Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Inspiration Behind Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a huge success following its premiere in 1924. With only three weeks to compose the work before its first performance at Aeolian Hall with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Gershwin had to find fast inspiration.

The “jazz concerto” as advertised in the Herald Tribune, had distinctive qualities of Americanism from the beginning, the five main themes based on the blues scale and the use of blues notes throughout. Gershwin decided to call it a rhapsody rather than a concerto. Though the work uses a solo piano alternating with an ensemble like that of a concerto, Rhapsody in Blue also has the features of a rhapsody with its one-movement, free-form construction.

During the work’s composition period, Gershwin found inspiration from two different sources. The first occurred to him while traveling via train to Boston. The rhythm and sound of the train as it swiftly moved along the tracks inspired several themes from the beginning of his piece. He later said “I heard it [the train] as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

Gershwin’s second moment of inspiration came at a friend’s party while he played around on the piano. Though not thinking of his Rhapsody at the time, Gershwin claims that he subconsciously composed the climax to the work. He didn’t realize at first how perfectly what he improvised on the piano fit into the piece until his brother, Ira, insisted that he incorporate it into his composition. Ira, his closest advocate and partner in music, also contributed the title Rhapsody in Blue.

The famous, opening clarinet solo of Rhapsody in Blue was inspired by clarinetist Ross Gorman, who played in Whiteman’s orchestra. Gershwin had always been impressed by Gorman’s ability to play a two-octave glissando on his instrument and used the clarinetist’s skill to begin his new work.

Here is a performance of Rhapsody in Blue by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band using a 1925 George Gershwin piano roll. What do you think of this version using Gershwin as the pianist? It is a bit faster than I am used to hearing in concert halls but an excellent performance nonetheless!

Monday, July 28, 2014

George Gershwin's American Sound

As we wrap up our American music month, the discussion would not be complete without mentioning the infamous George Gershwin. Because there is quite a bit to say about Gershwin’s profound output during his tragically short life, I will keep our discussion for this week focused on the popular Rhapsody in Blue, leaving many of his other works for one of our later monthly topics.

Gershwin wrote the famous Rhapsody in Blue at the young age of 25 after unexpectedly receiving a commission from Paul Whiteman and the Palais Royale Orchestra. Though Whiteman had mentioned that he hoped one day Gershwin would write a composition for his ensemble, the composer had no idea how serious Whiteman was until he saw the advertisement in the newspaper for an upcoming concert featuring Gershwin’s yet-to-be-composed piece. The young composer had three weeks to pull something together for the performance. 

Paul Whiteman's Orchestra

 Because he was so pressed for time, Gershwin added several piano solos that he could improvise throughout the piece. This left several blank pages in Whiteman’s score with the indication to “wait for nod” from George so that Whiteman could then cue the orchestra following the solos.

The ensemble score to Rhapsody in Blue was originally written as a second piano part with certain instrumental figures indicated throughout. The piece was then handed to Paul Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé. You may know some of Grofé’s own works that we often times play on WGUC including his Grand Canyon Suite and Mississippi Suite. Grofé later re-orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue for an orchestra. This version is what most people are familiar with today.

The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue was a raging success. Though it sat as the final piece on a program containing 24 selections, people were elated with Gershwin’s “jazz concerto.” Many important musicians of the time even showed up to hear this new American sensation including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, and John Philip Sousa.

Join me Wednesday as I delve into the style and structure of Rhapsody in Blue!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Aaron Copland and Appalachian Spring

This week we are looking at the works of American composer Aaron Copland and examining his approach to creating an “American sound.” Today, let’s look at one of his most famous works, Appalachian Spring (1943–1944), that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Appalachian Spring was originally written as a ballet for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The ensemble consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that he arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are familiar with today.

One famous medley in Appalachian Spring is taken from the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Copland then varies this theme throughout the work. In an attempt to evoke images of rural, American life, Copland uses wide sonorities and open fifths and octaves, a trait commonly used to express American ideas in music.

Here is a performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring by the Ulster Orchestra.

Also check out this great arrangement by John Williams that was performed at the 2008 Presidential Inauguration.

Do you think Copland was successful in creating the “American sound” in his music?