Rhapsody in Blue
solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, banjo, strings
First performance: February 12, 1924, Aeolian Hall, New York. George Gershwin, piano. Paul Whiteman, conductor.
The works on this concert remind us that it didn’t take long for jazz to become the global music it is today. When jazz emerged around 1915—the word first appeared in a San Francisco sports column to describe a wild curve ball—it referred most often to dance music that was particularly “hot,” definitively southern, and unabashedly creole. Like the creole spoken in New Orleans, jazz was a second-generation language, merging African-American, Caribbean, and white dance styles. By the 1920s, jazz was also the soundtrack of urban modernity, still absorbing musical languages into a patois that now included French neoclassicism alongside instrumental and songwriting styles from the south side of Chicago to New York’s Tin Pan Alley and Harlem. “Symphonic jazz” like you will hear this evening was meant to open a conversation between jazz and classical music, although many rejected the term and its implication that the “symphonic” part should come first. Jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington had always heard and responded to classical music—it was the “long hair” composers who were just now figuring out jazz. Nonetheless, with the ambitiously named “Experiment in Modern Music,” held in New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924, conductor Paul Whiteman laid out his case for the role of jazz in the formation of a new symphonic music. The program culminated in the premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and the ripples from that performance spread all the way to Paris and back. Tonight’s program ends with Rhapsody in Blue (there really is nothing that could follow it), and each of the other three works has traces of its influence.
The most familiar version of Rhapsody in Blue is not just Gershwin’s work, but is also the product of Ferde Grofé’s arrangement (heard at the premiere and in most orchestral performances today). It was Grofé who filled in many of the distinctive timbres and colors we associate with the piece. There have been countless other versions of the Rhapsody over the years, including an arrangement for banjo octet that George’s brother Ira said he would “like to hear once and then promptly forget.” Duke Ellington also periodically rearranged Gershwin’s piece for his own jazz band through the 1920s and 1930s, and many of us may remember hearing the “love theme” from the Rhapsody as the soundtrack to United Airlines commercials in the 1980s. (This excerpt still plays in the underground walkway in Terminal 1 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a United hub.) Each of these versions attests not only to the skills of arrangers, but also to the durability of the themes Gershwin crafted for the Rhapsody. All based on the blues scale and each related to the opening notes of his song “The Man I Love,” the themes of the Rhapsody are still as diverse in character as they are recognizable. The “ritornello” theme appears the most frequently, introduced first in the opening clarinet cadenza and then closing out the work in a grand statement from the whole orchestra. The “train,” “stride,” and “shuffle” themes (appearing in that order) borrow from jazz piano styles from Gershwin’s era and immediately conjure the hustle and bustle of New York’s streets and subways. This verve is contrasted by the sweeping love theme (eventually coopted by United) which one suspects began its life as an attempt at an actual love song, probably consigned to the un-used pile until it could be finished or re-purposed. In fact, most of themes were likely “trunk songs” of this kind, which Gershwin then strung together, forming a series of piano cadenzas with connecting material from the orchestra. The work hangs together not because of any “symphonic” development, but because of the shared jazz vocabulary of the themes: blues-based harmonies, syncopation and energetic rhythm, call-and-response gestures, improvisatory character, and an affinity with popular song. Many of these characteristics, as well as the loose episodic form typical to theatrical genres, whether ballet or the Broadway revue, can be heard in the symphonic jazz that followed in Gershwin’s wake.
Like Gershwin, Jacques Ibert prized variety in his music and often gravitated toward the theater. His Suite symphonique: “Paris” (1930) provides an almost cinematic panorama of Paris in the jazz age, from its suburban parks to its urban thoroughfares. As with the Rhapsody, there are motoric passages—as in “The Metro” and “The Steamship Île-de-France”—that depict the machinery of modernity. Many composers of the interwar period were fascinated with planes, trains, and automobiles, and jazz seemed like it could capture their kinetic energy, albeit with a more ominous tone in Ibert’s music. These two movements and “The Restaurant au Bois de Boulogne” also feature orchestral sound effects—chiming signal bells, the rumble of a train, or a car horn—that recall Gershwin. In fact, the first movement features several brief quotes from American in Paris, albeit cleverly disguised by a darker minor-mode harmony. The fourth movement, however, is Ibert’s own impression of the way in which American popular song and dance music like the Charleston and foxtrot had infiltrated the cafes and cabarets of Paris and melded with the waltzes and mélodies already popular there.
Maurice Ravel and Ibert also share some harmonic affinities with jazz, like the prevalence of extended chords and the blurred distinction between major and minor triads heard in both the blues and in modernist language like Stravinsky’s. For Ravel, however, this harmonic language stemmed from the music of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and he valued clarity of line as much as he did the striking juxtapositions of jazz harmony. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that his Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) stays closer to classical concerto form and style than Gershwin’s Rhapsody. In the first movement, Ravel uses the blues as the more lyrical counterpoint to a bubbling first theme. Like Gershwin, Ravel aims for a piano tour-de-force, where the virtuosity of a jazz improvisation and a concerto overlap, but within the more traditional context of a modified sonata form. After a hazy developmental section, the cadenza halfway through the first movement sounds as if it might just as easily fly from the fingers of an Art Tatum or a Bud Powell as from a Mozart or a Chopin. Gershwin hovers over this cadenza, too, as there is the briefest flicker of the “ritornello” theme from the Rhapsody in Blue. The second movement is a slow, sentimental waltz, equal parts Tin Pan Alley and French melodie. The last movement is a quick sprint to the finish, as if the pianist were trying to outrun the orchestra.
The strongest response to the call of Rhapsody in Blue, however, was William Grant Still’s symphonic poem Darker America. Also premiered in Aeolian Hall in November of 1924, Still’s attempt to speak in both symphonic and jazz languages was received more coldly than Gershwin’s. This is perhaps because, as an African American composer, Still was expected to stick mostly to piano music or theatre and band arrangements, like his predecessors Will Marion Cook and Scott Joplin. Still’s music also expanded the dissonance inherent in blues harmonies into a striking chromaticism more typical of his teacher, the French composer Edgard Varèse. There simply was no space in the American imagination for a black modernist. Nevertheless, Still persisted, and Darker America treats the blues to a thorough symphonic development in order to chart a triumphant course “representative of the American Negro.” Still introduces three themes in sequence: the “theme of the American Negro” rises and falls in the strings, the “sorrow” theme echoes from the English horn, and the “hope” theme follows in the brass, accompanied by strings and woodwinds. The long interior section of the work then adapts the strategy of countless symphonies in which musical development is an analogy for struggle or transformation. Fittingly, the call-and-response structure common in African American music, whether the spiritual or jazz, is the primary developmental force at work on these symbolic themes. Still’s journey ends with a “triumph of the people” in which the three themes are blended together. Near the end of this arc, after a dramatic cymbal crash, we hear a majestic theme from the tutti orchestra that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Rhapsody in Blue. It is hard to say if this similarity is a deliberate reference or a result of the shared blues-based vocabulary of Gershwin and Still’s pieces. Either way, Still entered the symphonic jazz conversation with a bilingual, cosmopolitan fluency that challenges us even now.