Nothing Short of Rhapsody

The composer [George Gershwin], trying to write a Lisztian concerto in a jazz style, has used only the non-barbaric elements in dance music, the result being neither good jazz nor good Listz, and in no sense of the word a good concerto.

~~~Constant Lambert, British composer and critic

Back when everyone was making New Year’s Resolutions on the first of January 2023, I resolved to never again look twice at any sentence beginning with “experts say.” I must report that it was such a resounding success that I decided to extend that resolution for 2024 when we were watching fireworks soar over the skies of Sydney in the wee hours of January 1, 2024. So when I read the above critique from a so-called “expert,” I thought how silly this person would feel today along with the various other experts who took issue with Gershwin’s opus, “Rhapsody in Blue.” And there were some that can only be described as brutal. A critic with the New York Tribune dismissed the piece as “trite and feeble and conventional.” Even almost a decade later, another so-called expert described “Rhapsody in Blue” as “circus music” and “jazz dolled up.” Incredibly, just at the end of this past January, the New York Times called it “the worst masterpiece.” Let’s face it: critics just gotta criticize. They apparently don’t get paid for handing out compliments and smiley-faces.

But John Q. and Jane Public said,”I beg to differ.” The response of the audience was thunderous appreciation and history repeats itself every time the work is performed. This year, as the 100th anniversary of its debut rolled around, it seems that every orchestra the world over is making space on its season schedule to pay tribute to the man and the work. When we realized that we were going to be in the South Pacific when it was performed locally, we snapped up two tickets so that we could be in the concert hall at the Kroger Center in Columbia when the South Carolina Philharmonic performed Gershwin’s opus last weekend.

The backstory of Gershwin and his “Rhapsody in Blue” is as fascinating as the music is beautiful. The conductor who gave George the commission, Paul Whiteman, fancied himself the “King of Jazz.” He liked popular music and promoted concerts featuring jazz because he wanted to make it more “respectable.” On January 4, 1924, George’s brother Ira told him about a concert planned by Whiteman for February with the theme “What is American Music?” George decided to go for it and on 7 January, he got to work composing his extended jazz piece for the February 12th concert. That gave him about three weeks to write the piece! Parts of it had not even been written down on paper when the performance took place. Gershwin loved jazz, but it was dismissed as the pop music of the day, so he wanted to write music that would bridge the divide between jazz and classical. Classical music was not really seen as “American,” so it was not fully accepted by the average American. Also, jazz was thought of as the music of Black people and there were those in American society who didn’t want that sort of music sullying what they perceived to be a higher, more refined form of music. (Basically, just snobby people being snobby.) But let’s be honest, classical music still has not been wholly embraced by the American public, although jazz venues are everywhere. George Gershwin was a young, second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant born in Brooklyn in 1898. He didn’t breathe the rarified air that many critics and concert-goers inhaled. On the contrary, he thought of his work as “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” Indeed, many of the concert attendees last weekend didn’t have the look of season ticketholders, but looked like folks who came specifically to hear that spectacular performance of Rhapsody.

The decade of the Roaring Twenties was a time of tremendous change in this country. There were many varied dynamics at play in all aspects of life at that point in American history. The country was experiencing lots of growing pains; the was lots of push and pull, never ending noise, and constant change. Gershwin actually told the story of taking a train ride from New York to Boston and being inspired by the sounds of the train. He believed the train to be a metaphor for not only his music but also America.

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise) that I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end . . . I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had the definite plot of the piece.

Lara Downes was guest pianist at the SC Philharmonic performance in Columbia last weekend. She’s no stranger to the piece; she finds it “a little bit of an act of rebellion, or at the very least, it’s a statement about what America should be and what it sounds like.” She is not the only musician who loves to experiment with Rhapsody and who finds that it lends itself well to a little multicultural twist or two. Ms. Downes has worked with a saxophonist to add more ingredients to what has been called Gershwin’s “melting pot idea” by stirring in Chinese as well as Afro-Cuban flavors. Béla Fleck uses his banjo to give the number a little bluegrass sound. Others have infused the sound of the Black spiritual. Apparently, the music lends itself to all sorts of fun and games. It was particularly appropriate, then, that the SC Phil invited the Dreher High School Steel Pan Band to the concert and they were featured in the opening piece called Festa Criolla from “La Nuit des Tropiques” by Louis Gottschalk (1829-1869). Morihiko Nakaraha, the Music Director and Conductor of the SC Philharmonic brilliantly wove the steel pan sound with the orchestra in this opening number. It reminded me how the artists of today weave the sounds of other types of music into the fabric of Rhapsody.

There are probably lots of people who are curious about the title of the piece; I count myself in that group. George wanted to name it “American Rhapsody,” but Ira thought he should go with “Rhapsody in Blue.” It seems that Ira had been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was impressed with paintings with names like Study in Scarlet and Gold and Study in Blue and Green.

Someday in the future, when you find yourself on a United Airlines flight stowing your belongings in the overhead bin and buckling your seatbelt, you will hear sound of that familiar famous opening clarinet glissando that United has been infusing into their advertisements and piping into the airplanes for decades. Don’t worry about what the experts say. Just enjoy the music. Hopefully as you listen, you will think about how Gershwin not only bridged jazz and classical but how he showed many Americans what music could be and how it could sound like this American life we live.

I like this picture with the Dreher High School steel pans in front of the orchestra.

2 Comments

  1. Melinda Young on March 1, 2024 at 3:59 pm

    🎼

  2. Pam Morgan on March 5, 2024 at 11:38 am

    One of their best!

Leave a Comment