Gershwin’s Premieres in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Gershwin’s composition and performance of Rhapsody in Blue combined elements of American popular music with the European classical tradition.

Summary of Event

While visiting Great Britain with his dance orchestra in 1923, New York bandleader Paul Whiteman began thinking of performing a concert of American popular music in a major concert hall. When a rival bandleader announced similar plans, Whiteman—goaded into action—developed a program to show that popular music had moved from simple dance music to a true art form. He booked New York City’s Aeolian Hall for a performance to take place on February 12, 1924. [kw]Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in New York (Feb. 12, 1924)[Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in New York (Feb. 12, 1924)] [kw]Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in New York, Gershwin’s (Feb. 12, 1924) [kw]New York, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in (Feb. 12, 1924) Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin) Music;jazz Jazz [g]United States;Feb. 12, 1924: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in New York[06020] [c]Music;Feb. 12, 1924: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Premieres in New York[06020] Gershwin, George Whiteman, Paul Grofé, Ferde

Whiteman had worked with composer George Gershwin in the Broadway show George White’s Scandals of 1922 and had suggested a future collaboration. Gershwin, however, did not learn about his role in Whiteman’s upcoming concert until the New York Herald Tribune announced on January 4, 1924, that Gershwin was writing a jazz concerto for the program. By that time, the twenty-five-year-old Gershwin had acquired a considerable reputation as a writer of Broadway songs, but his composition of a movement for string quartet in 1919 and a one-act “jazz opera” in 1922 indicated greater ambitions. Drawing on his notebooks, where he found the opening clarinet passage, Gershwin began composing a work he called American Rhapsody on January 7. He later stated that he had no real plan for the piece, but rather only the object of showing that jazz did not need to be written or performed in strict time. While traveling by train to Boston, he developed a structure for the composition, calling it “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America.” After he returned to New York, he conceived the middle theme of the piece while improvising on a piano at a party.

Gershwin wrote the orchestra accompaniment as a second piano part to be scored by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger. Apparently completing his composition by January 29, Gershwin left a blank section for improvisation on which he noted “wait for nod.” Grofé’s orchestration is dated February 4, 1924. Gershwin’s brother Ira, meanwhile, suggested a new title, Rhapsody in Blue.

Whiteman added nine musicians to his fourteen-member orchestra and held rehearsals for five days at the Palais Royal nightclub, to which he invited critics and writers. During one of these rehearsals, clarinetist Ross Gorman, Gorman, Ross for a joke, played the opening passage of Rhapsody in Blue as a wailing glissando. Taken with the sound, Gershwin asked Gorman to play it that way at the concert.

Despite Whiteman’s fears, the Aeolian Hall was filled on February 12. Titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” the concert began with an address by Whiteman’s manager, Hugh Ernst, who stated that the program was educational and was meant to show the development of jazz (an ill-defined term at the time) from discordance to sophistication. An expensive printed program, with notes by Ernst and writer Gilbert Seldes, provided additional information, organizing the concert around such themes as “True Form of Jazz” and “Contrast—Legitimate Scoring vs. Jazzing.” The music ranged from “Livery Stable Blues” to “Pomp and Circumstance” and serenades by Victor Herbert.

The audience included luminaries from the New York social and artistic scenes as well as people from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. They were receptive, but after twenty-three selections, they had become noticeably restless by the time Gershwin walked to the piano to perform Rhapsody in Blue. The opening glissando brought everyone to attention, however, and soon they recognized that this loosely constructed Lisztian rhapsody, with its blues-tinged harmonies and jazzlike rhythms, was a truly new sound. At the work’s close they broke into tumultuous applause and called Gershwin back for several bows.

The critical reaction to Rhapsody in Blue was mixed, with most writers noting both the technical immaturity of the composer and the freshness of his approach. Deems Taylor wrote for the New York World, “It was crude, but it hinted at something new, something that has not hitherto been said in music.”

Whiteman repeated the concert at Aeolian Hall on March 7 and then performed the program at New York’s Carnegie Hall in April and November. He then took it to Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, after which Gershwin left the program. In June, 1924, Gershwin and Whiteman recorded Rhapsody in Blue for the Victor Blue label; the recording sold more than a million copies. Later that same year, T. B. Harms and Company published the sheet music for Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé reorchestrated the piece for symphony orchestra in 1926 and 1942, the latter being the version most familiar today.

