Rhapsody in Blue is a musical composition by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band written in 1924, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. The composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé three times, in 1924, in 1926, and finally in 1946. The piece received its premiere in a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on 12 February 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York, by Paul Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The version for piano and symphony, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé in 1942, has become one of the most popular American concert works. It was played on February 10, 2008 at the 50th Grammy Awards.
Late on the evening of 3 January, at the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at Broadway and 52nd Street in Manhattan, while George Gershwin and Buddy De Sylva were playing billiards, his brother Ira Gershwin was reading the 4 January edition of the New York Tribune. An article entitled "What Is American Music?" about the Whiteman concert caught his attention, in which the final paragraph claimed that "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite."
In a phone call to Whiteman next morning, Gershwin was told that Whiteman's rival Vincent Lopez was planning to steal the idea of his experimental concert and there was no time to lose. Gershwin was finally persuaded to compose the piece.
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 blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.
Gershwin began his work on 7 January as dated on the original manuscript for two pianos. The piece was titled "American Rhapsody" during composition. The title Rhapsody in Blue was suggested by Ira Gershwin after his visit to a gallery exhibition of James McNeill Whistler paintings, which bear titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold and Arrangement in Gray and Black (better known as Whistler's Mother). After a few weeks, Gershwin finished his composition and passed the score to Whiteman's arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the piece, finishing it on 4 February, only eight days before the premiere.
The purpose of the experiment, as told by Whiteman in a pre-concert lecture in front of many classical music critics and highbrows, was "to be purely educational." It would "at least provide a stepping stone which will make it very simple for the masses to understand, and therefore, enjoy symphony and opera." The program was long, including 26 separate musical movements, divided into 2 parts and 11 sections, bearing titles such as "True form of jazz" and "Contrast: legitimate scoring vs. jazzing". Gershwin's latest composition was the second to last piece (before Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1). As many of the numbers sounded similar, and the ventilation system was broken, people in the audience were losing their patience, until the clarinet glissando that opened Rhapsody in Blue was heard. The piece was a huge popular success, and remains popular to this day.
The Rhapsody was performed by Whiteman's band, with an added section of string players, and George Gershwin on piano. Gershwin decided to keep his options open as to when Whiteman would bring in the orchestra and he did not write out one of the pages for solo piano, with only the words "Wait for nod" scrawled by Grofé on the band score. Gershwin improvised some of what he was playing. As he did not write out the piano part until after the performance, we do not know exactly how the original Rhapsody sounded.
According to Charles Schwartz, the opening clarinet glissando came into being during rehearsal when “...as a joke on Gershwin, [Ross] Gorman (Whiteman's virtuoso clarinettist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favourably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.”[(Gershwin: His Life and Music, 81-83, Da Capo Press (1979))]
This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master... In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form.... His first theme... is no mere dance-tune... it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin's colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice... There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin's composition.
Another reviewer, Lawrence Gilman, a Richard Wagner specialist who later wrote a famously devastating review of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, commenting on the Rhapsody in the New York Tribune on 13 February 1924, said:
How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!
Some critics described the piece as formless, and claimed that Gershwin only glued his melodic segments together into one piece. Pitts Sanborn wrote that the music "runs off into empty passage-work and meaningless repetition". In an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1955, Leonard Bernstein, who nevertheless admitted that he loved the piece, wrote:
The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific – inspired, God-given. I don't think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it's still the Rhapsody in Blue.
Due to Whiteman’s advertisement of the concert at Aeolian Hall, and the orchestration for primarily wind instruments, the audience was predisposed to listen to the piece as a jazz work. Critics have voiced widely varying opinions on where Rhapsody fits into the jazz canon. Thirty years after its premiere, William Grossman and Jack Farrell denounced the entire Aeolian concert, including Rhapsody in Blue, saying the "clumsily syncopated 'jazz' was gradually replaced with ponderous pseudosymphonic harmonies played over dance rhythms, culminating in the concert rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of the most ludicrous of the popular attempts during the 1920s to merge jazz and 'serious' music". But critic Deems Taylor voiced the opinion that the Rhapsody was "genuine jazz music, not only in its scoring but in its idiom", and Osgood claimed that Gershwin was able to "take the elements of jazz and employ them with a distinct degree of success in forms of composition higher and larger than popular songs and musical comedy".
