At some point during the hectic composition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” one of George Gershwin’s masterpieces of 20th-century American music, the maestro got impatient with the process. The piece, which was to debut in just a few short weeks, would eventually run to 22,000 notes over 500 measures, after all.
In Gershwin’s handwritten score of “Rhapsody,” he sketched out the notation for his piano solo but left a small section blank in the second draft, as by then copyists were helping notate each change that he was making as the piece came together. That solo section stayed blank in the third and final score arranged by Ferde Grofé, with only a note to conductor Paul Whiteman to “wait for nod” when Gershwin launched into his solo.
It’s a charming moment. Gershwin, 25, performing his first major concert piece, would wing it for a few measures, then give a tilt of the chin to Whiteman, the most famous conductor of the era, to bring in the rest of the band back in.
“It’s sort of like Babe Ruth calling his home run,” says Ray White, a music specialist in the Performing Arts Division, looking over “Rhapsody” manuscripts on a recent afternoon.
The Library’s vast collection of papers documenting “Rhapsody’s” birth has been a boon to researchers, academics and fans for decades. But the Library, which has prominent pieces of the George and Ira Gershwin Collection on long-term display, has now digitized George Gershwin’s original manuscript copy. It’s in pencil, with his neat, all capital block lettering spelling out “RHAPSODY IN BLUE – FOR JAZZ BAND AND PIANO” across the top of the first page. It’s dated Jan. 7, 1924, a few days after Gershwin reluctantly agreed to compose a piece for an upcoming concert by Whiteman’s band.
The Library also has the papers of Grofé, who not provided the score not only for the debut, but also for the 1942 lush, orchestral version of “Rhapsody” that quickly became the standard rendition.
Taken together, the two collections give the Library all three manuscripts of “Rhapsody” leading up to its historic debut on the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall, before a packed crowd of 1,100 that included musical luminaries such as Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Kreisler, John Philips Sousa and jazz pianist Willie Smith.
No recording exists of that performance, but you can listen to Whiteman’s orchestra playing a shortened version of this arrangement on the Library’s National Jukebox. Recording limitations of the day required the piece be truncated; be sure to listen to the second part as well.
The story of how such a grand piece came together in just five or six weeks has been the subject of any number of books, musical studies and pop-culture folklore. The central debate turns on how much the young Gershwin wrote and how much the veteran Grofé completed.
“The harmonies, the melodies the rhythms — those are all Gershwin,” said Ryan Raul Bañagale, author of “Arranging Gershwin: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and the Creation of an American Icon,” and director of Performing Arts at Colorado College. He researched the Library’s “Rhapsody” holdings as part of his doctoral research at Harvard University. “But Grofé selected almost every instrumental assignment outside of the piano.”
Part of this was because “Rhapsody” was something of a rush job. None of them had any idea they were creating an epic. It was just a piece for a rather didactic concert of two dozen musical pieces that Whiteman was billing as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The idea was to show that American jazz, the vibrant new music of the young country, could be just as smart and sophisticated as classical music.
At the time, Gershwin was a hot young star of the Broadway musical set. His “Swanee,” covered by Al Jolson, sold more than a million copies of sheet music. He was working on another musical, “Sweet Little Devil,” in late 1923 and initially turned down Whiteman’s request for a piece to include in his show.
He changed his mind after Whiteman leaked an article to the press saying that Gershwin would indeed perform – there was no way a youngster like him could publicly turn down Whiteman, then the biggest name in dance music.
Gershwin, as he recounted many times later, began composing the piece on a train trip to Boston. He put “Jan. 7” on a piece of sheet music and sketched out a bravura opening – a long, trilling glissando for a clarinet. Then he was off and running, working through several different themes that highlighted different aspects of American music.
But there were only five weeks until the performance and he had his musical to get ready, besides. So he sketched out a 56-page, two-piano short score for a 26-piece orchestra. This was a great start, but there was still work to do. He had a “marked and jazzy” section, for example, that he soon cut.
So in a cleaned-up, updated version – this time part of it in ink, part in pencil, with much of it filled in by different copyists – he filled out more of the score, but with assignments for only 13 instruments.
He quickly turned this second, cleaner version over to Grofé, the brilliant and innovative composer for Whiteman’s band. Grofé was a key figure in the early days of big band dance music, scoring complicated arrangements between the bass and reed sections that drove the music forward. Classically trained, his tone poem “The Grand Canyon Suite” is still well-regarded, and he went on to have a high-profile career leading his own orchestra and composing music for Hollywood films. (Fun footnote: Parts of his “Grand Canyon” were used in the holiday classic film, “A Christmas Story.”)
So, in the first few weeks of 1924, he didn’t hesitate to use the young composer’s score as a blueprint rather than a Bible. He made changes. He added four violins and two French horns and cut out other instruments.
The result? A piece that would go on to become of the nation’s most cherished musical scores and a long-lasting debate about how much credit Grofé should receive for his contributions. Gershwin, who died of brain cancer at age 38 in 1937, was always clear that he had done the heavy lifting.
“Mr. Grofé made a very fine orchestration from my completed sketch,” he wrote to a music business executive in 1928, “but he certainly had no hand in the composing.”
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