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February 12: Rhapsody in Blue

February 12, 2014
rhapsody_in_blue_enlGeorge Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York on this date in 1924, in an afternoon contest billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The piece was played by Paul Whiteman (who had commissioned the piece) and his band, with Gershwin on the piano. Gershwin wrote the jazz concerto in five weeks, starting on a train ride to Boston. “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang,” he later said to his biographer, Isaac Goldberg, “that is so often so stimulating to a composer — I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.” John Phillip Sousa, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and other prominent composers of the day were present at the premiere of the piece, which included several elements of improvisation. Leonard Bernstein described the Rhapsody as “a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter.” Nevertheless, Whiteman’s recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” sold more than a million copies by 1927. To see the New York Philharmonic playing it under Leonard Bernstein’s direction, look below. “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.” —George Gershwin