Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue - the story behind a hastily composed masterpiece
The great American composer first found out he was meant to be writing his most ground-breaking work from a newspaper article.
Late at night on 3 January 1924, George Gershwin, his brother Ira and lyricist Buddy DeSylva were having a game in the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at 52nd Street on Broadway, when an item in the amusement section of the New York Tribune caught Ira’s attention. It was about a concert of new American music to be given by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Band at Aeolian Hall on 12 February - Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
“George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” ran the article, “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem…”
It was all news to George. His musical comedy, Sweet Little Devil, was set to open in just three weeks. And now he had to write a concerto by 12 February as well?
Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s and enjoyed the title “King of Jazz” – although this was no jazz band; rather it was a large dance orchestra that used jazz musicians from time to time.
But Whiteman twisted Gershwin's arm that all he had to do was supply a piano score. Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s brilliant in-house arranger, would be able to orchestrate the work tailored to the band’s line-up.
While he was on the train to Boston for rehearsals of his musical, Gershwin sketched out a framework for the new piece, which he began writing on 7 January. Over the next few days, while he also made last-minute changes to ready Sweet Little Devil for its New York opening on 24 January, the genius completed a two-piano score.
What Gershwin produced was not a “jazz concerto” but a rhapsodic work for “piano and jazz band” incorporating elements of European symphonic music and American jazz with his inimitable melodic gift and keyboard facility.
Gershwin’s original title for it was American Rhapsody. But, by chance, Ira had been to an exhibition of Whistler’s paintings and saw the painter's Nocturne In Blue And Green of the Thames at Chelsea. Why not call the new piece Rhapsody In Blue instead, he suggested. The title would reflect the European and American influences. Also at Ira’s suggestion, George contrasted the syncopated character that dominates the tune with an expressive romantic theme the composer had previously improvised at a party.
The Rhapsody, with its composer as soloist, was premièred in front of a packed house that included such musical luminaries as the composer Rachmaninov, the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Despite not yet having written down much of the piano part, Gershwin scored a triumphant success with the work which today is hailed as a landmark in American music.
A discussion of Gershwin's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in F major of 1925. The peak of the composer's short life.
Concerto in F major for Piano and Orchestra (1925)
Gershwin at the piano
Revenue from recordings, performances and score rentals of Rhapsody in Blue following its premiere accelerated Gershwin’s career. In early 1925 he moved his family to an elegant townhouse on New York’s upper west side, where he began to put more emphasis on composing concert music. His Concerto in F major of 1925 (with the initial title of “New York Concerto”) was a logical sequel to Rhapsody in Blue. Not only was it longer and more elaborate, but it was cast in a form that made clear its intention to be taken seriously – and which in actuality did not stray far from the Classic Romantic model to which Gershwin aspired.
The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.
The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.
The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.
* Author's addendum:
* The cover image is the cover of the July 20, 1925 issue of Time Magazine
* The links below are the complete work performed by one of the finest, Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Leonard Slatkin conducting. Only the Allegro Finale shows Marc-André playing, but this is one of the best performances of anything by Gershwin to be found on YouTube. These are only examples. Please support working artists and musicians by purchasing music and art legally. Thank you.