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
Courtesy of 

 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!

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