A Piece For My People: A Closer Look at the Success
of Rhapsody in Blue
By: Talia Kupferman
This paper is dedicated in memory of my Grandmother, Elaine Snyder, who saw the beauty, challenge, and unique language music had the ability to create. For her, playing the piano wasn’t an “escape” but rather a meeting.
As people entered Aeolian Hall in New York City on a snowy Tuesday evening on February 12, 1924, they did not know that they would be witnessing modern history on that stage. The only information these audience members had was that they were attending a concert titled, “Experiment in Modern Music.” Paul Whiteman, the popular orchestral director, composer and organizer of the event noted that the purpose of the concert was to prove that the new form of music in New York, termed ‘jazz’, deserved to be heard as a sophisticated form of music. Whiteman’s goal was that jazz music would be equated with the historical and popular classical music. Thus, commissioning George Gershwin, a young Broadway composer, to write a piece for this ‘experiment’ did not seem unusual. Banagale writes in his book titled, Arranging Gershwin, that when Whiteman asked Gershwin to compose a piece for this concert, Gershwin was in the midst of writing the music for the Broadway premiere of Sweet Little Devil. In January of 1924, merely weeks before the experimental concert, Gershwin wrote the first piano manuscript draft of what was then called, American Rhapsody, (soon to be changed to Rhapsody in Blue) for the American arranger and composer, Ferde Grofe. Gershwin did not allow his busy composing schedule to prevent him from composing a piece for Whiteman’s concert, just three weeks before the event. At this time, Gershwin was only known as a composer of Broadway shows, but because Whiteman opened the concert hall to American composers, Gershwin was able to make his formal concert debut by performing this classical/ jazz piece. Immediately following Gershwin’s inaugural performance of American Rhapsody that night, the reviews came pouring in. The next day, New York Times critic, Olin Downes, wrote about the spectacular experimental concert. He wrote, “the audience packed a house that could have been sold out at twice the size”.1 Combining these two genres showed that this fusion was captivating and unique, which made this piece so intriguing. Overall, Rhapsody in Blue became a musical expression of the American life due to Gershwin’s unification of two drastically different genres.
What was it in Gershwin’s music or the performance that created a true fascination with this Rhapsody? Evidently, there had to be something striking about the piece because critics reviewed it favorably. In his 1987 analysis, conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, emphasized that the first time the piano actually plays in the Rhapsody, it sounds like a lonesome nighttime tune. All of the other instruments go silent and resembles someone sitting in the back room of a bar playing this simple melody. Thomas explains, “it has a simplicity and a directness and an honesty which is unprecedented in the world of concert music”.2 The simple melodies Gershwin composed go straight from the piano into the emotions of the listeners. There was a sense of trust in this piece that was new to the stage. The Rhapsody captivated the audience with its similarity to the popular jazz music of the roaring New York 1920s. Wyatt and Johnson reprinted an interview Gershwin had with New York World Sunday Magazine on May 4, 1930 in their book, The George Gershwin Reader. When Gershwin was asked how he came up with the idea of Rhapsody in Blue he said,
The idea of Rhapsody in Blue, for example, came to me quite suddenly. The vivid panorama of American life swept through my mind- its feverishness, its vulgarity, its welter of love, marriage, divorce and its basic solidity in the character of people. All the emotional reactions excited by contemplating the American scene, with all its mixture of races…were stuffed into the first outline of the Rhapsody (Wyatt & Johnson, 134).
Gershwin used the world around him as the inspiration for his compositions, and with jazz as the musical focus at the time, he expanded these themes into the concert hall. Gershwin brought something new to the concert hall which explains the overwhelmingly positive reaction he received.
