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‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Gershwin’s musical melting pot, at 100 : NPR

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George Gershwin, photographed in his 72nd Avenue house in New York in 1934. His Rhapsody in Blue premiered 100 years in the past on Feb. 12, 1924.

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George Gershwin, photographed in his 72nd Avenue house in New York in 1934. His Rhapsody in Blue premiered 100 years in the past on Feb. 12, 1924.

PhotoQuest / Contributor/Getty Photos

It was chilly and snowy in New York Metropolis 100 years in the past at present, and Aeolian Corridor, throughout from Bryant Park, was packed. Composers Sergei Rachmaninov and John Philip Sousa had been within the viewers, together with violin sensation Jascha Heifetz, conductor Leopold Stokowski and actress Gertrude Lawrence. Tons of, reportedly, had been turned away. All of them got here to attend “An Experiment in Fashionable Music,” a live performance mounted by the favored bandleader Paul Whiteman.

“My concept for the live performance,” Whiteman wrote in his autobiography, “was to indicate these skeptical individuals the advance which had been made in common music from the day of the discordant early jazz to the melodious type of the current.” Judging from that, and articles similar to one in a 1921 version of Women’ Dwelling Journal whose headline learn “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” one may ponder whether Whiteman was attempting to whitewash the perceived lowbrow origins of jazz for the elites comfortably seated of their temple of classical music.

And but, a shock was in retailer for these in attendance. Late within the lengthy program of primarily fluffy confections, similar to Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys,” got here a caterwauling clarinet, slithering up the size. It was the opening salvo that launched George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue, a chunk teeming with prospects not just for the composer however for what American music may sound like.

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“Gershwin is effectively conscious of what he is doing, and he actually would not give a rattling what individuals assume,” says Joseph Horowitz, writer of Classical Music in America: A Historical past of its Rise and Fall. “He wished to bridge musical worlds that had been separate.”

These worlds had been jazz — the pop music of the day — and classical. And bridge them he did. Gershwin’s Rhapsody was thunderously applauded that day, and Whiteman toured it relentlessly for years. Extra profitable mergers from the composer adopted, with An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, the Cuban Overture and the opera Porgy and Bess. The issue, Horowitz says, is that Gershwin was shunned by the American composers who had been finest positioned to dictate the route of American classical music.

Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, all of them write about Gershwin as if he is a dilettante — cannot be taken utterly severely,” Horowitz says. Jazz, they thought, wasn’t severe music — and for Gershwin to introduce it into classical music was like poisoning the effectively.

“You realize in addition to I do this the Rhapsody shouldn’t be a composition in any respect,” Bernstein wrote in a 1955 essay on Gershwin, forged in a pretend dialogue between himself and an imagined music supervisor. “It is a string of separate paragraphs caught collectively — with a skinny paste of flour and water.”

If the Rhapsody‘s debut viewers had embraced it, the critics had been far much less accepting. The next day within the New York Tribune, Lawrence Gilman wrote about “how trite and feeble and standard the tunes are,” whereas as late as 1933, Paul Rosenfeld, in The New Republic, wrote: “The Rhapsody in Blue is circus music. … It stands vaporous with its second-hand concepts and ecstasies,” including that the Rhapsody was “not a lot music, as jazz dolled up.”

The perspective towards Gershwin had potent implications for classical music in America. Within the Nineteen Twenties, white composers might need drawn from the wealth of homegrown Black music. However they did not — besides Gershwin. Acknowledging that resistance is important, Horowitz says, to understanding the constraints classical music confronted in America between the 2 world wars. “Classical music in the US has by no means actually acquired its personal indigenous identification.” It is why, he argues, classical music nonetheless stays marginalized at present.

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was one of many first profitable works to mix jazz and classical music.

Library of Congress/George Gershwin Bain Assortment


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Library of Congress/George Gershwin Bain Assortment


George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was one of many first profitable works to mix jazz and classical music.

