Friday Feb. 12, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Rhapsody in Blue
On this Day:
In 1924, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” premiered at an influential concert “Experiment in Modern Music” held by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, NYC.
Rhapsody in Blue is a 1924 musical composition by the American composer George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band, which synthesizes elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. The composition was commissioned at the request of bandleader Paul Whiteman. The piece received its premiere in the concert, “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York City, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The work was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, the 1926 “theater orchestra” setting, and the 1942 symphony orchestra scoring.
Upon the conclusion of the rhapsody, there was “tumultuous applause for Gershwin’s composition,” and, quite unexpectedly, “the concert, in every respect but the financial, was a ‘knockout’.” The concert itself would become historically significant due to the premiere of the rhapsody, and its program would “become not only a historic document, finding its way into foreign monographs on jazz, but a rarity as well.”
The rhapsody is regarded as one of Gershwin’s most recognizable creations and as a key composition which defined the historical period known as the Jazz Age. The Nation has described Gershwin’s piece as inaugurating a new era in America’s musical history. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks have posited that “the Rhapsody in Blue (1924) established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works.” The American Heritage magazine notes that the famous opening clarinet glissando has become as instantly recognizable to concert audiences as Beethoven’s Fifth.
According to critic Orrin Howard of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gershwin’s rhapsody “made an indelible mark on the history of American music, on the fraternity of serious composers and performers—many of whom were present at the premiere—and on Gershwin himself, for its enthusiastic reception encouraged him to other and more serious projects.”
Howard posits that the song’s legacy is best understood as embodying the cultural zeitgeist of the Jazz Age: “Beginning with that incomparable, flamboyant clarinet solo, Rhapsody is irresistible still, with its syncopated rhythmic vibrancy, its abandoned, impudent flair that tells more about the Roaring Twenties than could a thousand words, and its genuine melodic beauty colored a deep, jazzy blue by the flatted sevenths and thirds that had their origins in the African-American slave songs.” Although Gershwin’s rhapsody “was by no means a definitive example of jazz in the Jazz Age,” music historians such as James Ciment and Floyd Levin have similarly concluded that it is the key composition that encapsulates the spirit of the era.
As early as 1927, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald opined that Rhapsody in Blue idealized the youthful zeitgeist of the Jazz Age. In subsequent decades, both the latter era and Fitzgerald’s related literary works have been often culturally linked by critics and scholars with Gershwin’s composition. Accordingly, Rhapsody in Blue was used as a dramatic leitmotif for the character of Jay Gatsby in the 2013 film The Great Gatsby, a cinematic adaptation of Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel.
Various writers, such as American playwright Terry Teachout, have also likened Gershwin himself to the character of Gatsby due to his attempt to transcend his lower-class background, his abrupt meteoric success, and his early death while in his thirties (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
B flat, E flat, and G flat walk into a bar. The bartender stops them and says, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve minors here.”
Second, a Song:
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz, 26 September 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, of Russian-Jewish immigrants. As a boy he could play popular and classical works on his brother Ira’s piano by ear. In 1913 he quit school to study music and began composing for Tin Pan Alley; by 1919 he had his first hit “Swanee” and his first Broadway show “La, La, Lucille.” In less than three weeks in 1924 he composed “Rhapsody in Blue,” originally for Paul Whiteman’s relatively small swing band and later orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.
“Concerto in F” followed the next year, and his musical success “Oh, Kay!” (which included “Someone to Watch Over Me”) the year after that. Success continued: “Funny Face” (1927), the tone poem “American in Paris” (1928), “Girl Crazy” (1929), “Of Thee I Sing” (1931 the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize), and the first true American opera: “Porgy and Bess” (1935). He moved to Hollywood where his songs were performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1937 he fell in love with Paulette Goddard, then married to Charlie Chaplin. He was heartbroken that she would not leave her husband for him. When he fell ill, that June, it was written off as stress. A month later he died of a brain tumor, five hours after a failed surgical attempt to remove it. Funerals were held in both Hollywood and New York (from IMDb.com).
Rhapsody in Blue is a 1945 fictionalized screen biography of the American composer and musician George Gershwin (1898–1937) released by Warner Brothers.
Starring Robert Alda as Gershwin, the film features a few of Gershwin’s acquaintances (including Paul Whiteman, Al Jolson, and Oscar Levant) playing themselves. Alexis Smith and Joan Leslie play fictional women in Gershwin’s life, Morris Carnovsky and Rosemary De Camp play Gershwin’s parents, and Herbert Rudley portrays Ira Gershwin. Oscar Levant also recorded most of the piano playing in the movie, and also dubbed Alda’s piano playing. Both the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris are performed nearly completely, the “Rhapsody…” debut of 1924 conducted, as it was originally, by Whiteman himself (per Wikipedia).
Here is an excerpt from the film featuring George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I hope you enjoy this!
The full film is available for rent for $4.99 CDN from the YouTube.com website above.
Thought for the Day:
“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky