Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924 by George Gershwin (1898–1937) is a pioneering piece in the development of a uniquely American style of classical music. The piece represents a dismissal of European tradition. It is essentially a short piano concerto, but it barely conforms to any of the customary parts of piano concerto form. Gershwin came out of Tin Pan Alley, where he wrote popular songs and Broadway musicals with his brother, Ira, writing the lyrics. In fact at the time when Gershwin first published Rhapsody in Blue, he didn’t know how to orchestrate music for any ensemble beside the “theater orchestra” – basically a large jazz band (also containing instruments like the banjo and accordion) with a small added string section. For this reason, he relied on Ferde Grofé, a prominent American arranger (as well as prolific composer), to do the arrangement for full symphony orchestra. Grofé made three total orchestrations of the piece: one each in 1924, 1926, and 1942. The 1942 version is the one that is most commonly performed today.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue reflects city life in the United States during the 1920s. Gershwin told a biographer that he originally conceived the work during a train ride to Boston. He said, “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is so often so stimulating to a composer… 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.” Gershwin achieves these effects in a number of ways. One noticeable thing about the piece is that it rarely comes to a cadence, and never comes to a full stop until the end of the piece. Like an American city during the 1920s, it never completely comes to rest. Also, the piece has a distinctly mechanical character. From the two-octave clarinet glissando at beginning of the piece the listener can tell that it is not a standard piece of classical music. Besides using a jazz orchestra, Gershwin uses many elements of jazz in Rhapsody in Blue, like syncopated rhythms and the blues scale. Gershwin was one of the first composers to successfully integrate jazz into classical music, but he was far from the last. Many other American composers from Aaron Copland to William Bolcom have been influenced by jazz. In Europe, Maurice Ravel used jazz components in his Piano Concerto in G Major, and Dmitri Shostakovich wrote two popular suites based on jazz. Gershwin also incorporated vaudeville style piano playing, Tin Pan Alley style harmony, and ragtime rhythms into his music. As with Charles Ives’ use of folk music and patriotic songs, Gershwin’s use of popular elements served to make classical music more accessible to the general public and bridge the gap between popular music and art music. This is what puts Rhapsody in Blue, as well as some of Gershwin’s other major works, like the tone poem An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess, among the most well-known pieces of American classical music.
Rhapsody in Blue symbolizes American city life during the early 1920s, but of course it isn’t a perfect representation. It depicts all of the glamorous and exciting parts of the city, without going too far below the surface. It almost makes the city seem like a constant party, and doesn’t show anything involving lower classes. However, while Rhapsody in Blue may portray an idealized (or maybe just optimistic) version of America, it creates this image unbelievably well.
An article from UC Davis:
An article from the Washington Post:
A set of articles from the Atlantic:
A couple of other articles:
Wikipedia’s article (with a 1924 recording of Gershwin playing the piece):
A performance by the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra:
A performance of the original jazz band version from the Berklee College of Music: