Rhapsody in Blue: Gershwin's Integration of Styles
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Rhapsody in Blue: Gershwin's Integration of Styles

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 is the fusion of jazz and classical music in its earliest form.

“…true music…must repeat the thought and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is today…”- George Gershwin 1925

George Gershwin believed there should be no unbridgeable chasm between popular and serious music, and wrote in both styles throughout his career. Gershwin began his career as a song "plugger" for a music publisher and eventually he became one of America's most gifted composers of popular songs, musicals, piano and orchestral works. Practically from the beginning of his career, Gershwin began the practice of preserving musical ideas in notebooks upon which he could draw when the need arose for a theme or rhythmic idea. He was soon collaborating with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin as well as composing successful musicals of his own, the first of which was La La Lucille, which opened on Broadway in May 1919. Collaborating often with his brother Ira, George Gershwin became one of America's most revered composers.

It is mainly since George Gershwin's death that complete awareness of his musical importance has become almost universal. The little defects in his major works - the occasional awkward modulations, the strained transitions, the obscure instrumentation - no longer appear quite so important as they did several decades ago. What many did not realize then - and what they now know - is that the intrinsically vital qualities of Gershwin's works reduce these technical flaws to insignificance. The music is so alive, so freshly conceived, and put down on paper with such spontaneity and enthusiasm that its youthful spirit refuses to age. The capacity of these scores to enchant and magnetize audiences remains as great today, even with familiarity, as it was yesterday, when they came upon the world with the freshness of novelty.

Rhapsody in Blue fused African and American folk music and reconciled the improvisational style of jazz and classical orchestral traditions. The work has become a milestone and turning point in the development of American music. Paul Whiteman's concert of new American music on February 12, 1924 was a day of emancipation for Gershwin and those who have followed his sincere example. Ever since that historic concert, George Gershwin has been regarded as the first composer to have succeeded in producing symphonic jazz. Gershwin had almost forgotten Whiteman's invitation to contribute to the program. Opening a newspaper early in January 1924, he saw an announcement of the concert and was astonished to learn that he was at work on a concerto for piano. This was news to Gershwin.

There was no set plan in his mind, only a purpose: to disprove the feeling about the limitation of jazz; that it was bound to dance rhythms. Gershwin ended that misconception. He composed rapidly, inspired by the problem and by shortness of time. The Rhapsody in Blue is his only serious work that was not orchestrated by him, circumstances demanding that Ferde Grofé do the instrumentation.

When Gershwin finally set himself to work on the new piece, he had only an intention which he once described thus: "Suddenly an idea occurred to me. There had been so much chattering about the limitations of jazz...jazz...had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow." Upon completion of the work, the composer said “I tried to express our manner of living, the tempo of our modern life with its speed and chaos and vitality.”

Rhapsody in Blue was premiered on February 12, 1924 at New York's Aeolian Hall with Paul Whiteman's jazz band and Gershwin as the piano soloist, at a concert titled "An Experiment in Modern Music." The concert attempted to trace the history of jazz. It included "semi-symphonic" settings of songs by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert's Suite of Serenades, also composed for the occasion. But among all the works in the concert, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was by far the outstanding work of the event. Setting the fashion for "crossover" works incorporating jazz into concert works, the Rhapsody achieved instant success and catapulted Gershwin's stature from that of merely a talented writer of Tin Pan Alley tunes to that of a "serious" composer. In the words of Olin Downes, the twenty-five-year old Gershwin had burst upon the serious music scene as "a new talent finding its voice." World acclaim of the Rhapsody in Blue followed shortly afterwards.

Revenue from recordings, performances and score rentals of Rhapsody in Blue following its premiere accelerated Gershwin’s career. In early 1925 he moved his family to an elegant townhouse on New York’s upper west side, where he began to put more emphasis on composing concert music.

* Recommended listening: This is a historical performance of the Whiteman Orchestra with Gershwin at the piano. This is only an example. Please support those who work in the arts by purchasing music and art legally.

* Cover image: Gershwin at the piano. 


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Comments (6)

Love Gershwin . There's nothing like the opening of Rhapsody with the spectacular clarinet solo.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

I love this piece; you can hear the pulse of New York in it.

I bought a (vinyl) record of the New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein!) doing this when I was a teenager and I literally wore it out. It's an all time favorite of mine, and Gershwin is an all time favorite composer. Great article.

A great classical piece indeed.

Thank you Pat and Deep Blue. Pat, the recording linked here is much older than yours was. You'll notice subtle differences such as the fudging of rhythms in this older one. After Gershwin's death, the generations of conductors that followed took the score more literally and made fewer adjustments to the tempo. Keep in mind that Gershwin was by no means a music scholar and in fact, to this day musicologists debate the fact that he may have been musically iliterate. But that is another topic for another day. :-)

Rhapsody in Blue is my favorite of George Gershwin. I had the great pleasure of having front row seats, twice, to watch Jazz Guitarist, Larry Coryell, perform Rhapsody in Blue with intense playing of artistic expression. Gershwin is one of the 20th century American greats.