George Gershwin (1898–1937). Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

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George Gershwin is playing billiards and in walks brother Ira with a newspaper which says that George is writing a jazz concerto for a concert six weeks away. This was news to George.

Composer and pianist George Gershwin, conductor and pianist Wayne Marshall

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

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Three days after New Year’s brought in 1924, George Gershwin was playing billiards with his friend the songwriter Buddy DeSylva. DeSylva wrote the lyrics to “April Showers” and other hits, and had already worked with George the year before on the so-called jazz opera Blue Monday. It had flopped, but would be a precursor for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935. More importantly at the time, though, it solidified the opinion of its producer, Paul Whiteman, that George Gershwin was someone he wanted to continue to work with.

While George and Buddy were playing billiards, in walks Ira Gershwin, George’s brother, with a copy of the New York Tribune. He asks his brother about an article in it, which says that George is writing a jazz concerto for an upcoming Paul Whiteman concert. This was news to George, because he had already turned down Whiteman’s offer. There simply wasn’t enough time.

The next day George called Whiteman, and Whiteman said that he had to do it because one of his competitors, bandleader Vincent Lopez, was about to steal his idea for a concert bridging the worlds of jazz and classical, and please, couldn’t George reconsider?

This marriage of jazz and classical was in the air. 1922’s Blue Monday itself had attempted it, but the use of African American performers or storylines was still a novelty, and Blue Monday’s tragic ending didn’t sit well with audiences expecting light entertainment. In 1923, mezzo-soprano Éva Gauthier startled audiences with her mix of classical and modernist works, including music by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Hindemith, and Villa-Lobos, right alongside popular songs and show tunes. This was unheard-of for art song recitals.

Whiteman heard her in one such recital at Aeolian Hall in Midtown Manhattan on November 1st, 1923, a program made even more notable for having songs by George Gershwin, with the composer at the piano. Whiteman resolved to expand on this idea, and for a Lincoln’s Birthday all-jazz concert, February 12th, 1924, he’d call it “An Experiment in Modern Music.”

Well, that was the idea, but Gershwin had told Whiteman that there wasn’t enough time. Now it was in the papers, though. It was already January 4th. Whiteman pleaded on the phone, Gershwin relented, and three days later, on a train trip to Boston, began composing Rhapsody in Blue in his head.

He soon had the form of it settled in his mind, and wanted it to reflect the agitation, energy, and romance of the city. In three weeks he had all the notes down for the band—Gershwin would improvise much of the piano solo—and sent the score to Whiteman’s pianist and arranger Ferde Grofé. The reduced score had brief instrumental indications notated all over it, but Grofé did a masterful job orchestrating it for the 23-person Whiteman band. He finished the score on February 4th, parts were copied out, and the piece went to rehearsal.

Gershwin had not yet had any experience in orchestrating, so it was a natural and wise decision to hand that job over—for this quick-turnaround project—to a seasoned professional like Grofé. But Gershwin was a brilliant musician and would later orchestrate his own works, including what many consider his masterpiece, the Piano Concerto in F.

At that first rehearsal, the clarinetist goofed around a bit on his opening run, adding swoops and bending notes and taking liberties with the tempo. Gershwin loved it, told him to keep it in, and it’s part of the score now—and part of clarinet auditions the world over—to this day. Whiteman called his ensemble a “jazz band,” but it was a unique amalgamation of players, smaller than a symphony orchestra but larger, much larger than any jazz group playing in clubs or theaters. This had a number of woodwinds and saxophones played by only three players. This aggressive doubling and tripling is unheard of in classical circles but is standard procedure for Broadway orchestras. For instance, the clarinetist Ross Gorman not only played clarinet but also E-flat clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, heckelphone, two different sopranino saxophones, and alto saxophone. That was one player.

In addition to the three wind or “reed” players were two trumpets, two French horns, two trombones, tuba, drum set, timpani, glockenspiel, orchestral piano, tenor banjo, a few stands of violins, and one double bass.

Rhapsody in Blue was a huge hit with the audience, and who was in the audience? Well, such luminaries as composers Igor Stravinsky and Victor Herbert, violinist Fritz Kreisler, conductors Leopold Stokowski and Walter Damrosch, composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, and jazz pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith.

We’re going to hear a wonderful performance of Rhapsody in Blue now. It isn’t the big orchestral version that is probably what you’re used to. It also isn’t the original, 23-person version, but it’s very close to that, expanded only slightly. But what’s most notable is what the solo pianist plays. You will no doubt notice that, after a few minutes, the pianist is improvising. That is, of course, exactly what George Gershwin did at the world premiere. We don’t know now what he played, but then again, nobody knows what Mozart or Beethoven played during the cadenzas of their concertos. They didn’t write their solo cadenzas out, either, so Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is entirely within that tradition. The orchestra sat there during his solos, and simply waited for his nod to come back in. Live music, how exciting is that?

Wayne Marshall is the soloist, and conducts from the piano, in the recording we’re about to hear. He was born in England to parents from Barbados, and is a world-class concert organist, a conductor, and a classical and jazz pianist. From 2014 to 2020 Marshall was the chief conductor of the WDR Funkhaus Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, and it’s with this lineup that we’ll now hear Rhapsody in Blue in its slightly expanded early jazz band version, with Marshall conducting from the piano and playing original improvisations during the solos.

On Fleisher Discoveries, then, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for jazz band and piano. It’s the WDR Funkhaus Orchestra, and the soloist and conductor is Wayne Marshall.

[George Gershwin (1898–1937). Rhapsody in Blue (1924)]

The Rhapsody in Blue of George Gershwin, in an early version for piano with jazz band. Wayne Marshall was soloist and conductor, leading the WDR Funkhaus Orchestra in concert. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

The big difference you no doubt heard was Wayne Marshall’s improvisations. As I said earlier, this is entirely in keeping with the premiere, with George Gershwin as soloist. Nobody on stage knew what he was going to play, as he was making a good bit of it up. It was, after all, called a “jazz concerto.”

The instrumentation history of Rhapsody in Blue is tricky, because in addition to the original 1924 orchestration by Ferde Grofé, there was a slightly expanded version in 1926, also by Grofé, for a theater orchestra. That version is pretty much what we just heard. Grofé finally orchestrated it again in 1942 for full orchestra, five years after Gershwin had died, and that’s the version everyone played and recorded. But the smaller versions have been coming back in the last few decades, so it’s good to hear the energy and crispness of the music that Gershwin heard in his head while he was composing this.

While the audience loved Rhapsody in Blue at the premiere, the critics really didn’t. But, Paul Whiteman programmed it dozens of times over the next few years. With every iteration, with every orchestration, Rhapsody in Blue has grown internationally to be one of the most-played and most-recorded concert works by an American composer, and that composer, George Gershwin, is now seen as one of the brightest stars the music of America has ever produced.

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And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.