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!