Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Posted on 16th January 2024 at 12:04
This month our blog explores the life and work of George Gershwin. Famous as a songwriter with his brother, Ira, Gershwin mixed European Classical music traditions with Blues and Jazz to create a sound that is particularly linked to his birth city of New York.
Despite a relatively short life, Gershwin's musical output was huge, including musicals, an opera, orchestral music and film scores.
The Model Music Curriculum suggests listening to two of his most famous songs “I Got Rhythm” and “Summertime” as well as “Rhapsody in Blue”.
This blog explores “Rhapsody in Blue” and suggests activities linked to creating arrangements.
Image credit: Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
George Gershwin was born on 26th September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Moishe Gershowitz (later Morris Gershwine) and Roza Bruskina, first met in Vilnius, Lithuania. Both later moved to New York, where the pair married. George, originally named Jacob Gershwine, was the second son, after Ira.
When George was about 10, his parents bought Ira a piano, however it was George who enjoyed playing. After lessons with various teachers, Gershwin met Charles Hambitzer in about 1913 who taught him piano technique as well as introducing him to the European Classical tradition. Hambitzer continued to be Gershwin’s mentor until his death in 1918. Hambritzer wrote to his sister:
“I have a pupil who will make his mark in music if anybody will. The boy is a genius, without a doubt … He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and what not. But I’m not going to let him for a while. I’ll see that he gets a firm foundation in the standard music first”
At 15, Gershwin left school to work in Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, initially promoting the works of publisher Jerome H. Remick and Company. Gershwin’s first published song "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em" appeared in 1916.
He recorded many piano rolls (the precursor to records) both of his own works and others. His first big success was “Swanee” when Al Jolson added it to one of his shows in 1919. It became Gershwin’s biggest selling song, selling 1 million sheet music copies and 2 million records. In 1920, Gershwin began a long association with William Daly, with their first Broadway musical “Piccadilly to Broadway”.
The Great Songwriter
In 1924, Gershwin wrote what went on to become his most famous instrumental work, “Rhapsody in Blue” for Paul Whiteman’s Band. Later that year, Gershwin collaborated with his brother, Ira, on the musical “Lady Be Good” which included songs such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good”.
Gershwin moved to Paris in the mid-1920s, planning to study with Nadia Boulanger, however she refused to teach him, citing concerns that classical study would negatively impact his jazz style. It’s suggested that both Schoenberg and Ravel also refused to teach him for similar reasons. While in Paris, Gershwin wrote “An American in Paris”, which, despite mixed reviews following its premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1928, went on to be performed regularly both in Europe and America.
Back in New York in 1929, Gershwin continued to work with Ira and wrote two of their most popular songs “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” for the musical “Girl Crazy”. In 1931, the Gershwins wrote “Of Thee I Sing” with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The musical is a satire on politics of the day and led to Ira, Kaufman and Ryskind being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama - it was the first musical to win this award.
In 1934, Gershwin began work on “Porgy and Bess” based on DuBose Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy, which Heyward also wrote as a play with Dorothy Heyward. Gershwin described “Porgy and Bess” as a “folk-opera” and it was performed in 1935 by a cast of African-American singers, which was unusual at the time. Unfortunately the work was not a commercial success, despite the popularity of songs such as “Summertime” with lyrics by Heyward and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with lyrics by Ira.
Gershwin moved to Hollywood in 1936 and wrote the score for the film Shall We Dance for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Just a year later, Gershwin began suffering from headaches and mood swings. In July 1937 he collapsed, falling into a coma. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died a few days later.
Rhapsody in Blue
Gershwin wrote "Rhapsody in Blue" between 7th January and 3rd February 1924. It was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Grofé made a total of three arrangements of the piece - the original Big Band version, an arrangement in 1926 for pit orchestra or theatre orchestra and a full symphonic version in 1942.
Whiteman was one the most popular bandleaders of 1920s America, and was given the title “King of Jazz”.
“Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered in a concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City called “An Experiment in Modern Music” on 12th February 1924. It was performed by Paul Whiteman’s band with Gershwin as soloist.
