One of the most enduring concert works in American music, “Rhapsody…” was first commissioned by band leader Paull Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofe. The piece established Gershwin (1898 -1937) as a serious composer. Gershwin wrote the piece for “solo piano and jazz band”.
The work premiered at a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall (across the street from Bryant Park in NYC) and was first performed by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The concert was aimed at showing patrons that jazz can be taken out of the smoky club and played in a concert venue. Apparently it worked!
Due to a tight concert schedule Gershwin composed the entire piece in a mere five weeks. He developed the main ideas for the piece while riding a train from Boston to New York. In his 1931 biography by Goldberg, Gershwin described it as follows:
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. 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. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
The piece is recognizable by its opening clarinet glissando. The section was added during rehearsal when; “…as a joke on Gershwin, Ross Gorman (Whiteman’s clarinettist) played the opening while adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Gershwin liked it and asked him to perform it at the concert and to add “as much of a ‘wail’ as possible”.
The clarinet glissando looks like this on paper.
By the end of 1927, Whiteman and Orchestra had performed the piece over 84 times and the recording had sold more than one million copies. Despite its clear popularity it received mixed reviews in the press – including some that characterized it as “trite” and “disjointed”.
Over the years there has been great debate as to whether “Rhapsody” is actually jazz (or is it even classical). At the time, it was certainly unlike any of the “hot” jazz that was being played. There’s no doubt that it blurs the line for both and in itself I think that’s part of its beauty. Truly great art does not need to be categorized or jammed into neat pigeonholes. What you may hear as a symphonic piece, I may hear as jazz – and vice versa. The point is to close your eyes and let it take you away. Enjoy!