Rhapsody in Blue: Gershwin’s Five-Week Miracle

George Gershwin at his piano in 1927.
George Gershwin at his piano in 1927.

On this date in 1924, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” premiered during a showcase concert in New York City.

Here are some things you may not have known about Gershwin and one of his masterpieces.

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. He was the second of four children. His older brother, Ira, would later become his musical writing partner. They had two younger siblings, Arthur and Frances.

The Gershwins’ parents, Morris and Rose, were born in Russia and came to the United States in the early 1890s. George had little interest in music early in his life until hearing a friend play during a violin recital when he was 10 years old. He began piano lessons soon after. By the time he was 15, George had left school to work demonstrating songs for a publishing firm on New York’s Tin Pan Alley. His first song was published when he was 17 years old, and earned him 50 cents. In 1919, he wrote his first hit, “Swanee,” which would be popularized by Al Jolson.

In the 1920s he turned to more experimental works, such as the one-act jazz opera “Blue Monday.” He also worked with his brother Ira on several stage musicals, which produced standards like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Love is Here to Stay.”

Late in 1923, band leader Paul Whiteman began laying plans for a showcase concert featuring jazz-influenced classical music. He asked Gershwin to write a piece for the show, which was scheduled for about two months later. Gershwin declined, saying that it would take too long to compose a new piece. On January 3, while George was playing pool with collaborator Buddy DeSylva, Ira read a newspaper story about the upcoming showcase. The story mentioned that a new piece by George would be performed. The next day, George called Whiteman, who finally persuaded him to write the piece.

According to a story he told a biographer, Gershwin came up with the idea for “Rhapsody in Blue” while on a train to Boston. The rhythmic rattle of the train helping to inspire him. He said he suddenly heard the complete composition in his head. Of the piece, he said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” The working title for the piece was “American Rhapsody,” but Ira suggested “Rhapsody in Blue” after visiting an exhibition of paintings by James McNeill Whistler, whose works had names such as Nocturne in Black and Gold, and Arrangement in Grey and Black, which is the formal name of the work better known as Whistler’s Mother.

The piece was orchestrated by Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofe, who finished it eight days before it premiered.

The opening clarinet glissando was originally played as a joke during rehearsal. Gershwin loved it so much, he asked the lead clarinetist to play it that way during the performance.

On February 12, 1924, “An Experiment in Modern Music” was held at Aeolian Hall in New York. Gershwin’s composition was scheduled to be performed second to last. Gershwin played piano, backed by Whiteman’s band and an added string section. Some of Gershwin’s part was improvised, and the score included a note to the conductor to wait for Gershwin to nod his head to bring in the orchestra. Gershwin wrote the piano part after the performance. A review in the New York Times said the piece was met with tumultuous applause. Overall the initial reviews of the work were mixed.

Whiteman’s band ended up using “Rhapsody in Blue” as its theme song and selling more than 1 million copies.

In 1935, Gershwin debuted “Porgy and Bess,” which he called a folk opera. It would later be recognized as one of the greatest theatrical compositions of the century, however it was a box-office flop at the time.

In 1936, he moved to Hollywood to write music for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical “Shall We Dance.” While in California, he began suffering from severe headaches and mood swings. After being hospitalized several times, he collapsed and fell into a coma. At that point, doctors realized that he was suffering from a brain tumor. Doctors attempted to remove the tumor two days later, but Gershwin died following surgery.

He was 38 years old.

Following his death, he and Ira were nominated for an Academy Award for Best original Song for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” In 1985 he and Ira were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1988 the University of California, Los Angeles established the George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award. Ira Gershwin died in 1983 at the age of 86.

Our question: What airline uses “Rhapsody in Blue” as its theme in television commercials?

Today is Youth Day in Venezuela and Darwin Day. It’s unofficially National Plum Pudding Day, Paul Bunyan Day and International Winter Bike to Work Day. It’s the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and basketball legend Bill Russell.

In 1983, the year Ira Gershwin died, the top song in the U.S. was “Down Under” by Men at Work; the No. 1 movie was “Tootsie,” while “Space” by James A. Michener topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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