Over the past several weeks I’ve been giving some thought to a series of posts on American classical music. It’s a great Fourth, so why not start tonight with a great piece of American music?
I’ve always found tone poems and other themed music personally appealing. If I could assemble a list of about a dozen or two American composers and choose one such piece from each of their bodies of work, what would I choose?
I remember George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from childhood. I can’t place where I first heard it, but it’s probably one of the top ten notable and recognizable pieces to people who are not well-versed in classical music.
I saw it performed about ten years ago in Iowa. Everybody seems to like it to some degree, so it bounced around outside my faves for quite some time. Practically everything else Gershwin wrote was tighter, more polished, and showed his growing ability to handle classical forms. Even people who love Rhapsody in Blue nitpick on its slapdash mixture of themes and ideas. But what marvelous themes! Gershwin was a musical genius. One can only imagine his contributions had he not died before he turned forty.
Did you know its original title was American Rhapsody? Gershwin conceived of the piece while riding the train from New York to Boston.
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, 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. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.
I have the Levine/Chicago Symphony recording which features Ferde Grofe’s 1924 arrangement from the premiere. Gershwin played at that concert and improvised some of the piano part. At one point some of the score was blank for the piano part with just a single instruction for the players, “Wait for nod.” We really don’t know if the original piano part was different from what the composer put into print later that year.
It’s a great piece for listening and for celebrating a holiday weekend. I find it electrifying every time I hear it. I think it shows the connection a composer can make with listeners above and beyond any intellectual analysis of what is the best. Good for Gershwin.
I still have my beaten up LP of the Michael Tilson Thomas recording with George Gershwin on piano (roll). It’s still my favorite. I have the CD, too, but LPs are better, of course.
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