George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershvitz in 1898 to Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn. When he was 11, he overheard a friend playing Anton Dvorak’s Humoresque No 7 on the violin. The music provoked “a flashing revelation” that hooked Gershwin immediately. He began sneaking over to a neighbor’s house in Brooklyn to teach himself to play different instruments. A year later, when Gershwin’s mother brought home a secondhand upright piano, the family was stunned to see George sit down and tear through vaudeville tunes. A few years of formal lessons followed, but his teachers could barely keep up with Gershwin’s prodigious talent.
Ferde Grofe, George Gershwin, SL Rothafel, Paul Whiteman
At 15, Gershwin quit school and took a job as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley, New York’s music publishing district. Song pluggers were basically pianists who sold sheet music by demonstrating the latest tunes for singers, dancers, and producers. With his outgoing personality, Gershwin was a natural, often weaving in his own musical ideas to liven up the pieces.
Before long, he became a full-time songwriter. When he was 21, he penned his first hit, “Swanee,” made famous by blackface entertainer Al Jolson. The 1920s equivalent of a Beyoncé single, “Swanee” spent nine weeks at No. 1, selling one million copies of sheet music and two million records. Soon Broadway came calling, and Gershwin became, in his own modest words, “a fairly busy young composer”, writing mostly Broadway songs and musicals.
Rhapsody in Blue history
On January 4, 1924, George Gershwin, his lyricist, Buddy DeSylva and his brother (and future lyricist) Ira Gershwin were relaxing with a game of pool during the hiatus between openings of their show Sweet Little Devil in Boston and New York. Ira happened upon an article in that morning’s New York Tribune about a concert Paul Whiteman was planning called “An Experiment in Modern American Music”. The concert would feature his dance orchestra performing a program of completely “American Music” with an emphasis on jazz. (Jazz was a more general term at the time, it was more of a catchall for modern popular music). A panel of judges including Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Heifetz and Sergei Rachmaninoff had been enlisted to define exactly what “American Music” was. Ira and George got a chuckle out of that, but the next paragraph brought them up short: “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, Victor Herbert is working on an “American Suite” and George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” This was the first that George had heard of his participation in the concert. He and Whiteman had discussed his writing a special piece for the band, but he’d heard nothing more definite until this newspaper article. Sweet Little Devil was in final rehearsals for its New York opening and George was playing a major recital with soprano Eva Gauthier in a couple of weeks; there really wasn’t time to write Whiteman’s piece in the five weeks left before the event.
The four-stave manuscript of Rhapsody in Blue, now in the Library of Congress, records that George began work on the piece on January 7, 1924. It was done by February 4, 1924, when arranger Ferde Grofe ordered the orchestral parts be made up in time for rehearsals. Then as now, it was standard procedure for a Broadway composer to use an orchestrator, and Grofe then producing most of the Whiteman band’s original arrangements and leading the rehearsals. The Rhapsody also included several virtuoso passages for the piano that, at the time of performance, only existed in Gershwin’s head. At one point, when he played solo, he simply left a blank space in the score, indicating the orchestra was to remain silent. The only cue Whiteman had to prompt the orchestra to start playing again was a note in the score telling him to wait until he saw Gershwin nod his head.
What is probably now the most famous opening in American music was not originally written. Whiteman clarinetist Rpss Gorman improvised the famous clarinet glissando that opens the work during rehearsals and George asked him to keep playing it that way.
The concert was long and tedious, with Gershwin’s piece nearly at the end. While critical reaction was mixed, the audience was thrilled and the work was recognized immediately as something new and excitingly different. Even now, with the vantage of retrospect, the Rhapsody in Blue eludes convenient classification. Is it classical music with pop elements, or jazz with serious pretensions?
