Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Birth of Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was first performed February 12, 1924 as part of Paul Whiteman's Aeolian Concert. In 1984, Maurice Peress, after much research, presented an authentic recreation of this historic concert. And an album was published - digital LPs in fact. While there are many wonderful performances, what obviously stands out is Rhapsody in Blue in its original jazz-band orchestration with banjo and saxophones.

I'll excerpt a short piece of Peress' liner notes for the album and then the description of Rhapsody in Blue from the original program.

Notes from Maurice Peress
The selections Whiteman included in the 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert, which had that curious title "An Experiment in Modern Music," were divided into various sections, such as "The True Form of Jazz" and "Recent Compositions with Modern Score." The intention was that together they would be auduble proof that jazz-inspired music had come of age.
The notion of creating an indigenous American art music had been expressed even before the turn of the century, notably by Dvorak: "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music...." But it was not until Whiteman's landmark concert that the idea became a reality. Gershwin's RHAPSODY emerged indisputably as the first successful crossing of America's infectious folk, jazz, blues, and ragtime with traditional Eourpean music.

Program Notes, written by Gilbert Seldes
This is the first rhapsody written for solo instrument and modern orchestra. Prophesy being not the function of an annotator, it may be said that the importance of the rhapsody, quite apart from its own value, must depend to an extent upon it being kept alive in a repertoire--and there is no organization to do this unless the present concert is, as its conductor hopes, only the beginning of a series. Gershwin is a close student of music and a listener; yet there is not a derivative phrase in his work. He has composed a rhapsody and has chosen to build it out of materials known to him: the rhythms of popular American music, the harmonies produced by American jazz bands. None of the thematic material has been used before; the rhapsody is not a pastiche. The structure is simple, and it resembles concertos written by pianists in what seems, at first, the predominance of the single instrument. Mr. Gershwin's manuscript is complete for the piano. The orchestral treatment was developed by Mr. Grofe.

The rhapsody is a free development of almost all of Gershwin's qualities alluded to in the earlier pages of this program. It has a little more crispness, a shade more of jazz and a shade less of gentleness, than some of his compositions; there is more of "A Stairway to Paradise" than of "Do it Again"; and this is natural in a composition intended specifically for jazz orchestra.

Those who care for jazz wil naturally be grateful to Mr. Whiteman for urging Mr. Gershwin to compose this Rhapsody. He had had it in mind for some time but had no intention of going to work upon it until the announcement was made that the Rhapsody would be played at this concert. For those who remain skeptical, another test case may be provided. It is not inconceivable that an intelligent conductor of a symphony orchestra may want to play the rhapsody; it would probably need rescoring, but the saxophone which has been used eer since Meyerbeer in serious music, need not be exiled.


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