Guitar Heroes
George Gershwin 1898-1937
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
Oil and Water Do Mix

The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and from the blues. It was nevertheless in Europe, where American dance bands were very popular, that composers first incorporated the new idiom into their classical compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).

It was however Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and more respectable, with the famous concert at Aeolian Hall in New York in 1924, which introduced Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. With his Concerto in F of 1925, Gershwin was also the first to introduce jazz into those two bastions of classical music, the piano concerto and Carnegie Hall.

Until the Aeolian Hall concert, jazz had been music to dance to; Whiteman taught his audience to listen to it. Once the ice was broken and jazz made "respectable," many composers made use of the new idiom. In addition to American composers, many Europeans included the new language into their works. Dmitry Shostakovich, under the noses of the commissars, used it in his variations on Tahiti Trot (“Tea for Two”.)

The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I.

Rhapsody in Blue

The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, George Gershwin was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.

Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from Whiteman following an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs.

Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. It was immediately orchestrated for piano and jazz orchestra by Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as they came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full orchestra.

The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring musical contribution, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.

It is useful to be aware that the rhapsody and fantasia of the classical tradition were the genres most related to jazz in that they embodied both freedom of form and improvisation or improvisatory writing. Gershwin's – and Grofé's – take on the form transfers the jazz idiom into a work Liszt would have been proud to have written.

The Rhapsody opens with probably the most famous clarinet riff in music history. Example 1 It is answered by the horns with the principal counter-theme. Example 2 Nearly three quarters of the way through the piece, the tempo slows and the Rhapsody's next "big theme" is introduced. Example 3
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014