Gershwin’s feelings and connections towards jazz may have manifested from his connection with the origin of the genre itself. Jazz was created by African-Americans with lyrics regarding disappointment, mistreatments and other woes this large community felt in the United States. Gershwin was exposed to different genres of music simply by living in the immigrant hub of New York City. In addition to frequently visiting the Yiddish Theatre on the Lower East side, Singer writes, “throughout his brief life, [he] regularly haunted Harlem nightspots in search of musical enlightenment” (Singer, 67). These natural exposures gave Gershwin the knowledge that allowed him to create this fantastic fusion. Growing up in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for George to hear the troubles, complaints and melancholy of the Jews who felt this state of “orphanhood” as they left their families to come to New York because of religious persecution. The Lower East Side was overwhelmingly Jewish and poor. Most of these Jews came to the US with little money and needed work, however keeping a job was difficult and the pay was low. George was engulfed in this cloud of worry on the Lower East side. Contrary to how most Jews lived outside of the United States who lived in closed ghettos strictly with Jews, New York City allowed for fluidity as people of different cultures and backgrounds were moving in. This physical geographic fluidity naturally allowed for fluid mindsets as well. With a less strict mentality, Gershwin saw no firm boundaries between classical and popular music. He always had one foot in both genres. This blending of traditions was part of his appeal and therefore makes his music rich in meaning (Burkholder & Peter, 900). Some approach the Rhapsody with the notion that what Gershwin produced was not a “jazz concerto”, but a rhapsodic work for a “piano and jazz band” incorporating elements of European symphonic music and American jazz with his unmatched melodic gift and keyboard abilities.3 Even the title of the piece reflects this idea of combining the two worlds Gershwin lived in. American Rhapsody, which soon became the notorious, Rhapsody in Blue, after Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother and co-composer, suggested the name after seeing the painting, Nocturne In Blue And Green, at an exhibition. The artist of this painting, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, noted that the word “nocturne” appropriately suggests the notion of a night scene, but with additional musical associations. Whistler explained, “A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first” (Dorment & MacDonald, 122). Perhaps Ira understood this association and relayed this idea to George for his new hybrid piece. The new title would reflect the European and American influences in the piece, which is a seamless explanation of Gershwin’s background and history.4
It is interesting to compare Rhapsody to other pieces being written at this time and their successes, or lack thereof. As Gershwin represented an innovator who amalgamated jazz and classical music together, it is incumbent to examine other classical and jazz composers of the time and see the differences in their pieces. Firstly, Ragtime for Eleven Instruments, written by Igor Stravinsky in 1918 was based off of the ragtime genre, even though Stravinsky had never even heard this type of music. Heyman adds a quotation from Stravinsky in her book, The Musical Quarterly, regarding the time he began writing this composition. Stravinsky stated,
My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style, not as played but as written. I could imagine jazz sound, however, or so I liked to think (Heyman, 544).
Although Stravinsky understood the structural sense of the genre, he was unable to be absorbed in the culture and spirit of jazz like Gershwin was. American music made its way to Europe for composers to learn from and recreate in their own forms and for listeners to enjoy. However, it might have been more difficult for European composers to engross themselves in the jazz culture compared to American composers who were living through this new age. Additionally, there are aspects of Ragtime for Eleven Instruments that are far from the traditional ragtime pieces. He uses tonal schemes and irregular underlying beats, which do not make it a genuine ragtime composition.5 The instruments are being used in their normal ranges, whereas in the Rhapsody, the instruments stretch and defy limits. Stravinsky himself was a modern man, but perhaps he didn’t challenge the limits of the instruments and genres like Gershwin did. Another popular composer during the 1920s was Darius Milhaud. While on a trip to the United States from France in 1922, Milhaud was on the streets of Harlem and witnessed “authentic” jazz for the first time. Experiencing a new musical genre left quite an impact on him because the following year, he completed his composition La création du monde. Milhaud’s use of a jazz quartet in this section shows the clear jazz influences within this composition.6 La création du monde incorporates both classical and jazz music, but the main focus of the piece is classical. The jazz section is only revealed halfway into the piece and does not have the same energy and pull as the Rhapsody seems to have on an audience. Although Milhaud might have used both genres in one piece, it did not fuse as perfectly as Gershwin’s piece seemed to do. These aspects from both Stravinsky’s classical and Milhaud’s “jazz-esk”/ classical pieces did not obtain the same admiration and enthusiasm as Rhapsody in Blue received. Gershwin found a way to combine aspects of classical orchestration with jazz instruments, like muted trumpets and saxophones, in order to compose a successful fusion. Rather than using the traditional family of strings as the highlight of the orchestration, Gershwin used the woodwinds and brass families as the features of the piece. This demonstrates how Gershwin moved away from the traditions of classical music and introduced new aspects of music that would ultimately have dramatic effects on classical music to come.7 However, Gershwin was not the first to drastically mix styles. For example, Johannes Brahms who was known for his traditional and absolute music, tended to also mix his musical styles with Renaissance and Baroque styles as well. One of his pieces that denotes to Baroque music is The Art of Fugue. The Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, also fused musical styles, Bohemian and American music. His Symphony No. 9 was inaugurated at Carnegie hall in 1893. Unfortunately, his mixing of the styles was not conveyed properly. A recent New York Times article by Dougles W. Shadle stated the following:
Surprisingly, the premiere led to perplexed disappointment. Listeners agreed that the music was magnificent, but many did not hear anything “American” in it, after all… The symphony’s “true” identity — American? Czech? something else? nothing at all? — has remained a source of debate to this day.
Although the process of fusing different musical styles together was done before the Rhapsody, perhaps Gershwin was the leader in mixing jazz and classical works understood successfully by listeners. Gershwin’s unequivocal unification of classical and jazz music, in addition to the exciting pull it created, might have led to its overall success.