From the very outset, commentators have struggled to describe it. Gershwin had declared his intention as breaking down misconceptions about the limitations of jazz. But such terminology is confusing – this wasn’t the same spontaneously improvised “jazz” that his contemporaries Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton and Bix Biederbecke were creating. Rather, it was a mainstream version filtered into dance arrangements that stretched conventional rules with a novel edge of some harmonic flights, rhythmic variation and emphatic playing.
Far more cogent is John Struble’s observation that Gershwin approached all music as a songwriter. His strength was as one of the great instinctive melodists of all time. Although he did receive some formal musical training, his abiding weakness was structure. Thus, notwithstanding a great love for the piece, Leonard Bernstein disparaged the Rhapsody in Blue as “not a composition at all [but] a string of … terrific tunes … stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water.” Arthur Schwartz agreed, calling the development and transitions “more intuition than tuition.” All Gershwin’s works discount traditional development and proceed linearly from one event to the next. The appealing result, as Alex North observed, is a natural, sincere expression which, as James Lyons noted, manifests the confidence and nervous energy of the “Roaring Twenties.”
Writers at the time of the premiere hailed the Rhapsody for spurious reasons. Some claimed it as the first work to combine jazz and the concert hall (“Gershwin made a lady out of jazz”), when it wasn’t, by a long shot. We had already had pieces by Debussy, Stravinsky, Ives, Milhaud, and others. However, it was the piece which made the greatest impact by far and spurred many composers both in the Americas and in Europe to experiment with incorporating jazz elements into Modern concert music.
Others claimed that Gershwin wrote jazz – also not correct. Of course, jazz had an extremely fluid definition in its early years. Over the years, however, this last claim and its debunking insidiously mixed with American race problems. Some accused Gershwin of some sort of intellectual theft of black culture. This charge makes no more sense than accusing Duke Ellington of stealing French culture from Debussy and Ravel or Western European music from every composer since Monteverdi. In art, material may be proprietary, but ideas and styles are not. To say that Ellington and Gershwin sound alike (which has to be the phenomenal basis behind the accusation) is obvious nonsense. Also, Rhapsody in Blue precedes the earliest known jazz extended composition.
Finally, the odd notion persisted that Gershwin simply didn’t know what he was doing. He studied music only haphazardly, when it suited his schedule. Yet, many passages in his music point to his learning at least something of classical procedures. Study, and hard, Gershwin did with a number of teachers including Henry Cowell and, most extensively, with Joseph Schillinger, a pedagogue who had constructed a “mathematical” (not really) system of composition. Most of the adverse criticism stems from the fact that Gershwin never wrote a sonata movement, as if that were the way to bind a piece together that established a composer’s bona fides. A remark from Henry Cowell about his teaching Gershwin counterpoint I find illuminating. Gershwin got bored with strict counterpoint and would alter things to get in a piquant harmony. In short, he treated classical procedures as means, rather than as ends, just like most other Modern composers.
The next question – which Rhapsody do we know?
Versions of Rhapsody
As mentioned above, Ferde Grofe actually orchestrated – masterfully – the original Rhapsody in Blue. This was for two reasons – time, and Gershwin at this time did not have the orchestrating ‘chops’ that he would later develop. Of course, Grofe worked closely with Gershwin, and Gershwin made notes in his manuscript.
This was specifically orchestrated for Whiteman’s dance band and its players. 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 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 1926 orchestration, 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.
1942 Orchestration (Note that this is after Gershwin’s death)
The 1942 orchestration 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, violincellos and double basses.
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.
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.
Tonight we will listen to a few different versions of the Rhapsody, to give a sense of the many differences. One thing it will highlight is that all classical music performances are ‘covers’ in that each artist interprets the music differently, and that both cultural tastes and performance practices change over the years. Secondly, hopefully we will get an understanding that we possibly can never actually hear the music exactly as the composer did, no matter how hard we try.
None of the performances tonight are considered current ‘mainstream’ exactly, for various reasons. However, all are significant in their own right.
VERSIONS TO BE ADDED LATER, AFTER THE SALON