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Rhapsody in Blue
by Thanos Kalamidas
2010-01-07 07:50:13
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A very dear family friend who found rest in early 80s and he was one of the Auschwitz survivals was often whistling unconsciously a classic music piece that will bring in my memories his sad eyes for as long I live. The man was led to Auschwitz by the Nazis and their Greek collaborators sometime near the end of the war as communist and only prove that he was fighting the Nazi occupying forces; an obligation to anybody who loves his or her country.

rhapsody01The music part he was so often whistling was George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” and as I said every time I hear this master work I feel his sad eyes staring at me with so much sadness. The man had seen the worst of human kind and he had seen it accompanied by music played by an orchestra comprised by camp prisoners, convicted to gas mainly Jews and it is one thing to read about it in history books and totally different to hear it from somebody who actually lived it.

On 7th of January 1924, 29 years-old George Gershwin completes his Rhapsody in Blue. Just for this friend of mine and all these innocent people who lived the Auschwitz nightmare and survive to …whistle please listen Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” and read some notes about the composer and his master piece.

Gershwin was born Jacob Gershvitz in 1898 to Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, where he was immersed in a vast range of music. He left high school for Tin Pan Alley and worked three years as a pianist plugging sheet music for Remick's music publishers. Quickly absorbing both the writing and performing styles of his time, Gershwin moonlighted as a vocal accompanist and dabbled in composition. A mere 20 years old, he soared to fame with “Swanee,” a mega-hit for Al Jolson. Within the next few years the flow of songs continued, including several Broadway musicals.

Apparently, at one point Gershwin had mentioned his desire to write a serious piece incorporating jazz and pop elements to Paul Whiteman, whose dance band was among the most popular in America. Nothing more came of this until January 3, 1924, when Whiteman announced an eclectic concert to take place at New York City's Aeolian Hall, with the bold purpose of displaying modern American music in all its varieties. Whiteman went on to proclaim that Gershwin was at work on a jazz concerto which would receive its premiere at the event. This was news to Gershwin, who read about it in the next day's paper along with the rest of the world. Gershwin protested that he had nothing in progress except a new show and was headed to Boston for a tryout. Worse yet, the Whiteman concert were slated for February 12!

Despite the confusion, Whiteman apparently persuaded Gershwin to accept his commission. Gershwin later recalled that he formed the concept of the piece on his way to Boston, inspired in part by the rhythmic noises of the train ride. Upon returning to his New York apartment, he produced a two-piano score to be orchestrated by Whiteman's top arranger. Best remembered for his glitzy but trifling Grand Canyon Suite, Ferde Grofé knew the special talents of the Whiteman musicians and was uniquely qualified to customize the score to maximize its impact. Thus, the famous opening glissando was tailored for Russ Gorman, Whiteman's first-chair clarinettist.

The instrumentation was completed barely a week before the scheduled premiere. Due to the rushed circumstances and his other commitments, Gershwin had no time to write out the solo passages, which he played from memory (and, great improviser that he was, probably embellished considerably). Gershwin's understanding with Whiteman was that he would nod when his solos were over and the next orchestral portion was to begin. The concert was long and tedious, with Gershwin's piece nearly at the end. While critical reaction was mixed, the audience was thrilled and the work was recognized immediately as something new and excitingly different. Even now, with the vantage of retrospect, the Rhapsody in Blue eludes convenient classification. Is it classical music with pop elements, or jazz with serious pretensions?

Just what type of musical creature is the Rhapsody in Blue? From the very outset, commentators have struggled to describe it. Gershwin had declared his intention as breaking down misconceptions about the limitations of jazz. But such terminology is confusing – this wasn't the same spontaneously improvised “jazz” that his contemporaries Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton and Bix Biederbecke were creating. Rather, it was a mainstream version filtered into dance arrangements that stretched conventional rules with a novel edge of some harmonic flights, rhythmic variation and emphatic playing. Whiteman's claim to have been “The King of Jazz” must have gotten a good sneer from real jazz musicians.

Far more cogent is John Struble's observation that Gershwin approached all music as a songwriter. His strength was as one of the great instinctive melodist of all time. Although he did receive some formal musical training, his abiding weakness was structure. Thus, notwithstanding a great love for the piece, Leonard Bernstein disparaged the Rhapsody in Blue as “not a composition at all [but] a string of … terrific tunes … stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water.” Arthur Schwartz agreed, calling the development and transitions “more intuition than tuition.” All Gershwin's works discount traditional development and proceed linearly from one event to the next. The appealing result, as Alex North observed, is a natural, sincere expression which, as James Lyons noted, manifests the confidence and nervous energy of the “Roaring Twenties.”

