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31 January 2024

The Rhapsody in Blue revolution

First performed 100 years ago, George Gershwin’s great experiment defined the jazz age and took popular music in a new direction.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

In 1928, the American populist composer George Gershwin was on tour in Europe. He reached Vienna and decided to visit his hero, the Austrian modernist Alban Berg. As a welcome gesture, Berg asked a string quartet to perform a recent work of his, Lyric Suite, described by the critic Alex Ross as “Viennese lyricism refined into something like a dangerous narcotic”. It intoxicated Gershwin, who hesitated before approaching the piano, fearing his music might sound prosaic in comparison. Berg sensed his worry and said: “Mr Gershwin, music is music.”

Ross used the anecdote to introduce his history of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise, published in 2007. But he adds: “If only it were that simple.” By 1928, music had already fractured into a myriad of different styles with classical music and opera, long used to being the engine of sonic progression, struggling to keep up. Significant works were premiered that year – Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Symphony; Igor Stravinsky’s Apollo ballet – but they hardly seized attention like Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche”, Louis Armstrong’s recording of the soon-to-become-standard “Basin Street Blues”, or Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s music-play The Threepenny Opera, a critique of capitalism by two committed socialists that, ironically, became a runaway commercial success.

It’s perplexing to think of Gershwin as conflicted in this new world of sound – as a man in awe of European classical composition and embarrassed by his uncanny knack to write very American music with mass appeal. On that trip to Europe, he didn’t just meet Berg; he also paid his respects to other notable composers of the day – Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc and Arnold Schoenberg. But, among that pack of luminaries, it was the 30-year-old Gershwin who was the bona fide musical celebrity in 1928. The last four years had been a blizzard of success, led by one piece of music in particular, Rhapsody in Blue – a dazzling, 14-minute fusion of classical music and jazz that looked forward to the rest of the century in music in a way that the European tradition was summarily failing to do. Gershwin wanted to learn from the masters, but he had much to offer them in turn. With Rhapsody in Blue, he’d achieved the seemingly impossible – composed music for the concert hall that great numbers of people actually wanted to hear. It would come to define the jazz age and net Gershwin a fortune – $250,000 in performances, recordings, and rental fees between 1924 and 1934 alone, the equivalent of $5m today.

Gershwin’s parents met in America in the 1890s, having both escaped rising anti-Semitism in Russia. Born in 1898, George was raised in New York City’s lively Lower East Side, exposed to multiple cultures, languages and sounds. He came to music late – aged 12, when his father bought a piano – but excelled, and started out as a teenage song plugger on Tin Pan Alley before beginning to compose himself. His musical education was in the industry rather than the conservatory, which helps explain his self-doubt when meeting Berg. He learned to write music that could sell – on Tin Pan Alley, and then Broadway, where composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern had been fashioning an increasingly sophisticated feel for both show tunes and full musical scores. Gershwin found that he could match them – artistically and commercially. His first big hit was 1919’s “Swanee”, with lyrics by Irving Caesar, which Al Jolson recorded. Musicals came next – three in three years between 1920 and 1923 – but not even success on Broadway could sate his musical ambitions.

“As far back as my 18th year, I have wanted to work at big compositions,” Gershwin remembered later in life. He first turned to classical composition with 1919’s Lullaby for string quartet. A one-act “jazz opera”, Blue Monday, flopped in 1922, but it didn’t deter Gershwin from attempting another melding of the European tradition with America’s hot new sound. Rhapsody in Blue came about as a commission. The bandleader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to compose a concerto-like jazz work for a concert he planned called “An Experiment in Modern Music” at New York City’s Aeolian Hall. Gershwin wrote it quickly, over a few weeks in early 1924, hearing it, he said in a later interview, “as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”.

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Rhapsody in Blue premiered 100 years ago on 12 February, with the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, the violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, and the conductor Leopold Stokowski all present at the concert. Programmed on a bill with 26 other experimental works, it stole the show – receiving five curtain calls – and most of the column inches the following day. Today, the reviews make for curious reading. On the one hand, there was a snobby kind of joy that Gershwin might be turning his hand to “serious” music after years of shorter-form songwriting; on the other, the piece was picked apart like it was a canonical piano concerto, entirely misreading Gershwin’s aim. He was accused of writing a piece that was “structurally uncertain” and “repetitive”, which was partially the point. Most brutally, Lawrence Gilman from the New York Tribune seemed intent on burying jazz’s chance of ever returning to the concert hall. “Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive,” he wrote.

Rhapsody in Blue truly took off when Gershwin recorded it in 1927, and promptly sold a million copies. But it remained controversial. Ten years after the premiere, the English composer Constant Lambert published a short, confrontational book, Music Ho!, which trashed Rhapsody in Blue and clumsily accused Jewish composers of jazz music as having “stolen the negroes’ thunder”. That must have hurt Gershwin, but not as much as comments made by Duke Ellington in 1935. Cornered for comment on Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which portrayed African-American life and featured an all-black cast of singers, Ellington is reported to have said, “The music did not hitch with the mood and spirit of the story.” The interview is contested. To some biographers, the journalist – a Marxist who may have had an agenda – twisted Ellington’s quotes into an unfair assault on Gershwin’s artistic integrity. To others, including jazz historian Ted Gioia, it’s a rare example of Ellington dropping his guard. In the same interview, it was claimed that Ellington played extracts from Rhapsody in Blue on a piano and pointed out where Gershwin had “stolen or borrowed” material.

Gershwin’s death in 1937, aged 38, shocked America. He’d been complaining of headaches and was diagnosed, post-mortem, as suffering from a brain tumour. With Rhapsody in Blue, Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris, which Gershwin started composing on that trip to Europe in 1928, his place in the pantheon of great American composers is assured, albeit with increasing reservation. Accusations of cultural appropriation are nothing new in discussions of his work, but they can only be made alongside an understanding of his intentions – to reach a common place for American music, devoid of “high” and “low” art distinctions, and striking at the heart of democracy; where music, as Berg told him, is music.

[See also: Thom Yorke’s late style

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State