On February 12, 1924, “Rhapsody in Blue” had its world premiere in New York. Performed by the Paul Whiteman orchestra with the 25-year-old composer, George Gershwin, playing solo piano, the composition proved pivotal in establishing Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer. It would go on to become one of the most popular orchestral pieces of the 20th century, featured in films, TV commercials and performed and recorded in numerous arrangements.
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The origins of “Rhapsody in Blue” go back to the preceding November when Whiteman, the leader of a popular jazz band, asked Gershwin to compose a concerto-like piece for a concert scheduled for that coming February. Gershwin, concerned that three months was not sufficient time to write and revise a major composition, said no.
In early January, Gershwin’s brother and frequent collaborator Ira read an article in the New York Tribune about the upcoming Whiteman all-jazz concert in which he learned that “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite” for the show and “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” That was news to George, but during a conversation the next day with Whiteman, he was convinced to accept the commission.
Gershwin later told a biographer, Isaac Goldberg, that the musical themes in “Rhapsody” came to him during a train ride from New York to Boston.
“I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness," he said. "By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece.”
The actual writing of the concerto began on January 7 and went on for several weeks. Once Gershwin was finished composing, he passed the music on to arranger Ferde Grofe, who orchestrated the piece, completing it on February 4, eight days before the premiere.
The concert, which took place on the afternoon of February 12 at New York’s Aeolian Hall, was titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” and included 26 different jazz compositions. The program, Whiteman told the audience beforehand, was intended to be “purely educational.” Gershwin’s composition, which was performed by Whiteman’s band with an added string section, was the penultimate piece.
The piece famously begins with a long clarinet glissando, which Whiteman’s clarinetist, Russ Gorman, had improvised during a rehearsal as a joke. Gershwin liked it and told Gorman not only to keep the glissando, but to put as much “wail” into it as he could. As for his own piano solo, Gershwin did not commit this to paper until after the concert, and much of what he played that day was improvised (and lost to history).
Critical responses to “Rhapsody in Blue” were mixed, but the public loved it. Whiteman and his band performed it 87 times by the end of 1927 and their recording of the composition sold one million copies.
Writing about it in the Atlantic Monthly in 1955, Leonard Bernstein reflected some of the professionals’ ambivalence about the piece. “Rhapsody in Blue,” he wrote, “is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable.” Rather, he declared, “it’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together.” Yet the themes included in those paragraphs, wrote Bernstein, “are terrific – inspired, God-given,” adding that “I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky.”
Grofe re-orchestrated the piece twice following the premiere, in 1926 and 1942, each time for a larger ensemble. The latter, and largest, arrangement is the one usually performed over the following decades. Gershwin apparently intended to do his own orchestration later in his career but did not live to do so.
The Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937, at the age of 38.