Rhapsody in Blue
For Piano and Jazz Band/Piano and Orchestra
Introduced by George Gershwin, piano, and Paul Whiteman with his Palais Royal Orchestra on February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York City.
Paul Whiteman, who, in 1922, had conducted the lone performance of Gershwin's one-act opera Blue Monday, asked the composer to write a jazz piece for orchestra for an upcoming concert. The commission was a haphazard one, offered and accepted very informally and without any specific date or venue in mind. Toward the end of 1923, however, Whiteman hurriedly made plans for his jazz concert so as not to be beaten to the punch by Vincent Lopez, another bandleader who want to be the first to present a jazz program in a highbrow setting.
It was while playing pool on Broadway at 52nd St. that Gershwin was shown, by Ira, a report in the January 4, 1924 New York Tribune, saying that he was at work on a jazz concerto, one that would be presented at a February 12th concert in Aeolian Hall.
Gershwin called Whiteman to protest, saying that there was too little time for him to complete such a project. But Whiteman was persuasive and, while on a train to Boston for the out-of-town tryout of Sweet Little Devil, Gershwin began thinking about the piece. “There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz," he later wrote. “Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolve…to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow."
So, on January 7th, he began composing. According to Ira, he started by going to his notebook, and choosing an already-written theme (the one that opens the piece). For the next three weeks he worked in his apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street and by January 25th, he had a two-piano sketch with some indications as to scoring. Ferde Grofé, who was Whiteman's arranger, quickly orchestrated the piece from the composer's manuscript.
Ira had suggested that a slow melody be included in the piece, indicating to George that there was a theme in one of his notebooks that might be appropriate. That theme then became the heart of the work. Ira was also responsible for giving the piece its name. He had seen an exhibition of paintings by James McNeill Whistler and had noted the artist's fondness for putting the names of colors in his his titles. (Nocturne in Black and Gold, for example). Thus, Ira called the composition which George had dubbed American Rhapsody, Rhapsody in Blue.
It was at a rehearsal and in jest that clarinetist Ross Gorman turned the composer's opening 17-note run into the famous opening whoop. Gershwin like the effect and asked Gorman to continue to play it that way.
The concert, called “An Experiment In Modern Music,” was touted as an educational experience. But most of it was not very educational or modern. Featured compositions where Zez Confrey's “ Kitten on the Keys,” Edward McDowell's “To a Wild Rose,” and Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March Number One. For the audience, which included Victor Herbert, Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, and Fritz Kreisler, it was a long and boring experience until the Rhapsody commenced, Gershwin playing it with confidence and élan at the piano. During the playing of the piece, he extemporized some of the piano passages, as there had not been time to get them written down, and Whiteman was directed to wait for the composer's nod before re-striking up the band. Then, when it was over, there was a standing ovation for the Rhapsody and for Gershwin, whose career as a world-famous composer had just begun.
As published, the Rhapsody in Blue contains 48 fewer measures that were played at the Whiteman concert, Gershwin, having done some after-the-fact editing. All but four of those bars were deleted from piano solos. Years later, when music critic Irving Kolodin asked him if he had ever thought of really revising the piece to strengthen some of its weak spots, Gershwin replied, “Yes, but people seemed to like it the way it was, so I left it that way.”
Grofé re-orchestrated the Rhapsody in 1926, this time for full orchestra, and he did so again in 1942. for an even larger orchestra. It is the 1942 version that is now mostly heard in the concert hall.
The published piano solo arrangement was the work of composer Vernon Duke, who was paid $100 by Gershwin's publisher for the job.
In its first decade, the Rhapsody in Blue earned the composer more than $250,000. In 1929 he was paid $50,000 so it could be used in a movie, The King of Jazz, which starred Paul Whiteman. In May of 1930 he was paid $10,000 to play it for two weeks as part of a Roxy theater stage show. As to the irony that Gershwin, the affluent songwriter, had managed strike it rich with a highbrow composition, the composer told reporters, “That's more than Beethoven or Schubert ever got for composition, eh?"
Paul Whiteman recorded this with Gershwin at the piano on June 10, 1924—a recording featuring many of those who played in the original Aeolian Hall concert. Whiteman and Gershwin recorded it again on April 21, 1927, this time with an orchestra that included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke. The 1927 recording is slightly truncated, lasting some three minutes less than the usual twelve. In 1925, Gershwin made a solo piano roll recording of the piece. In 1976, this piano roll recording was used by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band as the basis for recreating the original orchestration. On June 8, 1928, Gershwin recorded the slow theme of the Rhapsody in Blue while in London.
Oscar Levant was a good friend of the composer and a notable interpreter of his works. In the spring of 1943 he recorded the Rhapsody with Morton Gould conducting a studio orchestra that included Benny Goodman on clarinet. A later Levant recording was with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.. On November 1, 1942 a version was recorded by pianist Earl Wild, clarinetist Benny Goodman and conductor Arturo Toscanini.