Library of Congress/George Gershwin Bain Assortment

Then there’s the query of appropriation. Was Gershwin stealing from Black tradition? And the way does the query change as soon as later generations of Black musicians start to borrow chord progressions from Gershwin? “It is a matter that we do not speak about quite a bit,” says trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, who himself straddles the fence between jazz and classical. In 2021, he turned the first Black composer to have a piece staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “While you say appropriating, it is like any person who’s taken music with out giving credit score to the originators. And I do not assume Gershwin was that means. Have been they taking the DNA from that? In fact. However I do not assume it was executed with sick intent.” A part of that DNA got here from Gershwin hanging out in Harlem, absorbing the energetic “stride” piano type, which integrated components of ragtime, blues and people music.

“I believe that lots of the writing in Rhapsody in Blue undoubtedly shouldn’t be stuff that Gershwin realized in his piano classes as a younger boy,” says pianist Lara Downes, who has performed the Rhapsody many occasions and is touring a brand new model of it. (Full disclosure, Downes and I work on the NPR program Amplify.) Sitting at her personal piano to display, Downes says Gershwin picked up quite a bit from the stride piano giants, a few of whom had been his associates, similar to James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Luckey Roberts, who claimed he gave Gershwin classes. “It is this very athletic form of taking part in,” she says. And you may hear it by a lot of the Rhapsody.

However Downes hears extra than simply jazz in Gershwin’s piece — she hears politics. “Simply three months after Rhapsody in Blue was carried out, the Johnson-Reed Act was handed,” she factors out. “Extremely xenophobic, anti-immigrant laws that basically shut down Ellis Island, utterly stopped immigration from Asia, drastically reduce immigration from southern and Japanese Europe.”

Gershwin himself was a second-generation Russian immigrant, who informed biographer Isaac Goldberg he considered his Rhapsody as “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” You’ll be able to hear sounds of Tin Pan Alley, the place as an adolescent he labored as a track promoter; there are whiffs of Yiddish theatre, Spanish music, the hurdy-gurdies of the Decrease East Facet and, after all, jazz.

“I do not hear Rhapsody in Blue anymore as only a piece of leisure,” Downes provides. “I believe it is a little bit little bit of an act of revolt, or on the very least, it is a assertion about what America must be and what that appears like.”

What America sounds wish to Downes is nothing lower than a vibrant gumbo of cultures. She and Puerto Rican composer and saxophonist Edmar Colón have taken Gershwin’s hundred-year-old melting pot concept into the current, collaborating on Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined, an expanded model of Gershwin’s authentic that folds in a beneficiant measure of Afro-Cuban flavors in addition to Chinese language music. The work acquired its world premiere final October and a recording was launched earlier this month.

However they are not the one ones remolding Gershwin’s malleable Rhapsody. To mark the anniversary, Banjo guru Béla Fleck has simply launched Rhapsody in Blue(grass). Fleck, who has received 17 Grammys in 13 separate fields, is not any stranger to the Gershwin multicultural ethic. The Rhapsody translated into bluegrass appears like simply one other fluent musical language for Gershwin, and a testomony to the durability of his singular melodies.

“While you hearken to Rhapsody in Blue, it appears to be steeped within the cloth of American tradition,” Blanchard says. “I believe Rhapsody in Blue is a kind of items that actually opened the door for lots of people.” That is very true of the various composers who’ve, over the a long time, tried to mix classical and common music. There’s a lengthy line of jazz-classical mashups from the likes of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein himself, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Wynton Marsalis and Tyshawn Sorey. Plus, a complete lineage of Black composers — together with William Grant Nonetheless, Florence Value, William Levi Dawson and plenty of others — who integrated Black spirituals, dances and discipline songs into their works.

Gershwin died in 1937 from a mind tumor, at simply 38. Who is aware of what American classical music would sound like at present if he’d survived, or if American composers had taken extra severely each him and the Black music that impressed him. However that does not take any energy away from Gershwin’s music for Lara Downes.

“Once we hear Rhapsody in Blue, we’re one way or the other connecting with Gershwin and his enthusiasm and his open coronary heart,” she says, “and his wanting to indicate us the perfect of what our nation may be — whether or not we all know it or not.”

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