Gershwin had originally turned down the commission as he had a musical comedy “Sweet Little Devil” due to open in late January, but the New York Tribune ran a story that he was “at work on a jazz concerto,” for the event. Gershwin was persuaded to write the piece by Whiteman on the agreement that the composer would supply a piano score and Grofé would do the arrangement.
The piece was originally named “American Rhapsody”, but Gershwin changed the title on the recommendation of his brother, Ira, to Rhapsody in Blue. Ira had been to an exhibition of work by the Artist Whistler and saw the painting “Nocturne in Blue and Green”. By mixing the European concept of a Rhapsody with the American influences of Blues, the title captures the mix of musical influences evident in the piece.
It has been reported that audience members at the premiere included composers John Philip Sousa, Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky, the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the conductor Leopold Stokowski.
W. J. Henderson of the New York Herald commented on the day after the premiere:
“Mr Gershwin’s composition proved to be a highly ingenious work, treating the piano in a manner calling for much technical skill and furnishing an orchestral background in which saxophones, trombones and clarinets are merged in a really skilful piece of orchestration. If this way lies the path toward the development of American modern music into a high art form, then one can heartily congratulate Mr Gershwin on his disclosure of some of the possibilities.”
The piece starts with a solo clarinet in a now well-known trill followed by a glissando or swoop. Olin Downes of the New York Times wrote “His first theme alone, with its caprice, humour and exotic outline, shows a talent to be reckoned with.” Gershwin had originally written out the ascending run, but the clarinettist, Russ Gorman, improvised the swoop in rehearsal and Gershwin asked him to keep it in.
A musical “Rhapsody” is a piece of music in one continual movement that has a number of musical themes within a free flowing structure. The themes are usually in contrasted moods.
"Rhapsody in Blue’"s opening themes use various elements of Blues and Latin music, and the second main theme has a March feel to it while retaining elements of the Blues. The slow, smooth (legato) melody has been likened to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful melodies. This tune is interrupted by a piano cadenza using elements of the opening themes, before a recap of the main themes and a grand finale.
Gershwin himself said of the work:
“The “Rhapsody in Blue” represents what I have been striving for since my earliest compositions. I wanted to show that jazz is an idiom not to be limited to a mere song and chorus that consumed three minutes in presentation … I succeeded in showing that jazz is not merely a dance, it comprises bigger themes and purposes.”
2 Soprano Saxophones
2 Alto Saxophones
2 French Horns
A score from the George and Ira Gershwin Collection shows the hand written notes for piano and Jazz Band (JB). Note the score starts on page 11.
Although Grofé made 3 arrangements of “Rhapsody in Blue”, many more arrangements have been made including this version for piano performed by Gershwin himself:
Building on the activity from our blog on Dvořák’s “Symphony No 9” 2nd Movement on adding words to an instrumental piece, our activity relating to “Rhapsody in Blue” is to make an arrangement of either an instrumental or a vocal piece.
In Pop music, when an artist sings a song recorded by another artist it is called a “cover”. These can be exact copies of the original recording or they can be new arrangements or interpretations.
Things to consider when making arrangements are:
What instrument(s) or voices will you use? Will you keep some instruments/ voices the same as the original or will you change the instrumentation completely?
Will you keep the arrangement at the same speed or will your arrangement be faster or slower than the original?
Will you keep one melody from the piece or use multiple melodies?
Will you use the same dynamics or will you use volume to emphasise certain elements of the piece?
Will you keep the piece in the same musical style or make changes? (E.g. turn Classical music into Jazz or Pop)
For some ideas on how to change the genre of a piece, have a look at one of our previous activities.
Here are some examples of interesting cover songs.
“You’re The One That I Want” from Grease
"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen
"Blank Space" by Taylor Swift
Tagged as: GEORGE GERSHIWN, JAZZ, JAZZ LEGENDS, JAZZ MUSIC, RHAPSODY IN BLUE, SONG WRITING, SONGWRITING
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