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Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue”

Gershwin was but one of many American artists given their big break by Paul Whiteman (1890–1967), the “King of Jazz.” Among the others were Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby.) Whiteman commissioned “something” from Gershwin for his 1924 Lincoln’s Birthday concert of symphony jazz in Aeolian Hall, New York—a historic event, this,with formidable ramifications for both popular and classical music in the United States.When the composer read in the New York Herald-Tribune that he was at work on a jazz concerto, he decided he had better get busy, and thereupon produced this famous blues forpiano and instrumental accompaniment.

Whiteman’s orchestrator Ferde Grofe scored the work for jazz band, what we would today call a big band. He later redid the work in a couple of versions to enable performance by standard symphony orchestra. The famous clarinet glissando at the beginning was the contribution of one of Whiteman’s reed players, Ross Gorman.

Three major themes are mingled in a free form related to the A–A–B structure of a conventional blues: the improvisational turn with which the work opens (clarinet), the shuffling blues melody you hear just afterward in the winds (clarinet, horn, tenor sax), and a strutting, march-like business heard in the position of the second theme group over snappig pizzicati in the strings, banjo, and drum set with brushes. From this last grows, as a refrain some two-thirds of the way through, the soulful theme in strings and woodwinds with panting extensions in the horn-which you remember along with the clarinet gliss as the most impressive thing about Rhapsody in Blue. Little more need be said: in fact Gershwin seems almost impatient, thereafter, to bring the work to a prompt close.

Naturally there is a good deal of bluesy chromatic inflection of the melodies, and the soloist and orchestra generally alternate turns with the given material, as is customary in jazz practice. But what Gershwin is really about here is jazz rhythm: Rhapsody in Blue should be played with great freedom and swing, even by the stuffiest of philharmonic societies.

Gershwin was only twenty-five when Rhapsody in Blue became the rage of an era. From there, in teh few years that were left to him, the central issue of his artistic life would be how best to fashion a mature style from this early victory. That is a nice kind of problem to have, but one that can be threatening as well.

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