The opening of Rhapsody in Blue is written as a clarinet trill followed by a legato 17-note rising diatonic scale. During a rehearsal, Whiteman's virtuoso clarinetist, Ross Gorman, rendered the upper portion of the scale as a captivating (and fully trombone-like) glissando: Gershwin heard it and insisted that it be repeated in the performance. An American Heritage columnist called it the "famous opening clarinet glissando... that has become as familiar as the start of Beethoven’s Fifth." The effect is produced by gradually opening the left-hand tone-holes on the clarinet during the passage from the last concert F (or earlier if possible, thus employing the right hand as well) to the top concert B-flat, adjusting the embouchure to smoothly control the continuously rising pitch. This effect has now become standard performance practice for the work. Rhapsody in Blue displays Gershwin’s gifts of both rhythmic invention and melodic inspiration, as well as his ability to write a piece with large-scale harmonic and melodic structure. The piece is characterized by strong motivic interrelatedness. Much of the motivic material is introduced in the first 14 measures. David Schiff identifies five major themes plus a sixth “tag”. Of these, two appear in the first 14 measures, and the tag shows up in measure 19. Two of the remaining three themes are rhythmically related to the very first theme in measure 2, which is sometimes called the Glissando theme (after the opening glissando in the clarinet solo) or the Ritornello theme. The remaining theme is the Train theme, which is the first to appear (at rehearsal 9) after the opening material. All of the themes rely on the blues scale, which includes lowered sevenths and a mixture of major and minor thirds. Each theme appears both in orchestrated form and as a piano solo. There are considerable differences in the style of presentation of each theme. The harmonic structure of Rhapsody is more difficult to analyse. The piece begins and ends in B flat, but it modulates towards the sub-dominant direction very early on, returning to B flat at the end, rather abruptly. The opening modulates "downward", as it were, through the keys B flat, E flat, A flat, D flat, G flat, B, E, and finally to A major. Modulation through the circle of fifths in the reverse direction inverts classical tonal relationships, but does not abandon them. The entire middle section resides primarily in C major, with forays into G major (the dominant relation). Modulations occur freely and easily, though not always with harmonic direction. Gershwin frequently uses a recursive harmonic progression of minor thirds to give the illusion of motion when in fact a passage does not change key from beginning to end. Modulation by thirds was a common element of Tin Pan Alley music. The influences of jazz and other contemporary styles are certainly present in Rhapsody in Blue. Ragtime rhythms are abundant, as is the Cuban "clave" rhythm, which doubles as a dance rhythm in the Charleston jazz dance.
Gershwin’s own intentions were to correct the belief that jazz had to be played strictly in time so that one could dance to it. The Rhapsody’s tempos vary widely, and there is an almost extreme use of rubato in many places throughout. The clearest influence of jazz is the use of blue notes, and the exploration of their half-step relationship plays a key role in the Rhapsody. The use of so-called "vernacular" instruments, such as accordion, banjo, and saxophones in the orchestra, contribute to its jazz or popular style, and the latter two of these instruments have remained part of Grofé's "standard" orchestra scoring. Gershwin incorporated several different piano styles into the work. He utilized the techniques of stride piano, novelty piano, comic piano, and the song-plugger piano style. Stride piano’s rhythmic and improvisational style is evident in the "agitato e misterioso" section, which begins four bars after rehearsal 33, as well as in other sections, many of which include the orchestra. Novelty piano can be heard at rehearsal 9 with the revelation of the Train theme. The hesitations and light-hearted style of comic piano, a vaudeville approach to piano made well-known by Chico Marx and Jimmy Durante, are evident at rehearsal 22.
The 1924 orchestration for Whiteman's band of 23 musicians (plus violins), and calls for the following:
Many musicians, especially the reeds, played two or more instruments; the reed "doublings" were especially calculated to take advantage of the full panoply of instruments available in that section of Whiteman's band. Indeed, Grofé's familiarity with the Whiteman band's strengths are a key factor in the scoring. This original version, with its unique instrumental requirements, had lain dormant until its revival in reconstructions beginning in the mid-1980s, owing to the popularity and serviceability of the later scorings, described below.
The 1942 orchestration is an adaptation of the original for the standard symphony orchestra (as listed in the score): 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 B-flat clarinets (both doubling A clarinets) and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (including crash cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, gong, triangle, bells and cymbals, and timpani), solo piano, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, banjo, and strings (first and second violins, viola, violoncello and bass).
The 1942 version is based on the 1926 arrangement for a "pit" orchestra, differing from its successor in the number of woodwinds and brass only: a single flute, oboe and bassoon, only two horns, two trumpets and one trombone. The prominence of the saxophones in the later orchestrations is somewhat reduced, and the banjo part can be dispensed with, as its mainly rhythmic contribution is provided by the inner strings.
Since the mid-20th century, the 1942 version has usually been performed by classical orchestras playing the expanded arrangement. In this form, it has become a staple of the concert repertoire. It has direct popular appeal while also being regarded respectfully by classical musicians.
In the late 1970s, interest in the original arrangement was revived. Reconstructions of it have been recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band in 1976, and by Maurice Peress with Ivan Davis on piano as part of a 60th-anniversary reconstruction of the entire 1924 concert.
Rhapsody in Blue was briefly used as the entrance music for professional wrestler Shawn Michaels when he first started wrestling in singles competition during 1992.
Rhapsody in Blue has been used by US-based air carrier United Airlines in their advertisements since the mid 1980s. In more recent advertisements, the instruments used reflect the theme, including a version played by traditionally Asian instruments in conjunction with publicizing the carrier's major presence in trans-Pacific travel.
A pianica version of the piece was performed in the manga, the Japanese television drama and the anime, Nodame Cantabile. A short version of the piece was also used as the ending theme tune in the drama.