Rhapsody in Blue for Piano and Jazz Band
George Gershwin arranged by Ferde Grofé
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George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a “jazz concerto” composed in 1924. A wonderful fusion of classical and jazz-inspired elements, it was Gershwin’s second collaboration with bandleader Paul Whiteman. The first, Scandals of 1922, had impressed Whiteman enough that he asked Gershwin to write a concerto for an all-jazz concert. Gershwin, who was busy with other projects, was initially unsure about complying. It was only after hearing that another composer was going to try a similar all-jazz concert that Gershwin decided he would do it.
He had about five weeks, and sketched his first ideas for the piece while on a train to Boston. In the rhythms and the noise of the train Gershwin could see the whole structure of Rhapsody in Blue laid out before him. He wrote the work for two pianos, and Ferde Grofé — Paul Whiteman’s arranger — orchestrated it. Grofé actually orchestrated three versions of the piece over the years. (Grofé was himself a composer best known for his Grand Canyon Suite). Most early critics of the Rhapsody complained that the work was too fragmented and did not adhere to traditional forms. Nevertheless, it was a popular success then and remains so now.
The piece opens with a famous clarinet glissando that leads into the main theme. Gershwin played the piano part in the premiere and improvised some of his solos, writing them down only after the first performance. That may be why these sections retain an improvisatory feel, making the work seem even more “jazzy.” The piece itself has an infectious rhythmic energy throughout, drawing especially on the influence of ragtime. Some of its themes — Gershwin scholar David Schiff has identified five main themes, plus a “tag” — mimic popular dances (like the Charleston) or jazz, while some just sound like the train Gershwin was on when he was imagining the work. Gershwin builds his harmonies on the blues scale and moves freely between key areas, not worrying much about classical transitions. He incorporates different styles of piano-playing in the solos and gives the feeling of freedom through the use of rubato.
Gershwin would tell his biographer a few years later, “I heard [the Rhapsody] as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” He shows us the various colors in this kaleidoscope, using dance rhythms and blues harmonies to capture the American spirit — vibrant, alive and ever-changing.