Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue - the story behind a hastily composed masterpiece
The great American composer first found out he was meant to be writing his most ground-breaking work from a newspaper article.
Late at night on 3 January 1924, George Gershwin, his brother Ira and lyricist Buddy DeSylva were having a game in the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at 52nd Street on Broadway, when an item in the amusement section of the New York Tribune caught Ira’s attention. It was about a concert of new American music to be given by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Band at Aeolian Hall on 12 February - Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
“George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” ran the article, “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem…”
It was all news to George. His musical comedy, Sweet Little Devil, was set to open in just three weeks. And now he had to write a concerto by 12 February as well?
Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s and enjoyed the title “King of Jazz” – although this was no jazz band; rather it was a large dance orchestra that used jazz musicians from time to time.
But Whiteman twisted Gershwin's arm that all he had to do was supply a piano score. Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s brilliant in-house arranger, would be able to orchestrate the work tailored to the band’s line-up.
While he was on the train to Boston for rehearsals of his musical, Gershwin sketched out a framework for the new piece, which he began writing on 7 January. Over the next few days, while he also made last-minute changes to ready Sweet Little Devil for its New York opening on 24 January, the genius completed a two-piano score.
What Gershwin produced was not a “jazz concerto” but a rhapsodic work for “piano and jazz band” incorporating elements of European symphonic music and American jazz with his inimitable melodic gift and keyboard facility.
Gershwin’s original title for it was American Rhapsody. But, by chance, Ira had been to an exhibition of Whistler’s paintings and saw the painter's Nocturne In Blue And Green of the Thames at Chelsea. Why not call the new piece Rhapsody In Blue instead, he suggested. The title would reflect the European and American influences. Also at Ira’s suggestion, George contrasted the syncopated character that dominates the tune with an expressive romantic theme the composer had previously improvised at a party.
The Rhapsody, with its composer as soloist, was premièred in front of a packed house that included such musical luminaries as the composer Rachmaninov, the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Despite not yet having written down much of the piano part, Gershwin scored a triumphant success with the work which today is hailed as a landmark in American music.