Chicago Symphony Orchestra
John Axelrod, Conductor
Lang Lang, Piano
Herbie Hancock, Piano
Mozart: Figaro Overture
Vaughan Williams: Concerto for Two Pianos in C Major
Berlioz: Roman Carnival
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Ravel: Ma Mere L’Oye
Lang Lang has been chosen as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world.
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue
Paul Whiteman announced a provocative concert in the New York Tribune on January 4, 1924. The stated purpose of this musical event was to decide “What is American music?” According to the four-paragraph article, Whiteman had assembled a distinguished panel of musicians—Sergei Rachmaninov, Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, Alma Gluck and critic Leonard Leibling—to decide the question. Among other music, the program would contain three new compositions: a jazz concerto by George Gershwin, a “syncopated tone poem” by Irving Berlin and an American suite by Victor Herbert.
Ira Gershwin brought this article to his brother’s attention. George apparently had forgotten about the “jazz concerto” project, which he had discussed in vague terms with Whiteman. With less than six weeks before the concert, the surprised musician began mapping out ideas. Gershwin’s account of the creative process appeared in 1938, one year after his tragic death by brain cancer: “I had no set plan, no structure to which my music must conform. The Rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not as a plan.” Sometime before January 7, Gershwin had combed his “tune books” for useful melodic ideas. Shuttling between New York and Boston for the tryout of his musical The Perfect Lady (produced on Broadway as Sweet Little Devil), Gershwin’s imagination came alive to the sounds of his passenger train “with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang . . . I suddenly heard—even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end.”
Gershwin imagined a grand nationalistic essay, “a musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Additional themes materialized in unlikely places. Gershwin apparently invented the melodious “love theme” while improvising at a friend’s party in Boston. Ira claims credit for urging his brother to include the famous clarinet opening, originally written as a rapid scale spread over more than two octaves. The glissando effect originated with a prank concocted by Whiteman’s clarinetist, Ross Gorman, during a rehearsal. The composer liked the effect and encouraged Gorman to add a jazzy “wail” at the top end. George considered the title American Rhapsody, but Ira reportedly suggested Rhapsody in Blue after viewing James McNeill Whistler’s paintings Nocturne in Black and Gold and Arrangements in Gray and Black (known as Whistler’s Mother).
Whiteman’s “An Experiment in Modern Music” took place as scheduled on February 12, 1924. Countless socialites and musical dignitaries crowded Aeolian Hall for this major event. (David Schiff explained in his detailed study of the Rhapsody in Blue that New York City had not yet emerged as a major jazz center. This situation would change over the next few years with the arrival of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and other important jazz performers.) Whiteman explained to his audience that his concert was to be “purely educational.” The program subdivided into several thematic sections contrasting older and modern examples of true forms of jazz, comedy, legitimate vs. jazz scoring and dance rhythms, as well as symphonic arrangements and piano improvisations by Zez Confrey.
Rhapsody in Blue occupied the next-to-last section. Given the press of time, Gershwin allowed Ferde Grofé to orchestrate the score. The regular arranger for the Palais Royal Orchestra, Grofé understood better than anyone the abilities of Whiteman’s 23 musicians. He discussed orchestration ideas with Gershwin on a regular basis and completed a rough score on February 4. However, the exact nature of their individual contributions later became a point of contention between composer and orchestrator. Whiteman conducted from an incomplete score. Gershwin improvised many unnotated solo piano passages, then nodded to the conductor when the orchestra should enter.
The audience greeted Gershwin’s work, according to critic Olin Downes, with “tumultuous applause.” No one denied that Rhapsody in Blue possessed awkward spots, but this one composition abundantly justified Whiteman’s experiment. Gershwin finally gained widespread acknowledgement as a legitimate composer. He also earned a quarter-million dollars from royalties and rentals over the next decade. Grofé modified the instrumentation numerous times for tours and concert appearances by Whiteman’s orchestra. He published a full-orchestra version in 1942. Schiff observed that these transformations have completely reversed the original stylistic balance: “In the original scoring the band is playing jazz while the piano introduces the classical elements; in the symphonic version the orchestra seems to be the classical element while the soloist takes on the burden of sounding 'jazzy.’”
The commonly heard orchestral version, established after the composer’s death, may be outlined at various levels. Rhapsodic elements exist in the numerous tempo changes and the long unaccompanied piano solos. On the other hand, the specific tempo sequence might be viewed as a compressed symphony: moderately fast, scherzo, slow “love” theme and toccata finale. Gershwin’s combination of solo piano and larger ensemble, not to mention the ritornello theme (heard after the opening clarinet wail), suggests an obvious connection to the concerto.
Sheer melodic abundance disguises the careful unity of Gershwin’s themes. All utilize the blues scale (major and minor thirds and minor seventh) and two share a common syncopated rhythm. The exact sequence and selection of themes varies considerably in different performing versions, raising the perplexing question: What exactly constitutes the Rhapsody in Blue? This nebulous situation existed from the very origins of the work and has persisted to the present day. Gershwin left three recordings, two with Whiteman’s ensemble and one piano roll recorded in two sessions. The “orchestral” versions have been significantly abridged, while the piano version gives a more complete rendition. Leonard Bernstein, in his Joy of Music, categorized the numerous possible alterations of this score and commented that “Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable.” Oddly, the clearest yet most sterile definition of this “piece” exists in copyright law: six melodies and a motivic tag, any one of which constitutes the Rhapsody in Blue. Listeners over the past seven-plus decades have defined this music in other terms—an American classic!
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009
Meet Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock after their performance for a signing outside Ravinia Gifts, located in front of the Dining Pavilion.
Autographs are at the discretion of the artist who may elect to end the signing at any point. Purchase of official licensed merchandise is highly recommended for artist signings, and in some cases, artists require in-park purchase. Your purchase does not guarantee an autograph.