Friday Favorites 4/12/2013
On February 12, 1924, an all-afternoon concert was scheduled for the Aeolian Hall in New York City. It featured the orchestra of Paul Whitman, one of the most popular big bands of the time, with the lofty purpose of demonstrating that the relatively new form of music called jazz deserved to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated art form. According to Matthew Naughton, the concert was really a publicity stunt by Whitman to publicize his Palais Royal Orchestra but whatever the motivation, the elite of New York Society turned up en masse, along with numerous music critics and well known musical figures, including Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Phillips Souza. There were 26 pieces on the program with esoteric titles like Contrast: legitimate scoring vs. jazzing, but most were simply rescorings of Whitman’s dance pieces and arrangements of Ira Gershwin show tunes. The ventilation system in the hall wasn’t working and by the time a young composer named George Gershwin took his place at the piano late in the afternoon, the audience was restless and headed for the aisles. In his one man show, George Gershwin Alone, Hershey Felder, speaking as Gershwin says that the audience went silent when they heard the opening clarinet glissando of his new piece. According to Naughton, What happened next brought those in the aisles right back to their seats, put Whiteman and his experimental concert into the history books, and made George Gershwin world-famous and rich. What happened next was Rhapsody in Blue.
The Rhapsody almost never happened. Whitman had talked to Gershwin about writing a concert piece for his Experiment, but didn’t agree to it until he saw the program with his name already listed with the concert five weeks away. Reluctantly, he wrote a two piano piece he titled An American Rhapsody and turned it over to Ferde Grofe, Whitman’s arranger for orchestration. At the piece’s premier, Gershwin improvised much of the piano part, indicating to Whitman with a nod of the head when to resume the orchestral portions. The piece, renamed Rhapsody in Blue at the recommendation of his brother, Ira, was received with thunderous applause. However, it received at best mixed reviews. According to Wikipedia, critic Lawrence Gilmore droned, How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! and Pitts Sanborn wrote that the music runs off into empty passage-work and meaningless repetition. Even Leonard Bernstein, who said he loved the piece has said, The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific – inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable.
Regardless of criticism, Rhapsody in Blue changed everything in American music, opening the door for modern composers to use elements of jazz in classical works. And it became one of the best known … and most loved … of American melodies. It has influenced composers from Aaron Copeland to Brian Wilson. And, of course, it’s this week’s Friday Favorite on Older Eyes – Bud’s Blog. If only George were around to celebrate. Interestingly enough, one of the best modern performances features Leonard Bernstein himself on the piano and conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ve posted it in two parts because the sound is best in this version on YouTube. Take a while to listen to the beautiful piano work and enjoy watching Bernstein’s fingering of the keys during the solos. And hang around for the transition from the piano solo to the orchestra at about 3:20 of the second video, one of the most romantic moments in American music. And have a great weekend.
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