Although Gershwin composed a piece that was loved by all, there was “confusion” as to which genre it truly belonged to. This uncertainty, continued throughout the years. Remarkably, even sheet music firms had difficulty in knowing where to place the Rhapsody, in the popular section or classical section (Banagale). Once the Rhapsody gained more attraction, it began to play at a variety of different locations. Ten months after Rhapsody first premiered, critics were still in shock at the remarkable union Gershwin had created with the different genres. After hearing the Rhapsody in Carnegie Hall on November 15, 1924 it was noted, “the critics suddenly discovered that they loved classical music again and proceeded to high-hat jazz in their reviews” (Wyatt & Johnson, 74). Gershwin’s composition was almost universally received as an attempt to bring jazz into the concert hall. Thus, it was the “jazzy” characteristics of Gershwin’s rhythms, melodies and harmony in the Rhapsody that received the most attention, that were most anticipated and discussed in his subsequent concert works. Author of the book, George Gershwin, Larry Starr describes that these elements were regarded as the most distinctive features of his songs as well (22). Wayne Schneider, editor of The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, suggests that by adding specific notes and rhythms identified with jazz and the blues, he was therefore creating a new and enlightened piece of music for the classical world.
[In the 1920s and 1930s] Classical music was not supposed to be taken seriously unless it was ‘progressive’ in some way. It was difficult for critics to discover anything ‘new’ in Gershwin’s harmonic, melodic, or structural techniques. But by calling attention to his use of ‘jazz’ rhythms, tricks of instrumentation, and ‘blue’ notes, these writers were able to suggest that his music was ‘progressive’ in the sense that it introduced such elements to classical music and thus reconcile popular reception of his music with their own critical ideology (7).
Earnest Newman, the most celebrated British music critic in the early 20th century, also grappled with the notion that a single piece of music could have true elements of classical music in addition to jazz features. Newman said,
But is it really jazz? The Rhapsody certainly begins as jazz, and every now and then in its later course it behaves as such…Jazz, in fact, is now obeying a universal law of musical evolution. Why did so many passages in Rhapsody sound so Brahms-like? …What is at present certain is that he has written something for a jazz orchestra that is really music” (Wyatt & Johnson, 99).
The Rhapsody left viewers with a sense of excitement and connection to the piece even though it had disobeyed the classical rules that came beforehand. Perhaps Gershwin created the Rhapsody with this in mind; to reveal that different genres of music are not limited to one characteristic or function. Starr flawlessly describes the impact this piece had on American life. “The Rhapsody fulfills both in Gershwin’s output and in the stylistic evolution of American music. There had been nothing like it before. Arguably, there was nothing quite like it again, at least in terms of cultural impact” (Starr, 20). Unlike Milhaud who also incorporated jazz into his piece, La création du monde, Gershwin not only composed these jazz elements to decorate the Rhapsody but had these notes and rhythms to be the crux of the piece. Jazz was made in United States and described the yearning of the American Dream. Audience members resonated with the genre because they too envisioned this dream possibly becoming a reality and Gershwin represented his own rags-to-riches story. These tunes shaped this association listeners could relate to their own American identity.
From the young age of twelve, Gershwin began studying classical music formally with Charles Hambitzer from 1910-1918. He learned what Hambitzer was teaching him on his own terms and not from a rigid perspective. David Schiff, author of Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, explains how he approached the classical music that he was being taught. “He kept them [the classics] at a distance- listening but not memorizing, studying but not mastering. It is as though he knew he had to defend himself against their influence in order to preserve his own originality” (47). He recognized, from a young age, that classical music should not be confined to the limits it had created. Gershwin believed he could and must introduce new ideas and themes to the traditional style. In June of 1926, Theatre Magazine interviewed Gershwin regarding his best works. Gershwin stated,
My best works, therefore are my Rhapsody in Blue and my Concerto in F. The Rhapsody in Blue represents what I had been striving for since my earliest composition. I wanted to show that jazz is an idiom not to be limited to a mere song and chorus that consumed three minutes in presentation. The Rhapsody was a longer work. It required fifteen minutes for the playing…I succeeded in showing that jazz is not merely a dance; it comprises bigger themes and purposes (Wyatt & Johnson, 94).
Music has the ability to mold and shape into different sounds while keeping its true identity of a genre. Gershwin cared deeply on how his music would affect listeners and took this into consideration while composing.
