RHAPSODY IN BLUE
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, PIANIST AND CONDUCTOR
NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
Depending on your tastes, and the lists you choose to look at, George Gershwin’s place in the pantheon of American composers can vary. If you are strictly thinking about art music, that list would be populated by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Philip Glass, and a few others. If you are thinking primarily about popular music or jazz, that list would include Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and a few others. Included in both lists, though, would be George Gershwin.
Many Americans—and non-Americans, for that matter—would name Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. His place on both of the above lists is due the “crossover” nature of his writing—as well as how he regarded himself. And although there are, in his substantial output, several contenders for the “most beloved composition”—maybe his Concerto (for piano) in F, his large orchestral work American in Paris, his opera Porgy and Bess, or any number of his sixty-some songs—it is likely that Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924, is his most popular composition.
Gershwin (1898-1937) was born in Brooklyn of Russian Jewish parents. They had emigrated to America to escape the increasing virulent anti-semitism in Russia. Moishe Gershowitz, George’s father, changed his name to a more “American”-sounding Morris Gershwin upon arrival in the U.S. George had an older brother, Ira (born 1896) with whom he would collaborate in a composer-lyricist team for his entire brief life.
Gershwin had no interest in music whatsoever until he was ten years old. His parents had purchased a beat-up piano for Ira to take lessons on in their Brooklyn tenement. Ira had no musical curiosity and was greatly relieved when George, suddenly, took a passionate interest in the new instrument.
Gershwin’s compositional talent first evidenced itself when he started writing songs, at the age of 15, in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley was an actual place—not a metaphorical image—in New York—28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. From the 1880’s until the advent of radio and the phonograph, it was not only the place where music was published, but also where it was composed. The monicker “tin pan alley” derives from the fact that, along this street, one could hear piano music—in those non-air-conditioned days—coming from dozens and dozens of windows along the street—composers coming up with new, hopefully salable, tunes—and the resulting collective cacophony would sound—at any time of day—like the rattling of tin cans.
Gershwin’s first big “hit” as a Tin Pan Alley writer was “Swanee” which was sung on Broadway by the famous singer Al Jolson. Gershwin was 21.
His breakthrough as a classical composer came a few years later with his Rhapsody in Blue. Although in truth, it can hardly be called a classical work. It was originally written for jazz band with piano soloist—it was commissioned and premiered by bandleader Paul Whiteman, and it combines as many jazz idioms as it does classical. Rhapsody in Blue’s first performance was on February 12, 1924, with Gershwin performing with the Whiteman’s band. Whiteman’s idea at the time was to introduce jazz audiences to symphonic music. This special event concert even had a title—”An Experiment in Modern Music.” Whiteman also asked Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert to compose works for the concert.
Gershwin had—I guess it is accurate to label it—an inferiority complex about his compositional abilities, and particularly about his lack of a strict classical music education. This was to haunt him for the entirety of his brief life. An example of why this is true involves the Rhapsody. Gershwin originally wrote the Rhapsody in Blue for two pianos—it was a basic sketch—with all the notes, of course—but still in a rough-sketch manner for two pianos. The composer and arranger Ferde Grofe, who was employed by Paul Whiteman as an arranger, took Gershwin’s two-piano score and turned it into a dazzling quasi-concerto for piano and jazz band. “He transformed Gershwin’s musical canvas with the colors and many of the creative touches for which it is so well known.” After the wild success of the 1924 performance, Grofe went on to orchestrate the Rhapsody in Blue into the lush (and very pleasing) 1942 arrangement that we are all familiar with today.
The Rhapsody in Blue, from its first performance, became Gershwin’s signature piece and the yardstick by which his later successes would be gauged—Porgy and Bess, American in Paris, his “I Got Rhythm” Variations—and a plethora of hit songs—Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, Love Is Here to Stay, Oh Lady Be Good, But Not For Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It, How Long Has This Been Going On, and many, many more. A repeat performance of the Rhapsody at Carnegie brought in mixed, and mostly confusing, reviews—the classical reviewers complained of it being formless and too improvisatory (Gershwin even had a blank page in the score, allowing for the soloist to improvise) and the jazz reviewers complained that it was too rigid.
Such were the musical worlds that George Gershwin had to straddle.
Gershwin died suddenly at the age of 38, the result of a brain tumor. His death at such an early age—like so many other greats before him—always begs the question, what great works of music was the world deprived of through his early departure?
A funny anecdote has floated about for nearly a hundred years regarding Gershwin and his lack of confidence as a “serious” composer. It is said that, upon meeting famous classical composers, he would routinely ask if he could study with them, if they would expand his musical consciousness through rigorous instruction in composition techniques. He asked this of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, Ernst Toch, and even Edgard Varese. All of them politely declined. He also asked this of Maurice Ravel. They met at a party when Ravel was visiting New York for the first time. Gershwin asked his question, to which Ravel replied “why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” But when Gershwin met Igor Stravinsky and posed the same query, Stravinsky instead asked Gershwin how much money he had made in the previous year—to which Gershwin replied 100,000 dollars—a fortune at that time—to which Stravinsky said “perhaps I should be studying with you.”
The story may be apocryphal…but it’s so good that it will probably still be told a hundred years from now.
The link below is to the 1959 recording of the Rhapsody performed and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. To say this is a classic recording is an understatement! For decades—to the present day, really—it has been regarded as the paragon of all Rhapsody in Blue performances. I can remember the very day I purchased it when I was in high school. I must have listened to it a hundred times in the first week I owned it! (Later on, it became the greatest example to copy when I was learning the Rhapsody to play with orchestra for the first time myself.) There are other very fine Rhapsody in Blues on YouTube, including one of Bernstein playing, again with his NY Phil, from the 1970’s. But, for me, this 1959 still has everything. It is so exciting, everything is RIGHT about it.
Listen especially to Bernstein by himself at 8:14, and to the lush and beautiful theme at 10:08. Makes you want to fly American, doesn’t it?