Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, for Piano and Orchestra

George Gershwin was born September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, and died July 11, 1937, in Hollywood, California. He composed his Rhapsody in Blue from January 7 through February 3, 1924, with Ferde Grofé creating the work’s original scoring for solo piano with jazz band. Ferde (Ferdinand Rudolf von) Grofé was born in New York on March 27, 1892, and died in Santa Monica, California on April 3, 1972. The work was premiered February 12, 1924, at New York’s Aeolian Hall, with Paul Whiteman leading his orchestra and the composer as piano soloist. In 1926, Grofé followed up with the version for solo piano and full symphony orchestra heard in these performances. While the work has been performed many times by the San Francisco Symphony, this week’s performances are the first on subscription concerts since 1975. Grofé’s symphonic arrangement calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, two alto saxophones and one tenor saxophone, three horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, gong, banjo, and strings, in addition to the solo piano. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

George Gershwin, his brother Ira, and the songwriter “Buddy” De Sylva were killing time in a pool-hall on January 3, 1924, when Ira, engrossed in the New York Tribune, happened on an article announcing that the bandleader Paul Whiteman, a one-time violist with the Denver and San Francisco symphonies but now a leading light of popular music, would shortly present a concert in New York that promised to broaden concert-goers’ conception of what serious American music could be. Neither Ira nor his brother were prepared for the article’s revelation that “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.” A new jazz concerto was news to Gershwin.

A phone call to Whiteman the next day elicited the explanation that the bandleader had been planning such a concert for some time in the future; but a rival conductor had suddenly announced plans for a similar program of pieces drawing on both classical and jazz styles, a development that forced Whiteman to move up his schedule if he didn’t want to look like a copycat. Whiteman also reminded Gershwin that he had broached the idea of such a work a year and a half earlier, when his orchestra had unveiled Gershwin’s song “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” in George White’s Scandals of 1922. Later Gershwin would come around to allowing that there was at least some connection between the two projects when he wrote of the Scandals: “My association with Whiteman in this show I am sure had something to do with Paul’s asking me to write a composition for his first jazz concert. As you may know, I wrote the Rhapsody in Blue for that occasion, and there is no doubt that this was my start in the field of more serious music.”

He rose to the challenge, though not without extracting certain concessions from Whiteman. Given the short lead-time (not to mention the novelty of such a piece), a full-length concerto was out of the question. But Gershwin would commit to a free-form work, a rhapsody of some sort, which would spotlight him as the soloist backed by the Whiteman band, which was to be expanded for the occasion by quite a few instruments. He was uneasy about the prospect of orchestrating his piece; in his Broadway work, he had always followed the customary practice of simply writing the tunes and leaving the instrumentation to an arranger. Whiteman promptly informed Ferde Grofé, his own staff arranger since 1920, to clear his desk for a new project.

On January 7, Gershwin began setting down notes for his rhapsody, which he notated in a score for two pianos—one representing the solo part, the other the orchestra (including certain suggestions about possible instrumentation). Grofé later recalled, “I practically lived too in their uptown Amsterdam and 100th Street apartment, for I called there daily for more pages. . . .  He and his brother Ira had a back room where there was an upright piano, and that is where Rhapsody in Blue grew into being.”

It was Ira who came up with the title, inspired by a visit to a gallery showing an exhibit of paintings by James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Whistler was drawn to titling his paintings—no matter how representational—with completely abstract titles, such as the famous “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (popularly nicknamed “Whistler’s Mother”). The Gershwin brothers took a shine to the concept, and found a musical equivalent in the title Rhapsody in Blue. The word “blue” naturally evokes “the Blues,” and, by extension, jazz. Various aspects of jazz vocabulary certainly are prominent in the Rhapsody in Blue—this was the point of the repertory Whiteman programmed in his “Experiment in Modern Music”—but at heart this is a symphonic work, and its ancestry lies more in the direction of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt than Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and W.C. Handy.

Gershwin devoted about a month to writing the piece, but it shared his schedule with other projects, including a trip to Boston for the premiere of his musical Sweet Little Devil. Gershwin recalled: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer. . . . And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end. . . . 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 notated the work’s opening as a low clarinet trill followed by a scale rising rapidly through 17 notes. At a rehearsal, Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman—perhaps out of boredom, perhaps as a joke—elided the notes into a sweeping ribbon of uninterrupted pitches, after which there was no turning back. That opening glissando became an iconic sound of American music. After that, Gershwin presents forthright thematic material: an oscillating bluesy tune, then a brazen march-like melody, finally a grandly romantic theme in the strings. The premiere made such an effect that two years later Grofé reworked the orchestration to make the piece available to standard symphony orchestras, and that is how Gershwin’s groundbreaking piece is typically encountered today.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas has recorded Rhapsody in Blue three times using the original jazz-orchestra version: as pianist and conductor with the New World Symphony (RCA) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony Classical); and conducting the Columbia Jazz Band with the piano solo coming from the piano roll Gershwin himself made in 1925 (Sony Classical)  |  For the symphonic version, Justin Brown conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (Bridge); Leonard Bernstein (as conductor and pianist) with the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical); André Previn (as conductor and pianist) with the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI)

Reading: Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, by David Schiff (Cambridge Music Handbooks)  |  George Gershwin: His Life and Work, by Howard Pollack (University of California Press)  |  The Gershwins, by Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon (Atheneum)