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'Rhapsody in Blue': After a century, Gershwin's musical melting pot still resonates

George Gershwin, photographed in his 72nd Street apartment in New York in 1934. His <em>Rhapsody in Blue</em> premiered 100 years ago on Feb. 12, 1924.
PhotoQuest / Contributor
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Getty Images
George Gershwin, photographed in his 72nd Street apartment in New York in 1934. His Rhapsody in Blue premiered 100 years ago on Feb. 12, 1924.

It was cold and snowy in New York City 100 years ago today, and Aeolian Hall, across from Bryant Park, was packed. ComposersSergei Rachmaninov andJohn Philip Sousa were in the audience, along with violin sensationJascha Heifetz, conductorLeopold Stokowski and actress Gertrude Lawrence. Hundreds, reportedly, were turned away. They all came to attend "An Experiment in Modern Music," a concert mounted by the popular bandleader Paul Whiteman.

"My idea for the concert," Whiteman wrote in his autobiography, "was to show these skeptical people the advance which had been made in popular music from the day of the discordant early jazz to the melodious form of the present." Judging from that, and articles such as one in a 1921 edition of Ladies' Home Journal whose headline read "Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?" one might wonder whether Whiteman was trying to whitewash the perceived lowbrow origins of jazz for the elites comfortably seated in their temple of classical music.

And yet, a surprise was in store for those in attendance. Late in the long program of mainly fluffy confections, such as Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys," came a caterwauling clarinet, slithering up the scale. It was the opening salvo that introducedGeorge Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a piece teeming with possibilities not only for the composer but for what American music could sound like.

"Gershwin is well aware of what he's doing, and he really doesn't give a damn what people think," says Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall. "He wanted to bridge musical worlds that were separate."

Those worlds were jazz — the pop music of the day — and classical. And bridge them he did. Gershwin's Rhapsody was thunderously applauded that day, and Whiteman toured it relentlessly for years. More successful mergers from the composer followed, with An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, the Cuban Overture and the opera Porgy and Bess. The problem, Horowitz says, is that Gershwin was shunned by the American composers who were best positioned to dictate the direction of American classical music.

"Aaron Copland,Virgil Thomson andLeonard Bernstein, they all write about Gershwin as if he's a dilettante — can't be taken completely seriously," Horowitz says. Jazz, they thought, wasn't serious music — and for Gershwin to introduce it into classical music was like poisoning the well.

"You know as well as I do that the Rhapsody is not a composition at all," Bernstein wrote in a 1955 essay on Gershwin, cast in a faux dialogue between himself and an imagined music manager. "It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together — with a thin paste of flour and water."

If the Rhapsody's debut audience had embraced it, the critics were far less accepting. The following day in the New York Tribune, Lawrence Gilman wrote about "how trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are," while as late as 1933, Paul Rosenfeld, in The New Republic, wrote: "The Rhapsody in Blue is circus music. ... It stands vaporous with its second-hand ideas and ecstasies," adding that the Rhapsody was "not so much music, as jazz dolled up."

The attitude toward Gershwin had potent implications for classical music in America. In the 1920s, white composers might have drawn from the wealth of homegrown Black music. But they didn't — except Gershwin. Acknowledging that resistance is essential, Horowitz says, to understanding the limitations classical music faced in America between the two world wars. "Classical music in the United States has never really acquired its own indigenous identity." It's why, he argues, classical music still remains marginalized today.

George Gershwin's <em>Rhapsody in Blue</em> was one of the first successful works to combine jazz and classical music.
Library of Congress / George Gershwin Bain Collection
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George Gershwin Bain Collection
George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was one of the first successful works to combine jazz and classical music.

Then there's the question of appropriation. Was Gershwin stealing from Black culture? And how does the question change once later generations of Black musicians begin to borrow chord progressions from Gershwin? "It's a topic that we don't talk about a lot," says trumpeter and composerTerence Blanchard, who himself straddles the fence between jazz and classical. In 2021, he became thefirst Black composer to have a work staged at New York's Metropolitan Opera. "When you say appropriating, it's like somebody who's taken music without giving credit to the originators. And I don't think Gershwin was that way. Were they taking the DNA from that? Of course. But I don't think it was done with ill intent." Part of that DNA came from Gershwin hanging out in Harlem, soaking up the energetic "stride" piano style, which incorporated elements of ragtime, blues and folk music.

"I think that a lot of the writing in Rhapsody in Blue definitely is not stuff that Gershwin learned in his piano lessons as a young boy," says pianistLara Downes, who has played the Rhapsody many times and is touring a new version of it. (Full disclosure, Downes and I work on the NPR program Amplify.) Sitting at her own piano to demonstrate, Downes says Gershwin picked up a lot from the stride piano giants, some of whom were his friends, such asJames P. Johnson,Willie "The Lion" Smith and Luckey Roberts, who claimed he gave Gershwin lessons. "It's this very athletic kind of playing," she says. And you can hear it through much of the Rhapsody.

But Downes hears more than just jazz in Gershwin's piece — she hears politics. "Just three months after Rhapsody in Blue was performed, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed," she points out. "Incredibly xenophobic, anti-immigrant legislation that essentially shut down Ellis Island, completely stopped immigration from Asia, drastically cut back immigration from southern and Eastern Europe."

Gershwin himself was a second-generation Russian immigrant, who told biographer Isaac Goldberg he thought of his Rhapsody as "a musical kaleidoscope of America." You can hear sounds of Tin Pan Alley, where as a teenager he worked as a song promoter; there are whiffs of Yiddish theatre, Spanish music, the hurdy-gurdies of the Lower East Side and, of course, jazz.

"I don't hear Rhapsody in Blue anymore as just a piece of entertainment," Downes adds. "I think it's a little bit of an act of rebellion, or at the very least, it's a statement about what America should be and what that sounds like."

What America sounds like to Downes is nothing less than a vibrant gumbo of cultures. She and Puerto Rican composer and saxophonist Edmar Colón have taken Gershwin's hundred-year-old melting pot idea into the present, collaborating on Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined, an expanded version of Gershwin's original that folds in a generous measure of Afro-Cuban flavors as well as Chinese music. The work received its world premiere last October and a recording was released earlier this month.

But they aren't the only ones remolding Gershwin's malleable Rhapsody. To mark the anniversary, Banjo guruBéla Fleck has just released Rhapsody in Blue(grass). Fleck, who has won 17 Grammys in 13 separate fields, is no stranger to the Gershwin multicultural ethic. The Rhapsody translated into bluegrass sounds like just another fluent musical language for Gershwin, and a testament to the sturdiness of his singular melodies.

"When you listen to Rhapsody in Blue, it seems to be steeped in the fabric of American culture," Blanchard says. "I think Rhapsody in Blue is one of those pieces that really opened the door for a lot of people." That's especially true of the many composers who have, over the decades, tried to blend classical and popular music. There is a long line of jazz-classical mashups from the likes ofDuke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein himself,Charles Mingus,Ornette Coleman,Anthony Braxton,Wynton Marsalis andTyshawn Sorey. Plus, an entire lineage of Black composers — including William Grant Still,Florence Price,William Levi Dawson and many others — who incorporated Black spirituals, dances and field songs into their works.

Gershwin died in 1937 from a brain tumor, at just 38. Who knows what American classical music would sound like today if he'd survived, or if American composers had taken more seriously both him and the Black music that inspired him. But that doesn't take any power away from Gershwin's music for Lara Downes.

"When we hear Rhapsody in Blue, we are somehow connecting with Gershwin and his enthusiasm and his open heart," she says, "and his wanting to show us the best of what our country can be — whether we know it or not."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.