Monday, February 12, 2024

This Day in Classical Music History (Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in Triumphant Premiere)

Feb. 12, 1924—The audience that heard Rhapsody in Blue on this cold, snowy night greeted the ground-breaking “jazz concerto” with rapture at its premiere at New York City's Aeolian Hall—a distinct relief for George Gershwin, who composed it in haste, with the utmost reluctance, without formal music training, and performed it at the end of a long, otherwise boring concert.

A good thing that listeners that night (including John Philip Sousa, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Rachmaninov) embraced what the 25-year-old composer called his “musical kaleidoscope of America—our vast melting pot,” because many critics and even some fellow composters were nowhere near as enthusiastic.

Critic-composer Virgil Thomson, for instance, sniffed that Rhapsody, though “quite a satisfactory piece,” didn’t amount to much, because “Rhapsodies…are not very difficult to write, if one can think up enough tunes.” And, despite conducting the piece and performing its piano portion, Leonard Bernstein followed Thomson’s lead in dismissing it as “not a composition at all [but] a string of … terrific tunes … stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water.”

Even this year, The New York Times, in a piece of blatant contrarian clickbait, ran pianist, composer and writer Ethan Iverson’s essay calling it “The Worst Masterpiece,” using adjectives like “naïve,” “corny,” and “Caucasian,” and the comment that, because the composition didn’t achieve a true fusion of jazz and classical genres, it “clogged the arteries of American music.”

Oh, please! Gershwin can’t be held responsible for either the lack of daring of fellow composers or the racist musical tastes of American audiences that couldn’t accept the innovation of Louis Armstrong and other jazz creators.

He simply wanted to resolve a miscommunication with popular bandleader Paul Whiteman, who, after hearing the composer’s vague desire to write a piece blending jazz and classical elements, publicly announced that Gershwin would contribute to “An Experiment in Modern Music" only a month away.

Whiteman overcame Gershwin’s protest that he was on the way to Boston for a pre-Broadway tryout of his latest musical project (it turned out to be Lady, Be Good). Fortunately for the composer, it was on the ensuing train ride, “with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer that I suddenly heard — and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”

A few more facts about the creation of this standard in the American classical music repertoire:

*Lyricist brother Ira contributed the title;

*Gershwin also sought to incorporate the sounds of New York: hurdy-gurdies, player pianos of Harlem, the chugging of trains, the construction of midtown skyscrapers;

*Clarinetist Ross Gorman, in rehearsals, played a joke on the composer by playing the opening—17 distinct notes—as a long smeared glissando. Gershwin loved the effect and kept it in the piece;

*Gershwin had scored the piece for two pianos, but confessed that he knew nothing about arrangements—leading Whiteman to put it in the hands of his associate Ferdi Grofe;

*Gershwin himself was the pianist at the premiere; he didn’t have time to write out the solo passages for the instrument, so he played them from memory (and probably improvised some of it);

*Rhapsody in Blue not only announced the arrival of a unique talent to the concert gall, but also the cultural start of the American Century.

The composition propelled Gershwin into any serious discussion of homegrown practitioners of classical music. In the short 13 years remaining to him, even though he continued to crank out popular songs for Broadway and Hollywood with his lyricist brother Ira, he also created ever more ambitious works for the concert hall and opera stage, including Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess.

As Phillip D. Atteberry wrote in an article for The Mississippi Rag, “Like the land in which he grew up, Gershwin did not understand boundaries or limits. Anything that could be imagined, could be attempted.” 

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