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Gershwin (1898-1937) - Rhapsody in Blue

“Mrs. Gershwin has got nice children - but that son! My, is she goin' t' have trouble with that George!” was how a neighbour described the unruly youngster. But, the moment that the family acquired a piano, everything changed. Soon he was working as a “song plugger” in Remick's music store. Many customers must have been perplexed on playing their purchases, as George would habitually embellish what was printed. He made his name with Swannee, the first of many fabulously memorable numbers, at around the time that he began his Broadway career, teamed up (mostly) with highly literate brother Ira. 

However, aware that musicals were “disposable” entertainment, he hankered after hitting it big as a “serious” composer, seeing this as his path to immortality. His big break came courtesy of Paul Whiteman, who wanted an extended work for his imminent “Jazz Concert”. Initially reluctant, perhaps embarrassed by his scant formal training, he accepted only after a premature publicity announcement. He needn't have worried: in a “Jazz Concert” with an Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March at one extreme and the erudition of Yes, We Have No Bananas at the other, few would cry “radical!” while many would hail Rhapsody in Blue for its seething energy and invention. Quite right, too. 

Jazz, like “classical music”, takes many forms. As a “jazz composer” (which purists consider a contradiction in terms), Gershwin is of the “Broadway out of Tin Pan Alley” school. The Rhapsody is perhaps less the popularly-supposed “fusion of jazz and classical styles”, and more the “Bringing of Broadway to Broadwood” (though I'm not saying he actually used one!). Even the compositional process was “Broadway”: Gershwin wrote a piano score, which went to Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofe, for orchestrating. Grofe initially scored for 23-piece jazz band, but later prepared the symphonic version (retaining saxophones and banjo) that secured its future (and Gershwin's ambition) as an immortal classic. Gershwin, of course, soon took another stride across the divide: his subsequent compositions were “all his own work”. 

Having no discernable classical form, Rhapsody in Blue is one of the few genuine “rhapsodies”. Its prodigious ideas spawn, cross-fertilise, and fizz at you from all directions just as, I imagine, they sizzled from Gershwin's hyper-fertile mind: dividends of those mischievous “demos” at Remick's? All is not chaos, though: the “maternal” theme, sailing out of the top of that incredible clarinet slide, acts as a landmark, while the “Big Tune”, the cherry on the cake, provides the centre of gravity. Not that it matters: this isn't music for study, but music to absorb through the very pores of your being!
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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