Rhapsody in Blue: Jazz’s magnum opus 100 years on

BY Brendan Sainsbury

3rd Mar 2024 Music

4 min read

Rhapsody in Blue: Jazz’s magnum opus 100 years on
A century after the groundbreaking performance of Rhapsody in Blue, we look back at George Gershwin’s jazz magnum opus
One hundred years ago, on February 12, 1924, a 25-year-old composer named George Gershwin nervously made his way onto the stage at the Aeolian Hall in New York City and sat down at the piano stool.
All around the auditorium, people shifted impatiently in their seats. The concert, entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”, had been organised by American bandleader Paul Whiteman with the aim of promoting the emerging genre of jazz and spreading its virtues to a wider public. But several hours into the performance, with the Aeolian’s ventilation system playing up and the first 20 or so artists falling short of expectations, the audience—which included such luminaries as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky—was starting to become bored and fidgety. Some people were even making for the exits. 
As Gershwin readied his hands over the keys and clarinetist Ross Gorman launched into the opening glissando of Rhapsody in Blue, a noticeable stir rippled through the 1,100 attendees. No one realised it yet, but they were about to witness history in the making. 

Apex of the Jazz Age

Lauded as George Gershwin’s magnum opus and the cultural apex of the Jazz Age, Rhapsody in Blue ranks alongside the likes of West Side Story and The Rite of Spring as one of the most important musical compositions of the 20th century.
Melding classical themes with the loose syncopation of jazz, the sprawling 16-minute epic was groundbreaking in its diversity and ambitious in its scope.
"The sprawling 16-minute epic was groundbreaking in its diversity and ambitious in its scope"
What was even more remarkable was the speed with which Gershwin composed it. The precocious songwriter, who had already logged several successful musicals by 1924, first learned he’d been commissioned to write a “jazz concerto” for the show in early January after reading an article in the New York Tribune. While he and Whiteman had spoken casually of his involvement in the concert months earlier, Gershwin hadn’t fully understood the seriousness of the bandleader’s proposal until he saw it written in black and white. With the announcement posted in the press and the concert date set, there was no turning back. He had less than a month to come up with a pioneering piece of music.
Already busy promoting a new musical, Gershwin sketched out his initial plans for the composition on a train journey from New York to Boston. It was a fertile, if unorthodox, writing environment. The chugging rhythms and rattling energy that ultimately seeped into Rhapsody in Blue were not coincidental. By the time the composer disembarked in Boston, the basic format for the work was embedded in his head.

Gershwin’s background 

A native New Yorker and the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gershwin was ideally qualified to harness the rich harmonies of America’s discordant melting pot in a jazz-classical extravaganza. Exposed in his youth to Yiddish theatre songs, Russian classical music, and the raw improvisation of Harlem’s nascent jazz scene, it was only natural that these vastly contrasting influences would find their way into his seminal rhapsody.
Short on time, Gershwin had originally scored Rhapsody in Blue for just two pianos. But with the clock ticking on the performance, Whiteman invited his experienced arranger Ferde Grofe to orchestrate the piece for a 23-piece band.
The Rhapsody that premiered at the Aeolian Hall in February, 1924, was a relatively crude version of the work we know today. Accompanied by Whiteman’s Palais Royal orchestra it featured Gershwin on piano, playing largely from memory and improvising several of the solo sections. Notwithstanding, its effect was resounding.
As the last chord faded, the applause from the audience was rapturous. Gershwin had pulled off a musical miracle in less than a month. It was a triumph that caught the public zeitgeist and dramatically furthered the cause of jazz as a serious musical form.

Musical kaleidoscope of America

Structurally complex but punctuated with lush hummable melodies, Rhapsody in Blue perfectly encapsulated the depth and drama of a complicated, but optimistic nation on the cusp of a new era in 16 minutes of genre-bridging music. To use Gershwin’s own words, it marked “a musical kaleidoscope of America”.
Its influence has echoed through the decades, from the flappers of the 1920s, to the jazz-rock aficionados of the 1970s and 1980s, to the budding pianists of today.
"Rhapsody in Blue's influence has echoed through the decades"
It was Woody Allen who first triggered my interest in Rhapsody in Blue through the 1979 film Manhattan, his celluloid homage to New York. Synching the music over a montage of black-and-white images of the city, he used Gershwin’s masterpiece to eloquently evoke the unique atmosphere of 1970s New York creating a mood that was at once gritty and romantic. In doing so, he introduced the opus to a whole new generation of admirers.  
After seeing the film on TV, I went out and purchased it on video so I could watch the opening sequence multiple times until I knew the music by heart. 

Challenging, fun and unifying music 

The next step was to try to play it. For an undistinguished amateur pianist like me, mastering the tricky hand-crossing and multiple key changes was a tall order, akin to a long-distance runner preparing for a marathon. Diligently, I bought the sheet music to use as a rough guide, remembering that even Gershwin, in his Aeolian Hall premiere, left significant passages open to improvisation. While I’ve never posted a concert-worthy performance or replicated Gershwin’s dexterous fingering note for note, I’ve yet to encounter a piece of music that’s more challenging or fun to play.
It is this intriguing complexity that’s one of Rhapsody in Blue’s underlying strengths and why the music remains so fresh and relevant today. Its 1924 premiere was a watershed moment, like the unveiling of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which caused a mini riot) or the appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (which led to the formation of thousands of new bands). Gershwin’s riveting melodies and urgent rhythms caught a mood and a moment, creating a piece of music that transcended genres and unified a disparate country. There’s never been anything like it before or since.
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