Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin

In the early twentieth century, American composers began to experiment with incorporating popular music into their classical compositions. While George Gershwin got his start as a Broadway songwriter, by the 1920s and 1930s he had also made a reputation for himself as a classical composer. Gershwin’s contribution to American music was the addition of jazz and blues to art music, resulting in a distinctly American, modernist style.

In early 1924, Gershwin was surprised to learn that American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman had advertised a concert in the New York Tribune that would include a jazz concerto composed by Gershwin (which he had not begun writing because he did not know about it). After he contacted Whiteman, the two men agreed on a jazz concerto for piano that Gershwin, an accomplished pianist, would perform with Whiteman’s band. Working on a tight deadline, Gershwin feverishly composed the concerto in only five short weeks! The result was Rhapsody in Blue, one of the most frequently performed pieces in American musical history.

The iconic opening clarinet glissando (a slide from a low pitch to a high one) has been used in countless commercials, films and radio programs since the 1920s. Gershwin originally did not include the glissando in the piece, but he heard Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman play one during a rehearsal and decided to add it. The glissando has since become one of the most recognizable sounds in the world. The word “rhapsody” in the title means that the piece was freeform (a musical exploration of a variety of contrasting moods), and the solo piano part gives the false impression of spontaneous improvisation. “Blue” refers to the elements of blues and jazz that Gershwin incorporated. The result is an exciting, fast-paced and “American” sounding piece.

The ISO’s last performance of Rhapsody in Blue was June, 2014 conducted by Eric Zuber.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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