“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.”
Paul Whiteman Commissions “Rhapsody in Blue”
This was the review of Olin Downes in the New York Times for George Gershwin’s work “Rhapsody in Blue” which premiered on this date, February 12, in 1924. The “young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk” was a theme that Gershwin had frequently to deal with. Jazz was still an up and coming art form back in the early 1920’s, and it had yet to win broad acceptance within the world of the arts, particularly the rarefied world of the concert hall. To base what was effectively a symphonic concert piece on something as modern and free-wheeling as Jazz was a decidedly bold step on the part of the young composer. But band leader Paul Whiteman thought that the time was right for such a move. Whiteman had performed in a classical/jazz concert the previous November with the Canadian-French singer Eva Gauthier and it had been a success. Now he wanted to try something more ambitious. He convinced Gershwin with whom he had worked before to compose a Jazz Concerto for piano and orchestra.
Gershwin Composes “Rhapsody in Blue”
It was during a train trip to Boston that Gershwin came up with most of his ideas for the piece.
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety 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 blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece.”
“Rhapsody in Blue” is a Success
Gershwin’s piece proved to be an immediate success. From the very start, with it’s clarinet 16-note slide into the opening theme, the audience was electrified. Michael Tilson-Thomas has said of the work that it “expressed what it was to be alive at that moment as an American …. to let people know what it feels like to stand right here on this street corner and hear this elevated train go by and hear this building being built and hear this wail from a jazz club.” Author Peter Gammond has said that “It is only the fact that Gerhwin’s music is tinged with the colours of Jazz that makes both his songs and his other music seem slightly to come from the other side of the tracks to the classical world. And strangely for the jazz world as well. Ever since it burst upon new York in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue has had a cool reception from purists on either side of the musical fence. This has never prevented it from being played and recorded incessantly.”
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“Classical Composers” by Peter Gammond, Colour Library Books Limited Godalming, Surrey, 1994.
Rhapsody in Blue Cover at the top of this posting = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rhapsody_in_Blue_cover.png