Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

by George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin

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About the Composer

George Gershwin was born on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York to a close-knit Russian immigrant family and died on July 11, 1937, in Hollywood, California. In his youth, Gershwin veered away from academic studies and focused more on his musical interests, studying music theory and piano. At the age of sixteen, Gershwin dropped out of school and pursued his more creative side as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley; a district in New York where many different publishers specializing in popular songs were located from the 1880’s through the 1950’s.

During his early twenties, George Gershwin joined up with his brother and lyricist, Ira Gershwin, to produce a musical comedy titled “Lady Be Good”. It was the beginning of a blossoming partnership between the two brothers and together they collaborated and produced more musicals together including “Oh Kay!” and “Funny Face”. Even though Gershwin was gaining notice for his popular music for the stage, he wanted to secure his role as a serious composer and write music equally as popular as his musicals.

After countless hits on Broadway and a few jazz-influenced classical pieces in between, the year 1937 left the Gershwin brothers finding themselves in Hollywood. Gershwin later became ill while working on a film, leaving plans of a string quartet and a ballet untouched. Unfortunately, with his illness, these ideas were unwritten and Gershwin later died at the young age of 38 due to a brain tumor. His works and music live on and he remains one of America’s most beloved popular composers.

 

About this Piece

Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned in January of 1924 by Paul Whiteman, the best-known American bandleader at the time, for his concert titled, ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, with the goal of alerting the public audience to the importance and influence of jazz music. It was premiered on February 12, 1924 at the Aeolian Theater in New York with Gershwin as the soloist and was orchestrated by Ferde Gorfé, Whiteman’s personal arranger.

George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue at the young age of 25, as a way to present himself as a more serious composer. Labeled as a “jazz concerto”, it is scored for solo piano and jazz ensemble and exhibits characteristics of popular song forms while highlighting elements of jazz and blues within its free-form outline.

The title itself was thought up by Ira Gershwin who was inspired by the abstract names of James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s paintings such as Arrangement in Gray and Black. This curious title piqued the interest of the Gershwin brothers and they then created a musically equivalent title with the word “blue” suggesting “the Blues” and in addition, jazz.

The premiere of this piece hit the public audience by storm which led to Ferde Gorfé eventually reworking the orchestration to fit the more commonly seen arrangement today with piano solo and symphony orchestra.

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