In 1925, the Symphony Society of New York commissioned Gershwin to write a concerto to be performed with the New York Symphony Orchestra in December. Like Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F did not adhere to textbook formalities and drew on jazz and popular music, but it had greater structural integrity than the earlier work and was orchestrated by the composer.

Continuing to write hit musicals for the theater, Gershwin also pursued his “serious” composing. His first performance of Preludes for Piano took place in 1926, and in 1928 the New York Philharmonic presented his orchestral tone poem An American in Paris. After the relatively unsuccessful Second Rhapsody of 1931, Gershwin concentrated on his opera Porgy and Bess, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) a story about poor southern blacks first performed in 1935. Although criticized for being merely a succession of hit songs and scorned by many African Americans as a white interpretation of black music and life, the opera survived because of its songs. After a revival in New York in 1942, Porgy and Bess grew in both popularity and critical reputation. Gershwin, however, did not live to see this success; he died from a brain tumor on July 11, 1937.

Significance

Before Rhapsody in Blue, various composers had attempted to draw on elements of American popular music. Antonín Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (1893) reflected the spirituals of the African American, but the more specific influence of commercial popular music appeared in Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime (1918) and Piano Rag-Music (1919) and Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (1919) and La Création du monde (1923). Other works revealing this influence included Erik Satie’s Parade (1917) and John Alden Carpenter’s Piano Concertino (1915) and Krazy Kat (1921). In the mid-nineteenth century, the American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote a number of piano pieces reflecting the musical idioms of the American South. Later, Scott Joplin, the “Ragtime King,” used ragtime idioms for some of the songs in his opera Treemonisha (1911), and Charles Ives incorporated ragtime elements into his compositions. None of these works, however, gained the attention for combining “jazz” and the European tradition the way Gershwin’s did. The division between classical music and American popular music remained, for the most part, wide.

Paul Whiteman’s attempt to lift American popular music to an art form also had its predecessors. In 1914, James Reese Europe’s black Clef Club Symphony Orchestra had appeared at Carnegie Hall, and on February 10, 1924, only a few days before the Aeolian Hall concert, bandleader Vincent Lopez held a lecture-concert at the Anderson Art Galleries in New York. The announcement of Lopez’s planned performance was the factor that had provoked Whiteman into action. At the program, Harvard University professor and composer Edward Burlington Hill discussed the history of jazz and Lopez’s band provided musical illustrations. Although these efforts had relatively little impact, they suggested that the attempt to combine the elite European tradition with American popular culture was more than Whiteman’s individual concern. Furthermore, writers such as Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Seven Lively Arts (1924), were arguing for the aesthetic validity and importance of American popular culture.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue opened the door to further experimentation, particularly because of Whiteman’s carefully developed publicity campaign for his concert. Furthermore, Henry O. Osgood, one of the music critics who attended the Aeolian Hall program, was inspired to write So This Is Jazz (1926), perhaps the first serious examination of the subject.

There now appeared to be a market for compositions drawing on jazz elements, and “serious” American composers responded. Aaron Copland used jazz idioms in his Music for the Theater (1925) and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926), as did John Alden Carpenter in his ballet Skyscrapers (1926). Other composers incorporated the term “jazz” into the very titles of their works: Louis Gruenberg’s Daniel Jazz (1923, antedating Gershwin’s Rhapsody) and Jazz Suite (1925), George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony (1925), Werner Janssen’s Chorale and Fugue in Jazz (1929), and—changing the terminology slightly—Morton Gould’s Swing Sinfonietta (1936).

More popularly oriented composers pursued similar goals. Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé wrote The Mississippi Suite in 1924, drawing on jazz colors and idioms, and in 1931 made subtler use of these elements in his now-famous Grand Canyon Suite. Another orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, drew as Gershwin had on his experience in musical stage works to write Charleston Rhapsody (1926) and Concerto Grosso (1932) for jazz band and orchestra. James P. Johnson, the black ragtime and stride piano composer, wrote Yamekraw: A Rhapsody in Black and White (1925), which was scored by William Grant Still, who in turn composed Africa (1930) and Afro-American Symphony (1930).

