George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a rapturous burst of music that has become a motif of the nation’s creative spirit, turns 100 today. It was first performed in New York on the snowy Tuesday afternoon of Feb. 12, 1924.
Commissioned and premiered by the popular conductor Paul Whiteman at a concert designed to showcase high-minded American musical innovations – with the 25-year-old Gershwin on piano – the concerto-like composition, mixing jazz and classical themes, eventually became synonymous with American musical flair and sophistication. In its various forms and orchestrations, it has been recorded thousands of times the world over, become a classical concert staple a theme song for an airline and was performed simultaneously by 84 pianists at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
The Library is home to the George and Ira Gershwin Collection, including George’s piano and a leather-bound copy of his original manuscript of “Rhapsody.” We’re marking the centennial with several things, including an around-the-nation video tribute that highlights the piece’s continuing role in musical education, performance and spectacle.
“It’s one of the most recognizable pieces of music,” said Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. “When you hear the first few notes you can’t help but start humming the rest.”
There’s a sold-out concert tonight at the Library featuring “Rhapsody” as the finale, to be performed by the U.S. Air Force Band with special guest pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The evening also features a lecture by Gershwin scholar Ryan Bañagale.
The video, meanwhile, features more than 20 performers from New York to Los Angeles to Seattle. There are stops in music havens such as Nashville and New Orleans, as well as unlikely locations, such as a Baltimore Ravens practice facility and the caverns of Luray, Virginia.
“The project shows how ‘Rhapsody’ and the rest of the Gershwins’ music is for everyone,” said Hayden. “You can enjoy their music in a grand symphony hall, in the classroom, in a parade, the practice field or while tapping your feet in the sand.”
Justin Tucker, the Ravens’ placekicker, is not only the most accurate kicker in National Football League history, but can also sing operatically in seven languages. (He graduated from the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas.) For him, humming “Rhapsody” while practicing was a natural. Béla Fleck, the 17-time Grammy winning banjo player, soared through Gershwin’s most difficult progressions; he’s just released a new album that features “Rhapsody” in three different variations.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Cuban-born jazz pianist and composer, turns in a virtuoso performance from Florida while Kat Meoz, a singer-songwriter-composer, gives us a take from California. That’s Otto Pebworth playing the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns; the School Without Walls Orchestra, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C.,and international whistling champion Chris Ullman from the nation’s capital; the Arrowhead Jazz Band and the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies from the Crescent City; the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and country/pop singer Nick Fabian from Music City; tap dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher from New York, along with many others. The animated caricature of Gershwin playing “Rhapsody” is from Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.”
The origin story of “Rhapsody” is well known. Whiteman, the most popular jazz conductor of his day (though hiring only white musicians), commissioned the young Gershwin to write a composition that could show off American originality with classical sophistication. Gershwin, reluctant to take the assignment, only had about six weeks to put it together, while still keeping up his work on Broadway musicals.
The Library’s manuscript copy of his work is in pencil, with his block lettering spelling out “RHAPSODY IN BLUE – FOR JAZZ BAND AND PIANO” atop the first page. It’s dated Jan. 7, 1924, a few days into the assignment. He was greatly aided by Ferde Grofé, who arranged the score. The first performance, at a packed house at Aeolian Hall, drew mixed reviews from critics, though it was popular with the crowd.
You can hear an early recording on the Library’s National Jukebox from 1924 by Whiteman’s orchestra with Gershwin on the piano. Recording limitations of the time forced the nine-minute piece to be recorded in two sections, with the second part here.
So identified was Gershwin with the Jazz Age that when he died in 1937 at the age of 38 (a brain tumor), the New York Times obituary identified him along with “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald as a “child of the Twenties.”
“What he wanted to do most, he said, was to interpret the soul of the American people,” the Times wrote.
One of the curious things about “Rhapsody” has been its elasticity. There a short versions and long versions and pieces for solo piano and full orchestras and everything in between. Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most famous American conductor of the 20th century, loved “Rhapsody” but famously noted that it had such a loose structure that you could leave out or rearrange segments and the piece would still work. Leonard Bernstein, “Why Don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?” in The Joy of Music (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 52–62.
The Library also has the papers of Grofé, who also arranged the 1942 orchestral version of “Rhapsody” that almost immediately became the standard rendition and the one you likely think of today when the song comes to mind. Taken together, the Grofé and Gershwin collections give the Library all three manuscripts of “Rhapsody” that led up to its historic debut.
The nation is a far different place today than it was in 1924, but it’s part of the song’s famous elasticity, part of its peculiar magic, that enables it to still speak so eloquently, so broadly, to the national character.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!