Lawrence Gilman, a music critic from the New York Tribune, was clearly unimpressed by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. ‘How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are,’ read his pointed review that appeared on the morning of 13 February; ‘how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint. Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.’ The work, he concluded, suffered from ‘melodic and harmonic anemia of the most pernicious kind.’
Ouch. But while Gilman may not have overly enjoyed hearing the 25-year-old composer and pianist George Gershwin give the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra, the audience most certainly did. ‘There was tumultuous applause for Mr Gershwin’s composition,’ reported the altogether more even-handed Olin Downes in the New York Times. ‘There was realisation of the irresistible vitality and genuineness of much of the music heard on this occasion, as opposed to the pitiful sterility of the average production of the “serious” American composer.’
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That ‘occasion’ was ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, an ambitious concert devised by Whiteman that would showcase the development of jazz and assess its standing as a serious artform – and, of course, show off his own band – over a lengthy programme that would culminate in Gershwin’s specially commissioned new work. The 1,300-seat Aeolian Hall was chosen to host the big event and, ever the publicist, Whiteman even promised in a newspaper article that a committee including violinist Jascha Heifetz, soprano Alma Gluck and Rachmaninov, no less, would be there to help give an answer to the question ‘What is American music?’.
That such a seemingly randomly chosen committee was probably not the best qualified to talk about jazz appears not to have unduly worried Whiteman nor, more controversially, that he was conducting an all-white band to demonstrate music whose roots lay in the very heart of black America. But as a publicity stunt, the concert seemed to work a treat.
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It so nearly didn’t, however. Bored by a programme that was proving too long and lacking in variety, many of the audience were starting to make their way out of the hall and into the New York snow when Gershwin – ‘sheepishly’, as Downes put it – made his way onto the piano stool; it was only on hearing the clarinet’s famous opening glissando that, intrigued, they decided to turn back and stay a little longer. The rest, as they say, is history, as Rhapsody in Blue has gone on to enjoy a place as one of the most popular works in the repertoire.
Chances are, however, that the piece modern audiences know and love is significantly different to that enjoyed by the Aeolian Hall audience that February afternoon. For a start, while he had written out most of the piano score, Gershwin still left himself a little room for improvisation on the occasion itself – given that no recording was made, we will never know how the exact performance sounded. And then, in the years to follow, it took the handiwork of Gershwin’s fellow composer Ferde Grofé to convert the Rhapsody from its big-band original to the orchestral guise that it is usually presented in today.
Interestingly, too, even that clarinet glissando itself was not as Gershwin originally planned it. Though a 17-note chromatic run was written in the score, clarinettist Ross Gorman had other ideas in rehearsal and started to play around with it – his japes met with general approval, and the upward swoop stayed. Gershwin even invited him to add as much of a ‘wail’ to it as he could. On such chance moments is the history of music shaped.
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