Monday, August 18, 2008

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has long been a favorite piece of music. I never knew the story behind it, though, until I read Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue by Anna Harwell Celenza and illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel. If you don't think you know Rhapsody in Blue, Unites Airlines has long used it in their TV commercials - if you heard it, you'd know the piece, whether or not you know the name of it...

In January 1924, George and Ira Gershwin and their friend B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva are in a pool hall in New York City's Lower East Side. George and Buddy are playing pool while Ira is reading the paper. Ira comes across something he wants to share with the other two:

In an attempt to determine "what is American music," orchestra leader Paul Whiteman is organizing a concert entitled "An Experiment in Modern Music." This concert will take place in Aeolian Hall on February 12 and will be attended by the world's musical elite.
...
Included on the program will be a new composition by local composers. George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto that will be featured in the concert.

There was only one problem: George wasn't writing a jazz concerto. He'd discussed writing new music with Paul, but a concert had never been mentioned. George went to talk to Paul.

"You're looking a little steamed," said Paul. "How come?"

"How come?" replied George. "I just read in the paper that in a few weeks I am supposedly premiering a concerto that I haven't even started writing yet!"
...
"I can't do it," said George.

Paul convinces George to give it a shot. George looks for inspiration by listen to Liszt and Chopin, trying to improvise on the piano, walking in Central Park, even buying new paper and a pen. George also had to get ready for a new musical he had written that was opening in Boston. He had decided to call Paul and tell he him couldn't do it.

However, on the train to Boston, he found his inspiration:

As the train made its way north, George listened to the wheels rocking against the tracks - rattlety, rattlety, bang, rattlety, rattlety, bang. Soon his hands and feet began to imitate the rhythm - clappety, clappety, tap, clappety, clappety, tap.

George looked out the window and his mind began to drift. At first the rhythm of the train reminded him of the klezmer band at Ira's bar mitzvah years ago - clappety, clappety, tap. He could almost hear the wailing strains of the clarinet against the syncopated rhythm of the fiddle.

George's thoughts drifted to the Palais Royale: dancing the foxtrot, cheek to cheek, with a beautiful girl. Clappety, clappety, tap - the foxtrot reminded him of ragtime. He remembered roller-skating to the Barron Wilkins Club in Harlem. Since he was just a kid then, he was never allowed inside, so he sat on the curb and listened to the intoxicating rhythms and harmonies - clappety, clappety, tap - ragtime and the blues.

Clappety, clappety, tap, clappety, clappety, tap. George listened to the rhythm of the train for a long time, and as he did, he got an idea about how he could write his concerto. "Instead of comping new melodies, I'll use the music that's already in my head," he thought. "Klezmer, foxtrot, ragtime and blues. My concerto will be a tuneful kaleidoscope - a rhapody about the music that surrounds me!"

Two weeks later, he returned to New York with his nearly complete concerto, which he played for his brother and their friend Buddy. He knew something was missing - something to tie it all together. Buddy suggested George needed a break, that he should join them for a party, "a real swanky affair", on Madison Avenue.

The party had a penthouse view and a grand piano, "and as usual, George was drawn to it like a bear to honey" and started to improvise; he found the missing piece the theme - to tie his concerto all together. "'It's a love song for New York,' he thought. 'All that time in Boston almost made me forget.'"

George thought of calling his new concerto American Rhapsody, but Ira thought it needed something "with more pep." Inspired by the names of the works by James McNeill Whistler (Nocturne in Black and Gold, Arrangement in Gray and Black [more commonly referred to as Whistler's Mother]), Ira suggested putting a color in the title. The result was Rhapsody in Blue.

George handed his piece off to a friend, Ferde Grofé, to write the orchestra parts. Rehearsals began on February 4th for the concert on the 12th. George would play the piano solos.

The night of the concert, the Aeolian Hall was sold out. But, the audience was getting angry because they weren't hearing anything new, and some people got up to go. Paul had George play his new concerto right then. "All at once, the clarinet let out a wail that made the fleeing listeners stop dead in their tracks." Everyone went back to their seats, and became more enthusiastic the more they heard.

George had somehow captured the spirit of modern life - the hustle-bustle rhythm and the electric energy of Manhattan. Rhapsody in Blue marked a new direction for modern music. George had composed an American masterpiece.

The Author's Note at the back gives a little bit more information about Gershwin, and gives Gershwin's own description of his inspiration for this magnificent piece of music, as well as why he chose the color blue: it is "a reference to George's use of blue notes (notes added to the traditional musical scale that help give jazz its distinctive sound) throughout the piece." Included with the book is a CD. The author explains "I relied on the 'commemorative facsimile edition' published by Warner Brothers in 1987, because this version comes closest to the score prepared for Whiteman's concert 'An Experiment in Modern Music.'"

While this book is recommended for children between the ages of 4 and 8, I think it can be used with older children, especially in the context of music education: it's not just about the music, but also about the inspiration behind it. Not ever learning to play the piano is a regret I have. There was never an opportunity as a child, since I didn't have access to a piano. I worked on it a little as an adult, when Lyric Mezzo and I were roommate and I had access to her fabulous antique upright (even if it was sometimes out of tune), but I never had the time it would have take to make any real progress. Even if I can't play the music, I have a great appreciation for it. Every child deserves the opportunity to gain an appreciation for truly great music, and Rhapsody in Blue is one such piece, and a truly American one, at that.

1 comment:

sirius_sir said...

Interesting. I never knew any of this. Thanks.