The reactions and critiques of the Rhapsody have not altered even decades later. Gershwin’s composing draws listeners not only because of the appealing sound, but because of the history and connection Americans feel towards the Rhapsody. Gershwin tends to grab viewers attentions with the most unusual features in the beginning, then gradually returns to more conventional rhythms and stepwise contours at the end of phrases, which creates a satisfying emotional arc (Burkholder & Peter, 863). Another aspect of the Rhapsody which makes it noteworthy from other compositions, is its ability to be shaped and arranged in various manners. Every composer, conductor and player have had the freedom to arrange and record the piece in any fashion they choose. Banagale writes, “…the piece continues to live an active and, at times, surprising life, allowing for investigations into the development of American identities, musical and nonmusical alike, over the course of the twentieth century and into the present” (174). This reveals Gershwin’s composing expertise, by allowing for its constant shaping and arranging while maintaining its true themes. No matter how different the piece becomes from its original form, it will retain the same ideology and history it did from the very first time Gershwin performed it in 1924.
Overall, Rhapsody in Blue stands as a musical manifestation of the American Dream by successfully uniting two genres that were thought to be antitheses of each other in the musical world. Even though George Gershwin passed away at the early age of 38 due to a brain tumor, he became the “poster child” of this dream. His dreams and visions are passed from generation to generation through the medium and language he related to the most, music. The composition of Rhapsody in Blue defied orchestration and classical limits by uniting Americans through the art of music. The Rhapsody was chosen to be played at the Opening Ceremony in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles titled, “Music in America”.
The booming preamble heard over the loudspeakers just before the performance of the Rhapsody at the 1984 Olympics sums up this sentiment: ‘Jazz made its way from the streets of New Orleans to the finest concert halls of New York, and inspired George Gershwin to write this American classic (Banagale, 7).
This piece allowed for people of all different backgrounds, cultures, colors and religions to feel a sense of unity and pride. Unlike other composers at the time, Gershwin put more than his own passions into his compositions; he put the ambitions and dreams of the people around him in his music as well. Gershwin stated in Theatre Magazine in June of 1926,
…but to be true music it must repeat the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is today. Of tomorrow, and of my tomorrow, as an interpreter of American life in music, I am sure of but one thing: … it will be sure to have a tincture of the derided yesterday, which has been accepted today and which perhaps tomorrow will be exalted- jazz” (Wyatt & Johnson, 94).
It is fascinating that Gershwin relates to the aspect of time and the importance that time can have on music. As a composer he is unsure of tomorrow, and therefore appreciates what he has created and composed today because it might not last until the next day. Perhaps Gershwin put these ideas into an orchestral piece rather than one of his Broadway songs to help the listener focus on the musicality. The lack of words potentially allowed listeners to interpret the piece in any way one wants to; Gershwin simply provided the formula. Rhapsody in Blue has been arranged, recorded, cherished, loved, and treasured over four generations and continues to be played. His music has truly surpassed the confines of ‘musical law’.
1. “Rhapsody In Blue, by George Gershwin, Performed for First Time”
2. Gershwin Documentary
3. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – The Story Behind A Hastily Composed Masterpiece
5. The Musical Quarterly
6. Milhaud – La Création Du Monde
7. Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
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2. Burkholder, J. Peter, et al. Study and Listening Guide for A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition, by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, and, Norton Anthology of Western Music, Sixth Edition, by J. Peter Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 2010.
3. Editors, History.com. “Rhapsody In Blue, by George Gershwin, Performed for First Time.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rhapsody-in-blue-by-george-gershwin-performed-for-first-time.
4. Heyman, Barbara B. “Stravinsky and Ragtime.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 4, 1982, pp. 543–562. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/742157.
5. Hopkin, Owen. “Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue – the Story behind a Hastily Composed Masterpiece.” Classic FM, Classic FM, 21 Aug. 2012, http://www.classicfm.com/composers/gershwin/guides/story-behind-gershwins-rhapsody-blue/.
6. Milhaud — La création du monde. “Milhaud — La Création Du Monde.” Razor Tie Artery Foundation Announce New Joint Venture Recordings | Razor & Tie, Rovi Corporation, 1999, http://web.archive.org/web/20060901142248/http://www.music.pomona.edu/orchestra/mil_crea.htm.
7. Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, pp.122-3, no.46
8. Sarah. “Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue.” Mind Doodles, 8 Oct. 2012, http://sarahboastblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/gershwin-rhapsody-in-blue/#_ftn10.
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10. Schneider, Wayne, editor. The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin. Oxford University Press, 1999.
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12. Shadle, Douglas W. “Did Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony Transform American Music?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/arts/music/dvorak-new-world-symphony.html.
13. Singer, Barry. Ever After: The Last Years of Musical Theater and Beyond. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004.
14. Starr, Larry. George Gershwin. Yale Univ. Press, 2011.
15. Wyatt, Robert, and John Andrew. Johnson. The George Gershwin Reader. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.