazz had to be played strictly in time so that one could dance to it. The Rhapsody's tempos vary widely, and there is an almost extreme use of rubato in many places throughout. The clearest influence of jazz is the use of blue notes, and the exploration of their half-step relationship plays a key role in the Rhapsody. The use of so-called "vernacular" instruments, such as accordion, banjo, and saxophones in the orchestra, contribute to its jazz or popular style, and the latter two of these instruments have remained part of Grofé's "standard" orchestra scoring. Gershwin incorporated several different piano styles into the work. He utilized the techniques of stride piano, novelty piano, comic piano, and the song-plugger piano style. Stride piano's rhythmic and improvisational style is evident in the "agitato e misterioso" section, which begins four bars after rehearsal 33, as well as in other sections, many of which include the orchestra. Novelty piano can be heard at rehearsal 9 with the revelation of the Train theme. The hesitations and light-hearted style of comic piano, a vaudeville approach to piano made well known by Chico Marx and Jimmy Durante, are evident at rehearsal 22.
When this piece was released, it was labeled as jazz because the term was used to describe contemporary music.
In popular culture
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Although Gershwin himself spoke of the rhapsody as "a musical kaleidoscope of America", Rhapsody in Blue has often been interpreted as a musical portrait of New York City; it is used to this effect in the films Manhattan and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, as well as extensively in this context in a segment from the film Fantasia 2000, in which the piece is used as the lyrical framing for a stylized animation set drawn in the style of famed illustrator Al Hirschfeld, to critical acclaim.
Brian Wilson has said on multiple occasions that "Rhapsody in Blue" is one of his favorite pieces. It was also a heavy influence on his Smile album. Michael Stipe of REM has cited this as one of the largest influences in his musical development.
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- Gershwin, George; & Grofé, Ferde (1924, 1942). George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue miniature orchestra score. Warner Brothers.
- Ferencz, George J. "Porgy and Bess on the Concert Stage: Gershwin's 1936 Suite ("Catfish Row") and the 1942 Gershwin-Bennett Symphonic Picture". Musical Quarterly 94:1–2 (Spring–Summer 2011)
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- Chen, Jer Ming. "How to pay the first bar of Rhapsody in Blue". Music Acoustics, School of Physics, UNSW. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
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- Charles Solomon (December 1999). "Rhapsody in Blue: Fantasia 2000's Jewel in the Crown". Animation World Magazine. Archived from the original on 13 October 2007.
- Schiff p. 1
- Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01 U.S. 618, p. 67 (Supreme Court 15 January 2003) (“Even the $500,000 that United Airlines has had to pay for the right to play George Gershwin's 1924 classic Rhapsody in Blue represents a cost of doing business, potentially reflected in the ticket prices of those who fly.”).
- Part 1 of the original acoustic recording of Rhapsody in Blue performed by George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman in 1924 on Internet Archive
- Part 2 of the original acoustic recording of Rhapsody in Blue performed by George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman in 1924 on Internet Archive
- Grammy Hall of Fame version of Rhapsody in Blue performed by George Gershwin and Nathaniel Shilkret in 1927 on Internet Archive