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George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm Variations"
"Compact in length and voluminous in its details, Walter Rimler's study of Gershwin is freighted with melancholy—an appropriate parallel with Gershwin's own life."--TLS


George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm Variations

This piece for piano and orchestra was introduced by George Gershwin, piano, and the Reisman Symphony Orchestra, Charles Previn conducting, in Symphony Hall in Boston on January 14, 1934.

In January and February of 1934 Gershwin allowed an old friend, Harry Askins, to manage him on a twenty-eight city tour commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Rhapsody in Blue. Askins was the man who, in recommending Gershwin to publisher Max Dreyfus, had been instrumental in getting him his first big break.

Also on this tour was the Leo Reisman Band (billed as the Reisman Symphony Orchestra). Reisman was another old friend, one with whom Gershwin had palled around in Paris in 1928 (together they had made a determined hunt for New York-style lox in Parisian shops). Unfortunately, Reisman was not able to accompany his band on the tour, having suffered a leg injury. His place was taken by another longtime Gershwin friend, Charles Previn. The latter had conducted the composer's La La Lucille in 1919 and Of Thee I Sing in 1931. He was a cousin of pianist-composer-conductor André Previn.

The I Got Rhythm Variations was a new work for piano and orchestra composed by Gershwin for this tour. His initial manuscript, for two pianos was written while he stayed at the Palm Beach, Florida home of Emil Mosbacher. The orchestrated version was completed on January 6, 1934, after Gershwin returned to New York. The tour began eight days later in Boston and proceeded to twenty-seven other cities in as many days. Inasmuch as the program featured Gershwin as piano soloist in the Concerto in F, the Rhapsody in Blue, and the I Got Rhythm Variations, and as some 12,000 miles were covered visiting cities from Maine to Ontario to Nebraska, it was, for Gershwin, significant as a physical as well as a musical accomplishment. And after each concert, he could be found among the musicians playing well into the night.

Gershwin was pleased with the reception he received from the audiences. But Askins had booked him into small-to-mid-sized auditoriums (i.e., the one at Technical High School in Omaha) and ticket sales could not recoup expenses, much less turn a profit. Also, there was an uncomfortable moment when, in Toronto, Gershwin was denied a hotel room because he was Jewish.

This new orchestral work had some of the zip but none of the brooding or majesty of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F. However, it gave Gershwin the chance to continue the experiments he had been making based on his studies with Joseph Schillinger—experiments that had commenced in 1932 with the Cuban Overture. Oscar Levant, in is book A Smattering of Ignorance, noted that Gershwin was using Schillinger's “theories of cyclical harmonic progressions, with an intricate leading of bass notes...[and a] scheme of rhythmic permutations.” Another Gershwin friend, composer Vernon Duke (“April in Paris”), noted that Gershwin's orchestration in this piece used instrumental devices recommended by Schillinger. Gershwin biographer Charles Schwartz has speculated that the pizzicato glissandos and the back of the bridge playing by the violins may have been Schillinger suggestions.

Unfortunately, the I Got Rhythm Variation shave never been published in the composer's orchestration. In his lifetime, only the two-piano version was made publicly available. Then, in 1953, came an orchestral version, published by New World Music, in which Gershwin's instrumental intentions were doctored by William C. Schonfeld.

The I Got Rhythm Variations are dedicated to Ira Gershwin.

There is a recording of Gershwin playing this piece. It comes from an April 30, 1934 radio broadcast.