Rhapsody in Blue

A Moment in Time

by Emile Vermeulen

This coming Saturday, September 26, 2020, marks the 122nd birthday of the famous American composer, George Gershwin. I thought it would be interesting to travel back in time for a moment and take a look at the premier of what is arguably his most famous piece, Rhapsody in Blue. 

It’s Tuesday, February 12, 1924. An audience has gathered for an afternoon concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music at the Aeolian Hall in New York City. Many important musical figures across different genres are present such as great composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and stride piano legend Willie “the Lion” Smith. The concert is……long. There are 26 separate musical movements in the program, divided into 2 parts and 11 sections and to make things feel even more drawn out, the ventilation system in the concert hall is broken. Many of the works sound too similar and people are starting to sweat, quite literally, out of frustration.

Eventually they reach the second to last item on the program, and one George Gershwin takes a seat at the piano. He doesn’t even have a written out score for the piano part. Simply the words “wait for nod” are scribbled on the band score by the orchestrator as a cue for when the piano should come in after the band plays the introduction. The clarinet plays the (now iconic) opening glissando, everyone in the audience sits upright in their seats and the rest, is history.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue quickly became one of the most popular compositions of the 20th century. As early as 1927, the recording of Rhapsody in Blue had already sold a million copies. Chances are if you’ve never really listened to a recording of it, you’ve probably heard it in some form or another. Not only has it been performed by orchestras all over the world, but two of the most famous pianists in both the classical and jazz realms, Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock respectively, have performed Rhapsody in Blue on more than one occasion. In fact, they’ve even performed it together at the 2008 50th Grammy awards and the 2009 Classical Brit Awards. It’s been used in several films, commercials and events throughout the decades. Remember the 2013 film The Great Gatsby? The piece of music that plays as Jay Gatsby makes his dramatic first appearance? Yup, you guessed it. 

There’s been many debates regarding what Rhapsody in Blue really is. Gershwin was commissioned to write a concerto-like piece for an all jazz concert and so he attempted to combine classical and jazz elements into one coherent piece. It’s understandable why it received many criticisms upon its debut. Some criticized it for being neither jazz, nor a “serious” classical composition. However, over the years it’s become obvious that Rhapsody in Blue is an enduring piece of music. That’s because there’s nothing else quite like it. It’s well known as one of the defining musical portraits of New York City, a mixture of different people and cultures all together in one place that form something truly unique. Rhapsody in Blue can exemplify the so called “Roaring Twenties”, but can also remind of us of the beauty of human endearment, passion and creativity. No matter what decade you’re in when listening to it. 

So maybe take some time this week, kick back your feet and put on some Gershwin. You might want to check out Rhapsody in Blue since that’s what this whole post was about, but if not, that’s okay too. 

Here are two of my favourite recordings.

Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH2PH0auTUU

Kirill Gerstein playing the 1924 jazz band version at Berklee College of Music


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