European composers, some specifically influenced by Gershwin, were also drawn to this American music. Among the more significant efforts were Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), Paul Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage (1928-1929), Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D Major for Left Hand (1931) and Piano Concerto in G Major (1931)—both of which have been described as “Gershwinesque”—and Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel (1927) and Die Dreigroschenoper (1928). Alban Berg, whom Gershwin met in 1928, included a clarinet glissando in the second song of Der Wein (1929) that is clearly reminiscent of Rhapsody in Blue’s opening.

Drawn to such elements as syncopation and polyrhythm, the relationship of soloists to accompanying instruments, and special instrumental techniques and sonorities, these composers did not write “jazz”; rather, they produced music in the classical tradition with a distinctively modern sound, one that sometimes reached a wide audience. As Ravel stated in 1928, “These popular forms are but the materials of construction, and the work of art appears only on mature conception where no detail has been left to chance.”

The cross-fertilization of musical worlds popularized by George Gershwin brought recognition to American music and American composers, contributing greatly to the eclecticism of twentieth century “serious” music. When composers draw on rock music for inspiration, as Leonard Bernstein did in his Mass (1971), or when jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck seek to work with classical forms, they are further exploring the path blazed by Gershwin in 1924. Indeed, interest in emphasizing the influence of popular idioms led to the effort to move beyond the familiar 1942 orchestral arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue and restore the jazzier sound of Gershwin’s original performance, most notably in 1984 with Maurice Peress’s re-creation of the entire Aeolian Hall concert. Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin) Music;jazz Jazz

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alpert, Hollis. The Life and Times of “Porgy and Bess”: The Story of an American Classic. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Examines the development of the opera from its beginnings in DuBose Heyward’s novel to performances in 1987. Relates the opera to Gershwin’s earlier work and also presents the opera’s history as a mirror of American social change. Includes synopsis, photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewen, David. George Gershwin: His Journey to Greatness. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. A rewritten version of the author’s earlier work George Gershwin: A Journey to Greatness (1956). Although sometimes inaccurate, important as the first major biography of Gershwin. Particularly useful for its discussion of the development of Gershwin’s reputation. Appendixes list Gershwin’s works and various stage and motion-picture adaptations and productions. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Isaac. George Gershwin: A Study in American Music. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1931. The first serious examination of Gershwin’s music. Interesting for quotations from contemporaries, particularly reviewers of the Aeolian Hall concert, and for analysis of specific musical examples. Includes photographs, selected discography with critical discussion, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyland, William G. George Gershwin: A New Biography. New York: Praeger, 2003. Comprehensive, in-depth biography examines both Gershwin’s life and his music, placing the composer’s work in the context of the times. Chapter 4 is devoted to Rhapsody in Blue. Includes photo essay, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin. 1988. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Careful biography, generally regarded as definitive, concentrates largely on Gershwin’s career and social relationships rather than on probing his mind or his music. Includes numerous quotations from those who knew Gershwin. Reprint edition features a revised critical discography. Also includes photographs, bibliography, list of compositions by George and Ira Gershwin, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kimball, Robert, and Alfred Simon. The Gershwins. New York: Atheneum, 1973. Published on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gershwin’s birth. Contains tributes from family, friends, and admirers. Most significant for memoirs from Gershwin show participants. Includes photographs, chronology, discography, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenberg, Deena. Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1991. Concentrates on Gershwin’s songs and includes excerpts from both music and lyrics. Features reference notes, chronology of works, alphabetical list of Gershwin and Gershwin songs, photographs, bibliography, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin: His Life and Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. A thorough but sometimes inaccurate discussion of both Gershwin’s life and his music. Notable for attention to Gershwin’s vanity and self-absorption. Includes photographs, catalog of Gershwin compositions and films based on Gershwin’s works, discography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whiteman, Paul, and Mary Margaret McBride. Jazz. 1926. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1974. Chapter 4 presents Whiteman’s own account of the Aeolian Hall concert. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, Robert, and John Andrew Johnson, eds. The George Gershwin Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Collection of more than eighty writings by and about Gershwin sheds light on the composer’s work. Pieces by musicians such as Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein and by critics such as Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott are accompanied by excerpts from Gershwin’s personal correspondence. Includes chronology of Gershwin’s life.

Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium

Formation of Les Six

Brecht and Weill Collaborate on the Mahagonny Songspiel

Ellington Begins Performing at the Cotton Club

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Opens in New York

Categories: History Content