Repertoire: Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin

“Rhapsody in Blue is a composition by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band written in 1924, which combines elements of classical music withjazz-influenced effects. The composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé three times, in 1924, in 1926, and finally in 1942. The piece received its premiere in a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian HallNew York, by Paul Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks opined that “The Rhapsody in Blue (1924) established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works.”[1] (from wikipedia)

  Rhapsody in Blue  mentioned  in most Music History texts as being the first piece to employ Jazz in the Concert Hall, which it was not, this distinction belonging to the credit of Darius Milhaud who wrote in 1922, La Creation du Monde, a work much more indelibly jazz oriented than the Gershwin work.  This work , was composed to be performed as a ballet and is written for Flutes, Clarinets, Alto Saxophone , violins(one viola, usually omitted)) and bass , and perhaps most important, a full set of drums to be played by one player. For clarinetists, it has a long solo passage, difficult to play, but fun as well.
Considering the instrumentation it is a true hybrid, combining elements of both jazz and “classical”. The two works are completely different however, the Milhaud  reaching a climactic moment sounding like a session from long ago, the Rhapsody in a beautiful melody which intensifies until the final blues cadence, more like a symphonic work. The two works have little else in common. Interestingly enough, Gershwin had to be persuaded to write a work for solo piano and orchesra as a competition with the work of Vincent Lopez , a band leader who was competing with Paul Whiteman, more reknown in history for the many hit tunes he played during the 20s and 30s.
There had been an article in the New York Tribune, “what is American Music” , which inspired Whiteman, who  urged  Gershwin to write such a work  , which turned out to be Rhapsody in Blue. For whatever reasons, Rhapsody is Gershwins most popular work, played most frequently, while the Milhaud ballet, jazzier in nature and featuring a drummer playing a drum set (as was the fashion in clubs during the 20s) is more true to the idiom of Jazz,though much less frequently performed.
In the music history texts Gershwin is usually portrayed as a composer of symphonic music, perhaps Americas most famous. He was much more than that, having composed hundreds of pop-music tunes, many of which have become standards. Combining it all, Gershwin is much more like Franz Schubert, though much more popular in his time. Both were extremely prolific in different ways. but the Lieder of Schubert were as popular as were the pop-tunes of Gershwin, simply in a different historical context. Geshwins hits and Schuberts Lieder were on a par with one another and will remain so. Schubert was unfortunately not as successful as Gershwin, who started as a tin pan alley pianist and with his older brothr Ira, wrote some of the most enduring music o fhe previous century. Schubert was taken advantage of by music publishers and had to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends. Both were wonderful pianists, judging by the recordings and compositions of Gershwin, and Schubert by his extraordinary works for solo piano as well as some of the loveliest accompaniments to his lieder (love songs).
Both die unusual deaths,Gershwin on the operating table while in surgery for a brain tumor, and Schubert unceremoniously died from syphilis, which he had contracted from his mother, or so my physician friends and accompanists have told me.
While some stories are hearsay, most wind up in somebodys history book sometime, somewhere.
There are many stories regarding the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue in Aeolian Hall in NY in 1924. This was the beginning of trying to define what exactly was American music  and was first started by the Herald Tribune and its article of that title. Following was the composition of the work by Gershwin to help Paul Whiteman keep up with the others who were composing various works defining Jazz as part of American music. Rhapsody in Blue was by far the most successful work by Gershwin and has remained at the top of the performed repertoire .
The interesting thing about the opening glissando heard on the first recording was that it has never been played as well , by anyone. Why? If one can assume that the first recording is valid, it has a glissando that extends for almost two octaves. No other recording duplicates that length.
Ross Gorman, who was Paul Whitemans clarinetist plays the opening and makes the glssando last from d below the staff all the way to the high C. Nobody has ever made the gliss that long. For the many players who have written in, concerning the glissando, various answers can be given about fingering and embouchure, but the answer for Gorman was that he could do it, had made recording with his own group wherein he imitates a dogs bark, and must have used a couple of things  not usually mentioned. One anecdotal story is that he was drunk at the time.No. There are no breaks whatever for the entire glssando.No matter who claims what, listen for the length and smoothness of the glissando. I have found that only Gormans makes it evenly for that length. How ? He had to be using a soft reed, very soft, and an open mouthpiece, but first and foremost, he was a wonderful player, wonderfully glib and when Gershwin heard it, he asked that it be performed at the concert in that manner, and voila, that is the way it has been perfomed since, but never as  as I have heard in that exact manner.(listen to the trill. as he makes a crescendo, it gets slightly f lat, signaling much of what was going on in his mouth and throat. Bending notes is part of playing the clarinet in Jazz and also in certain avant garde compositions as well. I can only say is what to listen for is the length of the glissando and how evenly it is executed. Gorman with Whiteman and Gershwin playing the piano is among th best. It is not going to get you a job, and you will  have fun,   . Here is the recording: (paste the address in your browser.
Keep well and keep practicing.

One Response to Repertoire: Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin

  1. subhorup says:

    Thought I would share my humble tribute to this genius with your readers.

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