Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is one of those timeless classics that is Instantly recognizable to many people’s ears today, even ninety years after It was first introduced to the world. It is a piece that has found its way into contemporary movies and advertisements, making it likely as recognizable as Chopping Funeral March or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But unlike these two pieces of iconic classical music, Rhapsody in Blue “resists classification. “l In it are elements of classical music, blues and Jazz, making It at once “Gershwin’s most famous piece” but also “possibly his east understood composition. 2 Indeed, while Rhapsody became a popular hit in the sass, the reception from critics was mixed at best – even worse were the many critics who dismissed the piece as dull or cheesy. 3 Today though, Rhapsody in Blue is a celebrated work and few American compositions have garnered more academic attention. For a piece that has mystified Gershwin’s signature work by discussing its Jazz and classical influences, and by grounding it firmly in the time and space in which it was conceived – showing it was a product that redefined high culture in America.
First of all, it can be argued that Rhapsody in Blue marked a turning point in the path of George Gershwin’s musical career. It came after AY Solon had recorded the pop-hit Swansea, but before Gershwin’s other crucial works, such as An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess. In George Gershwin: His Life and Work, Howard Pollack describes Gershwin’s rise through the musicals of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. 4 During this time he began to achieve success through pop songs (primarily ragtime and Jazz) and musical plays, but Gershwin had not achieved his ideal of “popular errors music. 5 In fact, he was troubled enough by his perceived underachievement that he often spoke to his piano mentor, Edward Killeen “of his desire to quit writing popular music and retire somewhere far away so that he could devote himself to serious music. “6 Luckily Killeen advised Gershwin of a middle way, telling him to keep at popular music until a time that “conductors would ask for serious compositions to be performed by them. “7 Skyline’s hunch was correct, and not much later was George Gershwin commissioned by Paul Whitman to compose a Jazz concerto.
That commission was the origin of Rhapsody in Blue; “arranged by Feared Grove for the Paul Whitman Orchestra with George Gershwin as soloist,” Rhapsody made its performance debut on March 7, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York. 9 Gershwin must have sensed that this was the moment that Edward Killeen advised him would come; not only that, this was his opportunity to create his ideal work – “popular serious music. “10 Rhapsody in Blue is a unique piece of music that “combines both classical and jazz elements,”11 – an original composition written for the piano, arranged by Feared
Grove and performed by Paul Whitewash’s Jazz orchestra. No doubt that the Jazz elements can be viewed as the popular side of the piece, with the classical elements being the serious side. This combination, however, would prove to be a source of controversy for critics. While few could argue against Rhapsody merits as a popular hit, many argued against its validity as a high art form, with even Leonard Bernstein writing for The Atlantic in 1955: Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable…
You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as braver as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm is done. It can be a five minute piece or six minute piece or twelve minute piece. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue. 12 The answer to why such a celebrated piece of music today might have been so so-called American “highbrow’ and “lowbrow’ cultures of the sass.
By blending the lassie with the Jazz, Gershwin may have drawn the ire of “high” culture purists who ridiculed this effort. 13 Steven Gilbert, writing that “American music has long been paired into ‘high’ and ‘IoW cultures, and the tendency has been to put such uniquely American art forms as Jazz and the musical show into the latter category,” helps support this notion. 14 When Rhapsody in Blue debuted in 1924, Gershwin’s career was only distinguished in the realm of popular Jazz and ragtime music.
His first foray into a classical composition was therefore likely to be met with some skepticism (which it Leary was). However, it would be incorrect to assume that Gershwin was a pop-artist who was only attempting a classical composition. In fact he was introduced to the European classics by his piano teacher, Charles Hamburger, at a young age. 1 5 Howard Pollack asserts that: Gershwin’s involvement with concert music [of the classical tradition] paralleled his activities in popular music.
He did not so much cross over as from the very beginning plant one foot on each side of the tracks and attempt to straddle them as firmly as he could. 16 It may have surprised some to learn that Gershwin considered the composers Franz List, Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy as “the composers who have shaped my as opposed to the more popular singers and writers of the day, such as Irving Berlin or AY Solon. Indeed, even the playful clarinet melody “that opens the Rhapsody in Blue is a child of the flute solo that begins Debussy Afternoon of a Faun. 18 This sort of musical acculturation is part of what makes Gershwin’s music distinctly American, and what has given Rhapsody in Blue enough longevity to be roads not Just on the radio, but also television, when United Airlines began using in their advertisements in 1987. 19 Perhaps unknown at the time, George Gershwin proved to be an American musical pioneer, combining the best of the European classics with the best of American Jazz and popular music at the time.
In so doing, he created a timeless classic in Rhapsody in Blue, and he did it not by trying to duplicate the musical style and aesthetics of the sass, but by updating it and playing to his audience. It was a profound statement, ND a very insightful one when trying to put Gershwin’s music into context, when he said: “True music… Must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is today. “20 Owen, David.