This piece for orchestra with piano was introduced by George Gershwin, piano, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky in Symphony Hall in Boston on January 29, 1932.
The Gershwins first wrote for the movies in 1923, when they fashioned a song, “The Sunshine Trail,” to promote a silent film of the same title. They did not actually go to Hollywood until November 1930 when they began work on Delicious, a Fox film starring Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. For this film they wrote eight pieces: six songs and two extended works tailored to the needs of the screenplay. One of those longer compositions, sometimes called “Dream Sequence” or “Welcome to the Melting Pot” or “We're from the Journal,” depicts, through instrumental and vocal sections, the arrival at Ellis Island of a Scottish immigrant (played by Gaynor).
The other, called Manhattan Rhapsody, is an eight-minute work for piano and orchestra that depicts Gaynor wandering around in her somewhat menacing new surroundings. Neither of these longish works was published. But when George Gershwin found that he had finished his Hollywood assignment and was facing several weeks in California with nothing to do, he began to rework the Manhattan Rhapsody into a longer piece, one that was called, for a time, Rhapsody in Rivets and which he eventually named Second Rhapsody (his father suggested Rhapsody in Blue #2).
Gershwin wrote the piece in his rented home on Chevy Chase Drive in Beverly Hills, and at the Santa Monica residence of Aileen Pringle (a silent screen actress with whom he was having a romance), and at his New York City residence when he returned there in early 1931. Sticking to the themes that had been in the screen version of the piece, he doubled its length, completed a two-piano draft, and then did the orchestration. The composition was completed on May 23, 1931 and the orchestration by the end of June.
On June 26, Gershwin hired a 55-piece orchestra to give the Second Rhapsody a run-through. This took place at NBC's studio B in Radio City and it was recorded by Victor as a favor to the composer who, after listening to the record, made some minor alterations in the score.
Then came a six-month delay while a conductor was sought for the first performance. Gershwin very much wanted Arturo Toscanini, and he and Oscar Levant auditioned the two-piano version of the rhapsody for the great Italian conductor. Toscanini refused but Koussevitsky said yes.
It was by now de rigueur for critics to write with perplexity about a new Gershwin concert work. Usually there was praise for the composer's energy and the freshness of his melodies, harmonies and rhythms, while doubts were expressed about his ability to create structure and instrumentation. But this time it was the other ay around. H.T. Parker, for example, wrote in the Boston Evening Transcript: “Mr. Gershwin waxes in craftsmanship but at the cost of an earlier and irresistible elán.”
As it turned out, the Second Rhapsody has never caught on with the public. In Gershwin's lifetime, only the two-piano version of the piece was published. In 1953, when the orchestral score was put out by New World Music, the instrumentation had been revamped by Robert McBride at the behest of editor Frank Campbell-Watson. The latter made the dubious claim that Gershwin had approved of these revisions shortly before his death, sixteen years earlier. Actually, the first re-scoring of the Second Rhapsody had occurred in 1933, four years before Gershwin's death, when Ferde Grofé tackled the job for Paul Whiteman. Only recently has Gershwin's original orchestration become the one most commonly used in performances and recordings. This is because it has been only recently that the public has shown an appetite for this most obscure of the composer's highbrow compositions—an appetite that, at the same time, has been growing for performances of these compositions as they were originally written, and as Gershwin himself performed them.
The June 1931 rehearsal with the composer conducting from the piano is commercially available. Pianist Oscar Levant recorded the piece with conductor Morton Gould and they kept to the original orchestration. More recently, a recording by pianist and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas with the Los Angeles Philharmonic used Gershwin's scoring but contained Tilson Thomas's own piano cadenza. The composer's arrangement for two pianos has been recorded by Frances Veri and Michael Jamanis.