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Music In The 20th Century

Early Twentieth Century America | George Gershwin

Peter Kun Frary


The American composer and pianist, George Gershwin (1898-1937), wrote music that merged American Jazz, Blues and Tin Pan Alley with classical music. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

George Gershwin, c. 1935 | Library of Congress

Gershwin studied classical piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark and Henry Cowell. He began his music career working for a music publishing company as a song plugger, i.e., demonstrating piano arrangements of songs in department stores to sell sheet music. Meanwhile, he was busy composing and, in 1919, wrote his first hit song, Swanee, with lyrics by Irving Caesar. After this success he teamed up with his brother Ira Gershwin and other lyricists, producing a steady stream of hit Broadway theatre songs like Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and Fascinating Rhythm.

During the mid-1920s, Gershwin resolved to polish his writing skills and moved to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulange and Marice Ravel. Oddly, he was rejected, apparently because they felt further study would be counterproductive to his already well formed style. After Maestro Ravel heard how much money Gershwin earned as a composer, he told Gershwin, "You should give me lessons." While in France, Gershwin sketched out one of his most popular works, An American in Paris.

L'Orchestre 1948 | Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) | Centre Pompidou

After returning to New York City, Gershwin was extremely productive: composed the opera Porgy and Bess with Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward as lyricists. Initially a flop, Porgy and Bess is now among the most important American operas of the twentieth century.

The movie industry was booming—silent movies were dead and sound tracks were the norm—so after a disappointing run of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin restarted his career in Hollywood. He quickly broke into the business in 1936 with a commission from RKO Pictures to write a score for the film Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Sadly, his amazing career was cut tragically short by death in 1937 from a brain tumor. Gershwin was only 38 years old.

Blue Waves | Peter Kun Frary

Rhapsody in Blue

Band leader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to compose a jazz concerto for an upcoming concert. Gershwin initially declined because there wasn't enough time to write the piece. He did an about face when he learned Vincent Lopez was planning to steal the idea of merging jazz and classical music and, thus, Gershwin wrote what was to become Rhapsody in Blue (1924) during the five weeks before the concert.

Rhapsody in Blue was extremely well received by the public and, by the end of 1927, Whiteman's band had performed Rhapsody eighty-four times, and its recording sold a million copies on 12-inch records. Because the work is nearly fifteen minutes long, the recording had to be sped up to fit on the record (the LP did not exist yet). However, music critics were not as accommodating as Gershwin's fans:

How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive! - Lawrence Gilman, New York Tribune, February 13, 1924

Rhapsody in Blue is a single movement work for piano and orchestra. While it borrows heavily from jazz influenced melody, harmony and rhythms, it's not jazz since there is no improvisation. Rhapsody consists of three main sections and a coda. Each section has an extended piano solo, often filled with flashy passages written to sound like improvisations.

The work opens with the famous clarinet solo with glissando (sliding between pitches) climbing up to a wailing high bluesy tone:

The clarinet blues theme is followed by a repeated note theme played by French horns and woodwinds. This theme reappears and is developed many times through the work:

The clarinet blues theme is bounced around between orchestra and piano. About a minute and half in the piano cuts loose with an extended solo. After the orchestra comments on the piano solo, a new trumpet theme is introduced in march time:

The second section of the Rhapsody is out the gate with a lively and jazzy theme in the low register:

The new theme is developed and tossed around the orchestra and followed by two lengthy piano solos before closing off the second section.

The third section mellows the mood with a slower tempo and sweeter sound. Immediately the violins introduce a lyrical and romantic theme:

The orchestra plays with the lyrical theme hands it off to the piano for further development and virtuosic treatment.

For the coda, the tempo accelerates and the lyrical theme is transformed into a rollicking melody. An earlier theme, the repeated note theme, is brought back for a breakneck speed fortissimo ending.

Rhapsody in Blue (18:08) | George Gershwin (1898-1937)


George Gershwin, song plugger, glissando

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved