The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Raymond A. White.
February 12, 1924, is a landmark day in the annals of American music. The story of that snowy afternoon in New York and its aftermath has become almost legendary—and probably somewhat embellished—as it has been told and retold over the past 100 years. A crowd assembled at Aeolian Hall on West 43rd Street that included an array of luminaries from the world of concert music and opera of the time and many of New York’s leading critics as well. The occasion was a concert advertised as “An Experiment in Modern Music,” presented by “Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra” with a new composition for the occasion by George Gershwin. According to program annotator Hugh C. Ernst (Paul Whiteman’s business manager), the so-called experiment was to be “purely educational,” and it was Whiteman’s aim to demonstrate “the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music” in the previous decade or so, with the apparent goal of increasing the presence of American vernacular music into the concert hall.
George Gershwin made his concert debut at age 25, just the previous November at the same Aeolian Hall, as part of a recital by Canadian-American mezzo-soprano Eva Gauthier in a set of American popular songs by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Gershwin himself. As the story goes, Paul Whiteman had attended that recital and it was on the basis of his having heard Gershwin in his dual role as composer and pianist that he asked Gershwin to write what was initially advertised in the New York Tribune as a “jazz concerto.”
The “jazz concerto,” of course, turned out to be “Rhapsody in Blue,” famously composed by George in only a few weeks and almost-equally-famously scored by Ferde Grofé for the Palais Royal Orchestra. George was already well known as a composer of popular songs—most of which derived from Broadway shows, and many of which were written with his lyricist-brother, Ira. But “Rhapsody in Blue” is largely responsible for initially establishing George’s reputation as a composer for the concert hall as well.
While the critical reception of “Rhapsody in Blue” may be described as somewhat mixed, the work was clearly well received by the public. The success of the concert—and, no doubt—the success of “Rhapsody in Blue“ prompted Whiteman to repeat the concert the following month at Aeolian Hall and two months later at Carnegie Hall. A recording of the “Rhapsody” by Whiteman and Gershwin and the Palais Royal Orchestra on the Victor blue label quickly followed on June 10. And as both a result of the initial success and a cause of further acclaim, it was recorded again only three years later, in 1927, also with Gershwin and the Palais Royal Orchestra, and soon by additional recordings featuring other performers. Dozens of other recordings followed; the first orchestral recording to be sold as a complete album was the four-disc set conducted by Arthur Fiedler with the distinguished Puerto Rican pianist Jesús María Sanromá and the Boston Pops Orchestra, recorded in July 1935.
Printed editions soon followed that premiere performance—the first was a version for two pianos (Harms, 1925), and in 1926 Ferde Grofé created a stock arrangement for theater orchestra that did not rely on the idiosyncrasies of Whiteman’s orchestra, and which would, instead, be easily adaptable to the performing forces of more conventional ensembles. Before and after the publication of the stock arrangement, the piece was taken up by other bands, bandleaders, and pianists. 1927 saw the publication of two more arrangements. The first, arranged for solo piano by pianist Isadore Gorn, was a reduction of the earlier two-piano version. The second was an arrangement for theater organ by Jesse Crawford, organist at the Paramount Theatre, which might be regarded as the beginning of a series of arrangements for other instruments. Grofé himself returned to the piece in the 1940s to create the symphonic version that has been a mainstay of symphony orchestras since that time. In addition, many other arrangements (with greater and lesser musical interest, ) were published—too many to name here. A sample may suffice: the Library’s Music Division holds versions for instrumentations including accordion, woodwind quintet, organ and piano duet, brass quintet with optional drums, and piano solo with string orchestra.
In addition, “Rhapsody in Blue” has inspired much scholarly inquiry. Two examples: “Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon,” by Ryan Raul Bañagale (NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), and “Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue,” by David Schiff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Furthermore, the title itself has come into use in contexts separate from the composition: “Rhapsody in Blue” became the title of a somewhat fictionalized biopic produced in 1945 by the Warner Brothers film studio. And in 1986, when the Lenox china corporation debuted its collection of “American Songbook Figurines,” the first to be produced was titled “Rhapsody in Blue.” The statuette of a woman in a blue outfit is reminiscent of the 1920s.
One hundred years on, performances of “Rhapsody in Blue” are being heard around the world in cerebration of this iconic masterpiece. If Whiteman hoped that his “Experiment in Modern Music” might help to bring American popular music into the concert hall, he could not possibly have imagined the extent to which the new “jazz concerto” would become world-famous through recordings, sheet music, and books and would, indeed, become an iconic representation of its era.
Concerts from the Library of Congress presents “Rhapsody in Blue” at 100 on Monday, February 12, 2024 at 8:00 p.m. The concert features a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” with pianist Simone Dinnerstein and The U.S. Air Force Band. A video of the performance will be released on loc.gov at a later date (subject to artist approval).
Pianist Conrad Tao and dancer Caleb Teicher perform “Rhapsody in Blue” for the Concerts from the Library of Congress series, 2022.