Americana Music Classical Music

Perfect Song #4: “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

After the last few weeks of writing about musical artists that have left this world, it feels nice to write about something positive, or at least thought-provoking. This is another installment of a perfect song. I go a bit further from the basic roots music (although I did go pretty far off with John Philip Sousa a few weeks back), looking at what I consider the best in American classical music.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is often described by scholars as “orchestrated jazz.” True, when it first debuted in 1924 as part of Paul Whiteman’s “An Experimentation in Modern Music” concert in New York, it was performed by a medium-sized jazz ensemble. It received mixed reviews after the first performance, and carried on as a jazz piece until 1942, when Ferde Grofe arranged it for a symphonic orchestra. It was then that it became a true American classical masterpiece.

However, to fully understand this masterpiece, one must step back to when it was first created. Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose a concerto for an upcoming jazz performance. With five weeks to finish, Gershwin created most of the music on a train ride to Boston. His brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, suggested the title.

For the first performance, as well as the debut performance in England, Gershwin played the piano. It has been arranged for solo piano as well as ensemble, but most know it from its symphonic arrangement. It is there that one can hear what pictures were going through Gershwin’s mind while writing. That opening upward glissando performed on clarinet tells you that this is no ordinary classical piece, but it is not trad jazz either. There is a lot of blues thirds and seventh flats throughout, along with numerous slurs and roller-coaster dynamics. It is all of this that makes classicla and jazz slam into each other to create a unique aural experience.

Just listen to it. Close your eyes and listen. From the opening, what do you see in your mind? I see a 4-in-the-morning New York City street, just waking up with perhaps a street cleaner doing his business and a truck dropping off a stack of newspapers at a stand. As the song progresses, the streets get busier. Taxis and busses speeding around, people rushing to get to work, vendors selling fruits and flowers. There’s the hustle and bustle of the office workers, as well as cooks and waitresses getting ready for the lunch crowd. That’s when the tempo slows a bit, some people eating their lunch fast, while other are lounging in the park, savoring the brief rest period. Again, it speeds up for the afternoon work and then the homeward bound rush.

Finally, there is that powerful, nine-note slow climax, followed immediately by the pounding chords of the piano. Think about the nighttime in NYC, especially Broadway! The bright lights, the people dressed in their best going to shows, wanting to be seen. It drops off a bit, just for a few moments, as if there may be trouble, like a traffic accident or a lost child, but it is momentary, and goes back into that fabulous strong ending.

Gershwin was a genius in my ears. He truly heard “scenery” in music. He could create washes of life and living with his songwriting. No words needed, only sounds, and it motivates the listener to interpret those sounds into visuals. “Rhapsody in Blue” is probably his best example of this technique. I just feel that it is disheartening that very few American composers such as Gershwin, Aaron Copeland (whom I will cover in a later blog), and Leonard Bernstein do not get the same overall respect that the European composers of the earlier centuries do.

I implore you to take time to listen to this work of art. I guarantee that you will be moved, or at least understand why others such as myself are moved.

Chew on it and comment.