A Century of Rhapsody in Blue

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It is February 12th 2024, one hundred years to the day since the first performance of George Gershwin’s composition Rhapsody in Blue at the Aeolian Hall in New York by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra with the composer himself on piano. This piece is has been a concert favourite for decades, but is usually heard in an arrangement for piano and full symphony orchestra which dates from 1942. The orchestration for that version was provided by Ferdi Grofe who had scored the original for Whiteman’s much smaller band back in 1924. Gershwin originally wrote the piece for two pianos, but didn’t know much about orchestration and had handed that task over to Grofe which the latter completed just a few days before the performance on February 12th 1924. It was not until the rehearsal with Whiteman’s band, however, that the famous opening took its now familiar shape.

The clarinet player with Paul Whiteman’s band in 1924 was a chap called Ross Gorman. It was his job to play the first few bars of Rhapsody in Blue, which had been scored for solo clarinet, consisting of a trill and then a long rising scale or arpeggio of more than two octaves. When they did the first play through Gorman didn’t play it as written but instead followed the trill with part of the scale followed by a long smeared glissando. Gorman often used smears to mimic laughing or sobbing noises, so this was a kind of trademark of his and came very naturally to him (though it is quite difficult to play a long glissando like this, especially slowly). There’s no question that it was “jazzed up” with humorous intent, but Grofe and Gershwin loved Gorman’s way of playing it, and that’s how it has been played ever since.

Rhapsody in Blue was a hit with the audience at its first performance, and has remained so with audiences around the world ever since. Sales of sheet music were good too! Critical reception was somewhat different, but those who disliked it were mostly judging it in comparison with classical music forms (e.g. a piano concerto) that it wasn’t attempting to be. I think it’s a piece to be enjoyed for its exuberance and atmosphere rather than thematic development or other more refined criteria.

There isn’t a recording of the original performance of 1924, but there is one of the same arrangement played by Paul Whiteman’s band in 1927 – complete with Ross Gorman on clarinet and George Gershwin again on piano. The difference is that it was played a bit faster for this recording than it was in concert so that it would fit on two sides of a 12″ record. Although I do think some modern performances of Rhapsody in Blue are too slow, this sounds to me rather rushed in places. The sound quality isn’t great either. Nevertheless, it’s an important piece of music history and it did sell over a million copies, so it would be remiss of me not to share it today!

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