Entertainment Music

The Worst Masterpiece: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at 100

28rhapsody facebookJumbo

The work is a assured success. After it’s over, viewers members leap out of their seats for a standing ovation.

Such has been the response to “Rhapsody in Blue” ever since its premiere 100 years in the past, on Feb. 12, 1924. George Gershwin had been requested by the conductor Paul Whiteman to provide a “jazz concerto” for the occasion An Experiment in Trendy Music at Aeolian Corridor in Manhattan, and the panorama of American music hasn’t been the identical since.

Due to the centennial, you’re more likely to come throughout a variety of “Rhapsody” performances this 12 months — not that the anniversary makes a lot distinction, as a result of that’s all the time the case. Certainly, “Rhapsody” is without doubt one of the most continuously programmed items within the symphonic repertoire by an American composer.

Past the live performance stage, the work’s themes are heard in films and tv, and are piped into the cabins of United Airways flights. It has even functioned as propaganda: On the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, throughout the top of the Chilly Conflict, the American contingent introduced out 84 pianists to carry out excerpts from the “Rhapsody,” accompanied by a battalion of dancers.

As with many different classical hits, informal listeners may be stunned to study that the acquainted melodies are a part of a for much longer composition. First, George Gershwin wrote a considerable two-piano rating. The composer Ferde Grofé orchestrated the premiere for Whiteman’s idiosyncratic jazz band, together with banjo. Afterward, Grofé did two extra orchestrations, in 1926 and 1942; the final one was for full symphonic forces and is the model most frequently heard at the moment. Gershwin himself by no means fussed with making an authoritative version, going as far as to recommend 4 doable cuts within the rating.

No matter these divergences in supply textual content, first-time listeners are struck by a bolt of optimism. A brand new day is right here! Gershwin’s melodic materials is spun with enchanting gold thread, from the opening clarinet swoop to the bluesy piano riffs to the epic sentimental melody close to journey’s finish. No phrase can ever be forgotten.

At this level, although, a few of us extra jaded sorts are able to no less than strive to neglect.

That’s as a result of the promise of 1924 hasn’t been honored. Gershwin’s proposal was daring and apparent: Early types of African American ragtime and blues had taken the nation by storm, and his job was to allude to these idioms in a virtuoso concerto. As knowledgeable tunesmith and critical pupil of ragtime and early jazz piano, he was effectively fitted to the duty. Because it turned out, the Experiment in Trendy Music live performance additionally unlocked one thing for the composer: Many of the well-known Gershwin songs we nonetheless hear typically at the moment have been written after the Aeolian Corridor efficiency.

It’s straightforward, and correct, to name “Rhapsody in Blue” naïve and corny. However, to be honest, it was nonetheless very early within the timeline of jazz and swinging Black music on file. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington have been simply getting began. As well as, as corny and Caucasian because it may be, the “Rhapsody” went straight into the language of essentially the most highly effective and progressive Black jazz musicians. Artwork Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Billy Strayhorn and Herbie Nichols praised the work. Mary Lou Williams stated that, one of many first guitar heroes, Charlie Christian, “could be taking part in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and all these heavy classical issues.” An extended line of great jazz pianists, together with Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock, practiced the solo piano association of the ‘Rhapsody’ once they have been youngsters.

The reception historical past of “Rhapsody in Blue” is extra problematic than the work itself. If the piece had been much less profitable, maybe extra might have been performed to construct on it. As a substitute, it has clogged the arteries of American music. Relatively than hunt down new potentialities, promoters, educators and different gatekeepers can simply declare: The ‘Rhapsody’ is there, a assured success, so why dig deeper?

If “Rhapsody in Blue” is a masterpiece, it may be the worst masterpiece. The promise of a real fusion on the live performance stage principally begins and ends with it. 100 years later, hottest Black music is separate from the world of formal composition, whereas most American live performance musicians can’t relate to a rating with a folkloric perspective, not to mention swing.

The important factor right here is rhythm. African and Latin diasporic (particularly Cuban) rhythm has not often been understood or really revered by American establishments linked with symphonic repertoire. Gershwin didn’t assist this difficulty with “Rhapsody in Blue”; no person however the pianist has to play quite a lot of bars in regular tempo. The composer defined: “Jazz, they stated, needed to be in strict time. It needed to cling to bounce rhythms. I resolved, if doable, to kill that false impression with one sturdy blow.”

That “sturdy blow” inadvertently meant that no person needed to go to high school. In his lifetime, the pianist Oscar Levant was thought of a preferred Gershwin skilled and practitioner, partly as a result of he was shut pals with the composer, partly as a result of he was a captivating movie character. Levant even performs excerpts from the title piece within the tacky Gershwin biopic “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945). Though Levant was a virtuoso and his rendition of the “Rhapsody” has excessive pianistic end, his rendition additionally has horrible rhythm — worse than any first-year jazz piano pupil in school. Nonetheless, Levant’s incapability to play Gershwin’s primary syncopations and polyrhythms accurately didn’t cease him from promoting many performances and recording of the piece.

To at the present time, the coaching of American conservatory musicians prioritizes pure tone manufacturing and mechanical facility over a primary dance beat.

Typically, histories of American music think about Gershwin extra essential than Ellington. Jazz musicians and connoisseurs would disagree; any mature Ellington LP beats out any recording of “Rhapsody in Blue.” There’s simply no comparability by way of depth of feeling, not to mention swing. Ellington was normally debonair and reserved in public, however his beautiful 1961 trio deconstruction of Gershwin’s “Summertime” paperwork a second of dropping his composure. The large, dissonant piano cluster on the finish appears to suggest Ellington’s justified anger about Gershwin’s continued eclipse of him as the nice American composer, lengthy after Gershwin was lifeless.

It has solely gotten more durable for critical Black musicians to handle the Gershwin drawback. Earlier than embarking on his 1998 undertaking “Gershwin’s World,” Hancock had doubts, which he defined in his memoir, “Prospects”: “Why ought to I make a file celebrating an ideal white American musician? Particularly when that musician had gained fame by creating music in a method that was really based by Black musicians — who by no means received the credit score, the followers or the cash they so hard-earned. I knew I’d get flak from the Black group, and understandably so.”

Aaron Diehl is a critical jazz pianist, however sturdy classical approach has given him the chance to carry out Gershwin’s music dozens of occasions with main orchestras. In an interview, Diehl was frank about how awkward “Rhapsody in Blue” might really feel in rehearsal and efficiency.

“The elemental query is the right way to transfer past the nostalgia for this piece, and discover viable musical options to a deeply rooted drawback,” he stated. “‘Rhapsody in Blue’ isn’t supply materials. James P. Johnson’s ‘Carolina Shout,’ Fat Waller’s ‘Handful of Keys’ and Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘The Pearlsare supply materials.”

Diehl has heard, he added, “Marcus Roberts play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ many occasions together with his trio, who collectively handle to show the work on its head, but additionally align it with a deeper understanding of the musical references. That strategy is one blueprint for grappling with these points. One other is giving dwelling composers the chance to put in writing works that permit musicians to sort out among the nuances of a wealthy language. That can take a while, even after 100 years of hindsight.”

Regardless of all this, and no matter whether or not “Rhapsody in Blue” is the worst masterpiece, it’s additionally the very best cheesecake, or one thing else enticing but unhealthy. Take heed to it, and you’ll’t resist whistling Gershwin’s catchy themes.

The composer and pianist Timo Andres advised me, “‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is like a kind of inflatable punching luggage that simply springs again up no matter you do to it.” We’re blessed and caught with this piece, a flawed traditional that exemplifies our nation’s unsettled relationship with the originators of African American music and approach.