George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

[Ed note: There is a video at the bottom of the main article; you may wish to listen to the music while you read this story from mental_floss magazine.]

When Rhapsody in Blue premiered at New York's Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924, most people couldn't wait for the evening to be over. The piece was scheduled near the end of a long program called "An Experiment in Modern Music." After two sluggish hours, the audience was bored, restless, and drenched in sweat due to the hall's broken ventilation system. But then, a lone clarinet pierced through the orchestra, fizzing upward like a fountain of champagne. Suddenly, everyone was riveted.

For the next 17 minutes, George Gershwin, an unknown 26-year-old composer, caressed and pounded the piano at center stage, chasing the orchestra through a thrill ride of skyrocketing notes. It was an unforgettable debut -one that brought new respect to jazz and helped redefine classical music. Today, Rhapsody in Blue is one of the 10 most-performed works of the 20th century, right up there with "Happy Birthday" and "White Christmas."


When George Gershwin was 11, he overheard a friend playing Anton Dvorak's Humoresque No 7  on the violin. The music provoked "a flashing revelation" that hooked Gershwin immediately. He began sneaking over to a neighbor's house in Brooklyn to teach himself to play different instruments. A year later, when Gershwin's mother brought home a secondhand upright piano, the family was stunned to see George sit down and tear through vaudeville tunes. From then on, he was glued to the ivories. A few years of formal lessons followed, but his teachers could barely keep up with Gershwin's prodigious talent.

At 15, Gershwin quit school and took a job as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley, New York's music publishing district. Song pluggers were basically pianists who sold sheet music by demonstrating the latest tunes for singers, dancers, and producers. With his outgoing personality, Gershwin was a natural, often weaving in his own musical ideas to liven up the pieces. Before long, he became a full-time songwriter, When he was 21, he penned his first hit, "Swanee," made famous by blackface entertainer Al Jolson. The 1920s equivalent of a Beyoncé single, "Swanee" spent nine weeks at No. 1, selling one million copies of sheet music and two million records. Soon Broadway came calling, and Gershwin became, in his own modest words, "a fairly busy young composer."


As Gershwin was blossoming, a bandleader named Phil Whiteman took notice of his talent. In the early 1920s, Whiteman had been instrumental in getting white musicians to pay attention to "black" music. But in 1924, he had a new idea: Whiteman wanted to introduce symphony audiences to jazz. He invited Gershwin -along with better known composers Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert- to write pieces that combined jazz with classical melodies, hoping to present it all in one fantastic concert called "An Experiment in Modern Music."

Gershwin agreed to write a concerto for Whiteman's "Experiment," but five weeks before the scheduled performance, he had nothing. He'd been busy working on a Broadway show and hadn't had time to put his ideas together. He called Whiteman to bow out, but the bandleader refused to let him off the hook. He persuaded the young talent to stay in the program and motivated him to get to work. Reluctantly, Gershwin agreed to compose a rhapsody -a free-form orchestral piece with just a hint of bluesy improvisation.

With the clock ticking, Gershwin began squeezing in writing sessions between rehearsals for his Broadway show and scribbling notes in the back of taxis. Three weeks before the performance, during a rail trip from New York to Boston, the whole piece came together: Inspired by the "steely rhythms" and "rattley-bang" of the train, Gershwin finished the piece in a fury of inspiration.

Gershwin wanted the rhapsody to seem emotional and spontaneous. He even included a blank page in the score that simply said, "Piano Solo: Wait for Nod." That sort of breathing room for free expression was rare in the structured world of classical music. In fact, on the night of the premiere, Gershwin improvised the solo on the spot. Even today, the ad-libbed section remains in the score, meaning that no two performances of Rhapsody in Blue are ever the same.

A few weeks after its debut, Gershwin reprised Rhapsody in Blue at Carnegie Hall. Although audiences adored it, critics complained that it was too "formless" to be called classical and too "rigid" for jazz. Still, Gershwin toured the country playing Rhapsody in Blue, and by year's end, it had become a kind of unofficial national anthem, embodying all the fun and swagger of the Roaring '20s.


Since 1924, there have been more than 75 recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, including acclaimed renditions by conductor Leonard Bernstein and composer Duke Ellinton. The music has inspired film composers such as John Williams and Randy Newman, as well as rock bands ranging from The Beach Boys to Phish. In fact, as one of the first crossover symphonic pieces, Rhapsody in Blue helped to create the pop concert, in which orchestras play a mix of popular tunes and classical works.

For Gershwin, Rhapsody was only a stepping stone in his career. Until his death from brain cancer in 1937, he enjoyed nearly constant success. Gershwin's 1929 An American in Paris became a standard with American and European symphonies, and his revolutionary 1935 African-American "folk opera," Porgy and Bess, gave us such classics as "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Summertime." He even became the first American-born composer to appear on the cover of Time magazine. But despite all of his successes, Rhapsody in Blue remains Gershwin's crowning achievement, the moment when he captured the spirit of a modern nation.

(YouTube link)
Performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.



The opening phrase of Rhapsody in Blue may be the most recognizable 17 notes in American music. A clarinet trills, gliding upwards in a jazzy arc, then falls in two swaggering notes. The original clarinetist, Ross Gorman, decided to make the phrase "smear," running the notes together in one continuous swoop. Gershwin loved the effect so much he added it to the score. (Image credit: Dono)


Originally titled American Rhapsody, George's lyricist brother Ira suggested renaming the piece to include color, like James Whistler had done with paintings such as "Arrangement in Grey and Black" (better known as "Whistler's Mother"). Ira and George both felt that the new title better captured the bluesy feeling of the piece.


Halfway through Rhapsody, the piece shifts into a dreamy, romantic mood that was once called "a swollen hymn to Eros." This section, known as the "andantino moderato," is one of the most-referenced themes in popular music, appearing in everything from Woody Allen's Manhattan to a series of United Airlines TV commercials.

(YouTube link)


The version of Rhapsody in Blue that we know today is not quite the same as the one that premiered in 1924. Originally, composer Ferde Grofé arranged Gershwin's score for a small orchestra of only 21 musicians. But through the years, Grofé grew to love Rhapsody so much that he kept expanding its orchestration, adding instruments to capture its full grandeur.


In 2009, Gershwin's estate gave some of the composer's unfinished songs to Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys. Wilson plans to finish writing the songs and release them later this year. [Ed. note: That album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, was released in 2010.]


The article above, written by Bill DeMain, is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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Being brought up on classical music and listening to Motown as a tween, Rhapsody in Blue was as strange to me as Frank Zappa. While its mother was classical, the father seemed more show tunes than jazz. It was only later that I understood that it was both the period at the end of one and the capital letter to start the other.
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