Perhaps the most reliable measure of the Rhapsody's originality is that it had no direct descendants. Indeed, subsequent attempts to meld pop and serious music always seem awkward. Yet, its fame and impact inspired many serious composers, including Ravel, Stravinsky and Milhaud, to explore jazz and stirred countless pop composers to dabble in classical forms. But all of this lay well in the future, a future which Gershwin, who died at age 38 of a brain tumour, would not live to see. In the meantime, the months following the Whiteman premiere saw many more performances, including two at Carnegie Hall. And then for the young and daring composer came a terrific break – the opportunity to record his sensation for Victor, or at least as much of it as could fit onto a 2-sided 12-inch record.

The session took place on June 10 and featured the same Whiteman players who had been at Aeolian Hall, including Gershwin himself at the piano. Although the second half is heavily cut, the performance captured that day fully regenerates the exhilaration that elated the first audience. The pacing is brisk and at times even frantic, the dynamics extreme, the playing biting, tense and driven. There is not a bit of the gushy romanticism heard on so many bloated modern interpretations of the piece (in part because they use Grofé's later full orchestration). Even the shrill, brassy, lean orchestration seems an ideal match for the sonic limitations of the acoustic process, a purely mechanical recording system in which musical vibrations were gathered by a horn and engraved by a stylus directly on a wax master.

This is an ideal realization – brash and arrogant, just the impression we would expect from the young composer who had turned the world on its head by daring to synthesize “jazz” and the classics. The opening glissando is lumpy, but effectively sets the aural stage for the spontaneity to come. Gershwin's solos are so free-flowing as to sound as if they truly did arise on the spot. The band responds with biting sarcasm, as if to mock the pretension of a formal concert setting. The entire performance has a rousing impromptu tone, as if to proclaim the passionate commitment of the original ensemble infusing the score with the very breath of creation. The sheer sincerity of the record is simply overwhelming. It's currently on budget Naxos CD 120510 and BMG 62376.

Gershwin himself left us two other performances. A comparably abridged 1927 remake with Whiteman's band (but not Whiteman himself, who stormed out of the session after arguing with Gershwin over tempo) used the new electrical recording process of microphones and amplifiers (also on BMG 62376) and comes close but doesn't quite recapture the fresh authority of the original. A full-length 1925 piano roll (Nonesuch 79287) thickens the texture to sketch in the orchestral parts (even though it may have “cheated” a bit by extending Gershwin's own considerable virtuosity through extra hand-punched holes). Of other performances, the most compelling have no pretence of manicured refinement, but follow Gershwin's own cue of free-wheeling impulse.

We remember Oscar Levant primarily as an insufferable character in the MGM musicals The Band Wagon and An American in Paris (in which he whimsically dreams that he and multiple clones play the finale of Gershwin's Concerto in F). More significant than his acting, though, was his dedicated service as a Gershwin aide and accompanist. Thus, Levant's brisk and highly personal 1945 reading of the Rhapsody with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (CBS 42574) is second only to Gershwin's in authenticity. When first released on LP, the album bore the “CL” prefix used for pop albums rather than the “ML” classical prefix, a clear recognition of its crossover appeal.

Another striking performance comes from a most unlikely source – that straight-laced classicist, Arturo Toscanini. During World War II, Toscanini pushed the performance of American music as a patriotic gesture. While he had no feeling for the pop language that infuses Gershwin's work, to his credit he made no attempt to mimic an alien style. Rather, he approached Gershwin with the same fierce severity as any other classical piece, tearing into the accompaniment with dramatic gusto while yielding to idiomatic solos by a young and intrepid Earl Wild. (Benny Goodman, a crhapsody02elebrity recruited to play the opening clarinet solo, muffs a disastrous climactic note.) The 1942 broadcast (on Hunt CD 534) is vivid and committed a fascinating if perverse contrast to the usual readings. The elements missing from Toscanini's rigorous interpretation attest that the essence of Gershwin lay well beyond the limits of serious music alone.

Of the dozens of modern versions and my personal favourite is with Leonard Bernstein, conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard, manages to capture much of the lean vigour and jaunty attitude of Gershwin's original and has been constantly around in various incarnations since its release in 1959 (currently on Sony CD 42264 or 63086, each paired appropriately with Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite). (Bernstein's sharply articulated 1983 remake is with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with which he had given his first professional performance of the Rhapsody in 1944 – DG 410025.) Pianist/conductor Morton Gould, who worked with Gershwin, adds lots of personal inflection to his spirited 1955 account (BMG 62376). More conventional are the fine remake by Earl Wild with the vastly underrated Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (BMG 68796 or 68109) and the sassy outing by Jerome Lowenthal with the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel (Vanguard 10017). The leisurely, lyrical and well-balanced reading by Jeffrey Siegel, with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, permits the work's wry humour and playfulness to emerge gently (and is a superb bargain on Vox CDX-5007).

My dear friend, I miss your whistling and I hope at last you found rest!


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