Song of the Day: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Rhapsody in Blue is a 1924 musical composition by American composer George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects.

Commissioned by a bandleader Paul Whiteman, the composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, “theater orchestra” setting published in 1926, and the symphony orchestra scoring published in 1942, though completed earlier. 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, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks opined 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.”

Composition

Since there were only five weeks left, Gershwin hastily set about composing a piece, and on the train journey to Boston, the ideas of Rhapsody in Blue came to his mind. He told his first biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1931:

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.

Gershwin began his work on January 7 as dated on the original manuscript for two pianos. The piece was titled “American Rhapsody” during composition. The title Rhapsody in Blue was suggested by Ira Gershwin after his visit to a gallery exhibition of James McNeill Whistler paintings, which bear titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and Arrangement in Grey and Black (better known as Whistler’s Mother). After a few weeks, Gershwin finished his composition and passed the score to Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the piece, finishing it on February 4, only eight days before the premiere.

Responses

By the end of 1927, Whiteman’s band had played the Rhapsody eighty-four times, and its recording sold a million copies. Whiteman later adopted the piece as his band’s theme song, and opened his radio programs with the slogan “Everything new but the Rhapsody in Blue.

The piece received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Olin Downes, reviewing the concert in The New York Times:

This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master… In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form…. His first theme… is no mere dance-tune… it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin’s colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice… There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin’s composition.

Another reviewer, Lawrence Gilman, a Richard Wagner specialist who later wrote a famously devastating review of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, commenting on the Rhapsody in the New York Tribune on February 13, 1924, said:

How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! … Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!

Some critics described the piece as formless, and claimed that Gershwin only glued his melodic segments together into one piece. Pitts Sanborn wrote that the music “runs off into empty passage-work and meaningless repetition”. In an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1955, Leonard Bernstein, who nevertheless admitted that he loved the piece, wrote:

The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific – inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.

In popular culture

Although Gershwin himself spoke of the rhapsody as “a musical kaleidoscope of America”, Rhapsody in Blue has often been interpreted as a musical portrait of New York City; it is used to this effect in the films Manhattan and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, as well as extensively in this context in a segment from the film Fantasia 2000, in which the piece is used as the lyrical framing for a stylized animation set drawn in the style of famed illustrator Al Hirschfeld, to critical acclaim.

  • Brian Wilson has said on multiple occasions that “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of his favorite pieces. It was also a heavy influence on his Smile album. Michael Stipe of REM has cited this as one of the largest influences in his musical development.
  • Gordon Goodwin has arranged “Rhapsody in Blue” for big band, winning the 2012 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
  • In the Broadway version of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, set in 1920’s New York, George Gershwin and his wife make a cameo appearance, with George finding the inspiration for “Rhapsody in Blue” from a dress.
  • Rhapsody in Blue has been used by United States-based air carrier United Airlines in their advertisements since the mid-1980s. In more recent advertisements, the instruments used reflect the theme, including a version played by traditionally Asian instruments in conjunction with publicizing the carrier’s major presence in trans-Pacific travel.
  • Rhapsody in Blue has also been used in connection with various IBM products, including the PCjr.
  • Rhapsody in Blue was played simultaneously by eighty-four pianists at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
  • The a cappella group The Bobs performed an a cappella version of Rhapsody in Blue titled Rhapsody in Bob on their 2005 album of the same name.
  • Ilia Kulik of Russia used the adaptation from Rhapsody in Blue in his free skate program in 1998, eventually winning a gold medal in figure skating in 1998 Winter Olympics.
  • The title theme from the animated TV series The Critic is a tribute to Rhapsody in Blue, the show being based in New York City.
  • The piece was performed by Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang at the 50th Grammy Awards on February 10, 2008.
  • A melodica version of the piece was performed in the manga, the Japanese television drama and the anime, Nodame Cantabile. A short version of the piece was also used as the ending theme tune in the drama.
  • The central theme of Rhapsody in Blue is used as a riff in The Electric Light Orchestra’s “Birmingham Blues” off their 1977 hit album Out of the Blue.
  • The main theme is also used during the opening saxophone solo in the Sublime song “What Happened” from their 1992 album 40oz. to Freedom as well as in the trombone solo in What I Got.
  • Pop artist Ben Folds frequently inserts interpolations of the theme from Rhapsody in Blue during the outro of his song “Philosophy,” notably during the live recorded performance of Ben Folds Fivefor Sessions at West 54th.
  • AC/DC has a song in the Australian version of their 1977 album Let There Be Rock, the title of which parodies Rhapsody in Blue, called “Crabsody in Blue.” Possibly because of this fact, the song was replaced with “Problem Child” in the American version.
  • Themes from Rhapsody in Blue appear in the Phish song “Bathtub Gin,” from the album Lawn Boy.
  • The BBC revival of Doctor Who uses Rhapsody in Blue as part of its musical score in the third series episode “Daleks in Manhattan”. A variation of the piece was also used in the special Christmas episode “The Runaway Bride.”
  • It can be found in the Nintendo Wii Game Little King’s Story throughout the entire Primetime Kingdom, including the fight with King TV Dinnah.
  • The TV show Glee used it in the opening scene of the season two finale titled “New York.”
  • Galaxy chocolate used the theme during their UK TV advertising campaign of the late ’80s/early ’90s.
  • In the 2013 film The Great Gatsby, the score of this theme is used during Gatsby’s grand entrance, though the novel is set in 1922, before the music was written.
  • The 1974 album Tasty by The Good Rats, includes the song “Songwriter” by Peppi Marchello. It inclues the lyrics “Hey there Mr. Gershwin, Gone at thirty eight, Gave so much, and yet so much to give, And I thank you for the Rhapsody in Blue, And I must confess sometimes I think I’m you.”
  • The title of the 1976 album Ratcity in Blue by The Good Rats, is a word play on Rhapsody in Blue.

George Gershwin

Born Jacob Gershvin
September 26, 1898
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died July 11, 1937 (aged 38)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Musical composer, pianist
Years active 1916–37

image by *PascalCampion

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