Power & Market

Happy Centennial, "Rhapsody in Blue"!

The 1920s in America, as well as much of the West, were characterized by a feeling that anything was possible. In the Roaring ‘20s Americans no longer worried about war, and they had seen the post-war depression of 1920-1921 vanish quickly, thanks to a paucity of government meddling. The Federal Reserve was managing the money supply in what eventually became a fatal disaster but was heralded at the time, and inventions flowed forth from a great release of creative energy that had been pent-up during the war.

With low unemployment Americans were prosperous and mobile as mass-production made cars affordable for the middle class. Women had won the right to vote and were asserting their independence in culture and work, and alcoholic beverages were prohibited giving rise to massive defiance in the form of organized crime and speakeasies. In dance, the fast-kicking Charleston became wildly popular. 

The 1920s was also the Jazz Age. Originating from African American musicians in New Orleans, “jazz” had no agreed-upon definition, though improvisation became one of its defining elements.

As one writer described it,

Jazz represented the Roaring Twenties’ spirit: energetic, modern, and slightly rebellious. Musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith became national icons, pushing musical boundaries with improvisation and new rhythms. Jazz clubs, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, became cultural hubs, drawing diverse audiences and facilitating the mingling of different racial and social groups.

The popularity of jazz rendered it an American signature, but the reigning classical orthodoxy considered it low brow. Americans, therefore, were low brow.

This bothered some jazz musicians, and one of them decided to shake-up that prejudice.

Paul Whiteman’s concert

On Friday, January 4, 1924 Ira Gershwin sat reading the morning’s New York Tribune while his younger brother George and a friend were nearby playing a game of pool. Ira noticed an item in the music section headlined “Committee Will Decide ‘What is American Music?’.” As he read on he learned that jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman was planning a concert for Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12 — five weeks away. 

Whiteman’s “An Experiment in Modern Music,” he read, would be judged by four iconic musicians of the day: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, and Elma Gluck. How they would know if the “experiment” could be called American music was likely a mystery even to them.

It was the brief article’s last paragraph that made Ira straighten up and take notice:

George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.

His brother is at work on a jazz concerto?! In the upcoming days George would be occupied with a musical comedy he had written which was about to open on Broadway, Sweet Little Devil. Where did Whiteman get the idea Gershwin was writing a concerto?

It turned out George had forgotten about his promise to Whiteman during talks back in December. He called the band leader early the next morning to tell him it would be impossible to write a concerto in the time remaining. But Whiteman somehow talked him into it, though Gershwin promised not a concerto but a freer piece such as a rhapsody. Whiteman assured him he only needed to write the piano score; his trusted in-house arranger Ferde Grofé would do the orchestration.

After he had sold his first song in 1916 at age 17 for 50 cents, Gershwin worked as a song plugger and producer of piano rolls for a while. His first commercial success as a composer was the ragtime Rialto Ripples in 1917 followed by a bigger hit Swanee in 1919. With songwriter William Daly he began collaborating on Broadway musicals beginning in 1920. 

Gershwin had been in the habit of jotting down song ideas in what he called his Tune Books. Now, at age 25, he had collected an abundance of musical phrases, and he turned to these to get him started on what would eventually become a sure bet to pack concert halls here and abroad for the next 100 years — Rhapsody in Blue.

Manuscript evidence suggests he only worked on Rhapsody a total of 10 days from January 7, 1924, to the end of rehearsals in February.

Last minute anxiety

Carnegie Hall had been booked for February 12, 1924, and surrounding dates, so Whiteman settled for the less-capacious Aeolian Hall. 

Whiteman was taking a risk for the concert he had planned. On the day of the event, scheduled to begin at 2:45 p.m., he slipped out of the hall to check on the box office, and in his own words:

There I gazed upon a picture that should have imparted new vigor to my wilting confidence. It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get into the door. . .

Such was the state of my mind by this time that I wondered if I had come to the right entrance. And then I saw Victor Herbert going in. It was the right entrance. . . The next day the ticket office people said they could have sold out the house ten times over.

All very encouraging but by late afternoon Whiteman’s experiment was fading. Applause had been polite for the performances up to that point. Slowly, people began to head for the exits.

Then Gershwin, “a lank and dark young man,” stepped quietly on stage. Settled at the piano he nodded to Whiteman, who gestured to Ross Gorman whose clarinet wail electrified the audience. The hall’s deserters rushed back in.

Later, critics said Rhapsody was flawed, it was too heavy on the piano part and its form was not classically proportioned. But when the final ffz (very loud) chord was struck by Gershwin and orchestra, the audience exploded with applause. According to Whiteman he and the young composer took five curtain calls.

The question “What is American music?” never got answered. 

Today, a who’s who of concert pianists have recorded the Rhapsody, many available on YouTube. 

In late January of this year pianist-composer Ethan Iverson wrote a piece for the NY Times, saying

Thanks to the centennial, you’re likely to come across a lot of “Rhapsody” performances this year — not that the anniversary makes much difference, because that’s always the case.

As conductor Michael Tilson Thomas once said, Gershwin’s music has that elusive quality of making people fall in love with it.

Happy centennial, Rhapsody in Blue!

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