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Rhapsody in Blue

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Gershwin
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

The premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, given in Paris as a ballet in 1913, is frequently spoken of as marking the beginning of the 20th century in music. The premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, on February 12, 1924, in New York, announced the beginning of the serious influence of American jazz in concert music worldwide. It was not that there hadn't been earlier works reflecting this influence--there was Darius Milhaud's score for the ballet La Création du monde the previous year, and John Alden Carpenter's for a ballet based on the George Herriman comic strip Krazy Kat the year before that--but it was the Gershwin piece that seized the attention of the musical world and provided the irresistible stimulus for others to go and do likewise.

The event in which the Rhapsody in Blue was introduced was a concert given at Aeolian Hall by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra under the rubric "An Experiment in Modern Music." The date, as noted on the handbills and posters announcing the concert, was Lincoln's Birthday; a further note advised, "New Typically American Compositions by VICTOR HERBERT, IRVING BERLIN and GEORGE GERSHWIN will be played for the first time." Victor Herbert's new work was a Suite of Serenades, in four parts. Irving Berlin was represented by "semi-symphonic arrangements" of three of his songs. Zez Confrey played his own piano pieces, Kitten on the Keys among them. There were jazz and "comedy selections," popular songs, pieces played straight and then "jazzed," and at the very end, curiously, a piece that had nothing to do with American music and wasn't especially new, Elgar's famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.

Gershwin, at that time 25 years old, had already established himself as a major figure on Broadway. A dozen revues for which he had provided some or all of the music, had been introduced by then, some in New York, one or two in London. It was the announcement of a concert work by him that crated the interest in Whiteman's concert, especially in the "classical" community. Among those present were such figures as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, Walter Damrosch, Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Damrosch, Alma Gluck, Mary Garden, Amelita Galli-Curci, Moritz Rosenthal and Efrem Zimbalist. The influence of the Rhapsody in Blue on Rachmaninoff, who had done little composing since leaving his native Russia six years earlier, was to be heard in his Fourth Piano Concerto, whose premiere he gave with Stokowski in 1926. The work's impact on Walter Damrosch was made known to Gershwin the day after the Whiteman concert, when the Damrosch contacted him with a commission for a full-scale piano concerto.

What few if any in the Lincoln's Birthday audience could have known was that Gershwin had had only three weeks to compose the Rhapsody, and all he really completed--or in any event took far enough to enable himself to play it--was the solo part. The orchestration was left to Whiteman's chief arranger Ferde Grofé (the future composer of the Grand Canyon Suite ). While Gershwin at that point needed Grofé's help, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and which particular instrumental effects would accomplish his ends. He also accepted certain interpolations from various members of Whiteman's 24-piece ensemble, such as the inspired embellishment by the clarinetist Ross Gorman for the opening phrase, which had been conceived as a straight scale passage. Grofé subsequently prepared a second orchestration for full symphony orchestra; Whiteman used the romantic Andante section of the Rhapsody as the signature music for his popular radio series till the end of his life; Ravel, Martinu and countless other composers everywhere responded to the work's creative stimulus; it became the internationally recognized portrait of America in music.