By Tom Quiner
I still remember where I was when I heard that electrifying theme.
I was 24 years old. I was visiting a friend on the East side of town. He was listening to 104 FM when they ran an ad for a new record coming out. It was an interesting album.
The guy on the piano pounding out that riveting theme was long dead, but he was actually playing piano on this NEW recording! How could that be?
Here’s how: the pianist, the late George Gershwin, had played the piece in 1925 and had it recorded as a piano roll. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas took the piano roll with the great Gershwin himself playing, played it back on a cool player piano, and added in a live orchestra.
That is the first time I heard “Rhapsody in Blue.” In an instant, I was a George Gershwin fan.
I ran out and bought the album, which I still own. I bought everything I could find about Gershwin.
I immersed myself in the music of the Gershwin years and came away dazzled by the quality of the songwriting of the era. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and more made their mark on me, but none more than George Gershwin and his lyricist and brother, Ira.
Rhapsody in Blue was raw, American music. American music came of age in an instant with that composition that premiered in 1924. Here is how Gershwin, who was only 25 when he composed the piece, described its creation:
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
I’ve listened to countless versions of the piece. Gershwin played it much faster than, say Leonard Bernstein. I mention Bernstein in light of the controversy I wrote about in my previous post, “The controversial final concert.” Glenn Gould wanted to play Brahm’s First Piano Concerto much slower than Bernstein wanted and it sparked a furor.
By contrast, in Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin plays much of it at break neck speed. Bernstein slows it down quite a bit by contrast. There’s no controversy, though, with the Rhapsody, since it is jazzy which allows performers to take a little more latitude with the piece than a traditional piece of classical music.
To me, the three most important American musical figures of the 20th century were Gershwin, Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, since they created timeless music of substance that helped to define an entire century. Bernstein always offered great insights on the works of other composers. His take on the Rhapsody was quite interesting:
“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. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole.
You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.”
Rhapsody in Blue makes me feel very much alive and very much American.
I have included Part 1 (above) and Part 2 (below) of Leonard Bernstein’s “slower” version of Rhapsody. Take a few minutes to enjoy the irresistible melodies of an American classic.