Rhapsody in Blue
Backdrop: The 1920s - The Age of Jazz
The novel rhythms of black America sweep musical America and white band leaders catch on.
Jazz reshapes the styles and fires the imaginations of musicians and songwriters, spawning new
musical ideas. Critics rave about Broadway's fast rising tunesmith - George Gershwin, and his
innovative treatment of jazz.
came to be:
Sometime in late 1923, the bandleader Paul Whiteman asked George Gershwin to think about
writing a jazz piece for his band. Gershwin gave it some thought, sketched some possible
themes, and left it at that. On January 4, 1924 to his surprise, a report appeared in the
announcing that George Gershwin was at work on a "jazz concerto" to be premiered by
the Whiteman Band at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, in a concert to be called
An Experiment in Modern Music.
At the time, he was in the thick of his Broadway commitments
and the jazz concerto was barely more than a thought, but Gershwin's genius rose to the
occasion. He would later point to the rhythm and rattle of the Boston train he was once on as the
source of his rhythmic ideas, and to James McNeill Whistler's painting
Nocturne in Black and
as the inspiration for
title. On February 12, at the appointed time, which was
toward the end of the programme, he delivered his first large-scale work - to an audience that
included luminaries like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, and Efrem Zimbalist, Sr. The
wailing of the clarinet as the work opened could only have seduced the audience.
a huge success, the day's most talked about musical "experiment" eclipsing the rest of the
programme. It was very American in its daring and its energy. And like America, it was a
veritable "melting pot" of the influences that shaped Gershwin's musical language - Scott Joplin's
tuneful piano rags, the rhythmic jazz of Harlem's clubs, the folk music of the Yiddish theater,
and the new post-Romantic music of Ravel and Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It was a stunning
performance, with George Gershwin himself playing the piano solo.
was a great "hit"
through the years and in its first decade (which included the Depression years) earned the
composer big bucks - over $250,000. A fortune in those days. An uncommon reward for a most
What the critics said:
daring novelty, most critics found it possible to think of George
Gershwin, then only 25, as a composer of "serious" music. But for many years some critics were
of two minds about
- praising ".
..the rich inventiveness of its rhythms, the saliency and
vividness of the orchestral color" while lamenting the loose, episodic nature of its musical
themes and ".
..the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so
..." And when it became known that
was orchestrated by Whiteman's
chief arranger, Ferde Grofé (who would later compose the