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Rhapsody in Blue (1924; orch. 1926 by Grofé ), 15'

George Gershwin was born on September 22, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York and died on July 11, 1937 in Hollywood, California. Rhapsody in Blue was first performed in the original jazz band scoring by Ferde Grofé on February 12, 1924, conducted by Paul Whitman and his orchestra with the composer as soloist at Aeolian Hall in New York. Grofé’s 1926 full orchestra version is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones and tenor saxophone, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, banjo, strings and solo piano.

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue serves as one of the more adventurous tales of how to get a composer to write a concerto, and a cautious lesson in nonchalant verbal agreements. On January 4, 1924, Gershwin and the “King of Jazz” bandleader Paul Whitman were on a phone call, quite possibly the most substantial business call in music history. The reason for this call stemmed from a publication in the New York Tribune the day before, which announced Whitman’s upcoming New York concert titled, “Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12. The article advertised the new music concert with a tall order of expanding serious music to include the popular vernacular. For the program, Whitman revealed that “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem,” “Victor Herbert is working on an American suite,” and that “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” For Gershwin, this was the first time he had heard of it. Hence, the telephone call.


Gershwin was already chest deep in work for his musical Sweet Little Devil, scheduled to premiere three weeks later on January 24. One can imagine, at least in the shoes of a composer, the Herculean feat of adding a new “experimental” jazz concerto to the to-do list. On the call, Whitman reminded the composer that they had earlier discussed the idea the year before. Gershwin immediately began composing sketches during a train trip three days later on January 7th, recalling, “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer…And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end…I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”


Pressed for time, a complete multi-movement concerto would have to wait until his Concerto in F the following year. The work would manifest into a freer, more improvisatory rhapsodic form for solo piano and jazz band. Before the months end, Gershwin completed in record time, a two-piano short score, one for the solo and the other for the orchestra with suggestions for orchestration. Whitman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé (who would go on to compose the successful Grand Canyon Suite) took up duties to orchestrate the score for the band’s instrumentation, and would subsequently orchestrate it for full symphony orchestra in 1926. 


The title of Rhapsody in Blue is a Gershwin brothers venture. Originally titled American Rhapsody, Ira Gershwin suggested changing the title to its current form after viewing James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue And Green Chelsea 1870. The new title would be a fitting tribute to the work’s European “rhapsodic” or more symphonic influences, and the works syncopated rhythms and “jazz” elements as hinted by the “blues” in its melodic and harmonic language.


The Rhapsody unfolds as conversations, dialogues of alternating and overlapping solo passages with the ensemble, in full and in intimate chamber settings. Gershwin showcases the versatility of the solo role. During solo passages, the piano music is virtuosic and improvisatory, functioning as mini-cadenzas showcasing technical splendor with arpeggiating escapades and virtuosity up and down the keys. In addition to the capricious activity, the solo moments also provide a focused and individual soliloquy on orchestral themes, motives, rhythms and harmonies.  In the more orchestral heavy sections, the soloist becomes a member of the orchestra, a band member, supporting other solo lines with percussive and rhythmic energy and gestures.


Beginning with the trill of the clarinet, the iconic slide up that opens the work was originally, and still is, written out as an ascending scale of seventeen 64th notes. In rehearsal, Ross Gorman, the Whitman band clarinetist, melded those tones into an ascending glissando, and the rest is history, tradition. The opening introduction will continue to feature the clarinet with the main “blues” tune and sultry trill riffs. More instruments join in a flirtation nudged by moody sways in the low brass. The horns join quickening the pace, and it begins all over again, down a step in Ab-major; the first of many key changes, 15 in all, roughly a different key for every minute of music.


The piano star quickly steers the conversation, and after an extended cadenza, the woodwinds and strings enter with a romantic love-struck melody that has come to signify flying the commercially friendly skies. The genesis of this melody can also be credited by a suggestion from Ira, who suggested the tune which was earlier improvised at the piano, would create balance with the more rhythmic and flashy characters of the piece. Gershwin allows the orchestra to soar, and milk the leapy contour of the tune, falling deeper and deeper into a daydream. The solo will partake in the main lines doubling with thickly scored chords and octaves, adding support and schmaltz.


With one final cadenza, streaming velocities of virtuosic 16th notes, a pianistic tap dance, entices the orchestra to snap out of the dream and skidattle. Trombones dip their toes, then the entire brass section follows suit. The whole orchestra eventually comes together, and the image of Broadway splendor will be unmistakable; rows of dancers, a chorus of singers, set pieces moving into view, and the glamorous gold and silver spotlights of show biz will enter the sound stage for one last march to the grand curtain call; a finale of fireworks, champaign and a moonlit American skyline. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on August 13-15, 2021.

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