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"Rhapsody in Blue," the best composition by George Gershwin

“Rhapsody in Blue” is a composition for jazz band and solo piano, crafted by George Gershwin in 1924. It is an amalgamation of jazz-influenced classical music. It premiered on the 12th of February, 1924, in New York City, with Gershwin himself on the piano. He was accompanied by Paul Whiteman and his band.

Rhapsody in Blue: cover of the music

Origin

In 1923, Paul Whiteman, an American bandleader, decided to up the ante following the accomplishments of an experimental “classical-jazz” concert held in New York. He requested George Gershwin, a fellow American music composer, to craft another “concerto piece” for a jazz concert to be performed on Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Whiteman was already impressed by Gershwin's exploits, especially with his opera, “Blue Monday,” and wanted to collaborate with him again. However, Gershwin had initially rejected the proposal, stating that there wasn’t enough time to compose or revise the score. Soon, a piece of fake news was published in the New York Tribune claiming that Gershwin was already working on the music of Whiteman’s proposed experimental concert. It was soon discovered that Vincent Lopez, Whiteman’s arch-rival, was trying to nab his idea of the jazz concerto, which finally persuaded Gershwin to compose the musical piece.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

History & Performances 

George Gershwin started composing the piece around January 1924. He had initially named the piece “American Rhapsody,” which was later amended to “Rhapsody in Blue” on the suggestion of his brother, Ira Gershwin. George completed the score within a few weeks and passed it on to Ferde Grofé, who completed arranging and orchestrating it on the first week of February, only a week before the grand premiere.

“Rhapsody in Blue” premiered at the Aeolian Hall in Manhattan, New York City. The concert was titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” and was performed by Whiteman and the Palais Royal Orchestra. The packed crowd contained people from all corners of the opera society, opera stars, symphonists, composers, Tin Pan Alleyites, Vaudevillians, etc. The audience also contained various influential figures, namely - Willie "The Lion" Smith, John Philip Sousa, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Kreisler, Igor Stravinsky, Walter Damrosch, Victor Herbert, and Carl Van Vechten.

The concert comprised 26 distinct musical movements, which were subsequently divided into 11 sections. Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” was scheduled as the penultimate piece. The program started off on the back foot, as the early numbers failed to impress the audience, in addition to a malfunctioning ventilation system in the hall. When Gershwin stepped up, some members were already leaving. The restless, impatient, and irritable crowd was finally convinced once the haunting melody of the clarinet opened the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Twenty-three musicians were part of the ensemble orchestra, with Gershwin himself on the piano. Staying true to his signature style, Gershwin partly improvised his solo piano piece. The performance was met with thundering applause, and the concert was considered to be a critical coup de grâce. It opened the realms of jazz experimentations, while the document of the rhapsody even made its way into jazz monographs of foreign countries.

Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman

 

Musical Overview 

George Gershwin was unable to orchestrate the composition due to a lack of sufficient musical knowledge in arrangements. Ferde Grofé, who was the chief arranger and pianist of Whiteman’s band, was roped in, and as per the critics, the meteoric success of the rhapsody is owed much to Grofé's arrangements. Grofé's first arranged the piece for Whiteman’s band, in addition to a solo piano. The band instruments were - two each of trombones, soprano saxophones, alto saxophones, French horns and trumpets, one each of tuba, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, clarinet, heckelphone, and oboe.

The percussion section had violins, tenor banjo, piano, glockenspiel, timpani, and a drum set. However, this original arrangement was mostly ignored for a while due to the serviceability and popularity of the modern versions. It was again revived in the mid-1980s  when reconstructions were made. Grofé himself had made multiple revisions, mostly for larger orchestras. In 1926, he had also arranged the piece for a “theater orchestra.”

A rhapsody comprises an extended movement rather than separate movements, which signify a concerto. Also, they often incorporate an improvised passage, mostly in irregular formats, which heightens the emotional contrast and exuberance. “Rhapsody in Blue” all such boxes. The music delves intensely, from pulsating piano solos to rich, broad orchestrated sections. It offers melodic invention along with rhythmic inspiration, showcasing the composer’s ability to deliver large-scale melodic structures.

Gershwin’s greatest flair was always the demonstration of relative ease at which his melodies seemed to flow, with an added emotional impact. His fearless and spirited incorporation of rhythm made him stand out. His chords and accents were never used at the beginning of a measure, which is the traditional course. Also, the infusion of key elements of jazz into the number, namely - chord progression based on fourth intervals, alterations of musical pitch, “bending” musical notes, and syncopated rhythms, successfully transfused it into the classical setting. It was his way of transcending into the future like all other musical greats.

Usage In Popular Culture 

  • In 1924, Victor Talking Machine Company produced an acoustic recording of “Rhapsody in Blue.” 
  • In 1927, another electrical recording was again released by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Nathaniel Shilkret conducted this version.
  • In 1930, Whiteman's orchestra performed a reprised version of “Rhapsody in Blue” for the movie “The King of Jazz.” 
  • In 1945, Oscar Levant, a pianist, made a recording of the piece in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy conducted the recording.   
  • In 1973, Eumir Deodato, a jazz-rock artist from Brazil, included a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” in his album titled “Deodato 2.”   
  • In 1973, Kenneth Kiesler performed it live for the first time since the Jazz era. 
  • Other noted recordings of “Rhapsody in Blue” were done by Sara Davis Buechner, Marco Fumo, and André Watts.

A Generational Talent

Gershwin’s lack of sophistication and proper training regarding the harmonic structure was a well-established fact. This rather highlights the importance of talent in a prevalent vexed issue when it comes to music - technique vs. talent. Talent is necessary for musical structure but not necessarily for inextricable surface details. Talent involves the profound apprehension of relationships between rhythms and pitches and also other fundamentals of music. The musical technique can be developed to offer greater cohesiveness into the comprehension of musical structures. Thus, great even composers like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Schubert are all acknowledged as generational talents, even after taking into account their deficiencies in handling larger structures. Gershwin’s act of improvisation fabricates a unified musical structure that makes up for his complete lack of compositional training. That was who George Gershwin was - a generational talent.       

 

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