HUMANISM & THE ARTS | The American Sound of Hope: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

In all likelihood, George Gershwin had simply forgotten. By 1924, at the age of twenty-six, he was a busy man. He had already established himself as a very talented songwriter in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley, banging out tune after tune for a demanding array of showmen busy feeding the tastes of the American public in love with the stage, years before the new medium of moving pictures had sound. Born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898, he was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had made a few moves through Brooklyn and ultimately settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was the beating, dancing, and singing heart of the Yiddish Theatre District, full of theatres along Second Avenue from Houston to Fourteenth Street, a kind of living stage of displaced humanity from many far-off places that managed to host twenty to thirty shows a night.

When Jacob’s parents Moise and Rose Gershowitz decided that his older brother Israel should take up piano and bought a used one to get him on his way, they soon realized that Israel’s real love was for books and for words. No sooner was the piano hoisted up through the front window of their apartment at 91 First Avenue that, to their amazement, the younger brother Jacob sat down and immediately began playing one of the popular tunes of the day. Unbeknownst to his parents, he had been playing a friend’s piano for some time. At only eleven years of age he quickly sought out teachers in the neighborhood who could help him pursue his interest. At fourteen he was taken on by renowned teacher Charles Hambitzer, who said, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”

By the age of fifteen Jacob had dropped out of school to become a song-plugger for Jerome H. Remick and Co. at the admirable rate of fifteen dollars per week. By 1916, at the age of eighteen, he was composing prolifically, arranging tunes for a piano roll company. And in 1919 he scored his first major success with the song “Swanee,” which had been picked up by Al Jolson for one of his shows. It sold one million copies of sheet music and two million records. In those days, composers would often enlist a collaborator lyricist and the partners would write scores for entire stage productions. Jacob had a partner who was very familiar: his older brother, Israel. It was about this time, as a remedy to the rampant anti-Semitism of the day, that Jacob Gershowitz changed his name to George Gershwin, Israel became Ira, and their parents and siblings followed suit.

But how, returning to this column’s opening statement, could George Gershwin
have forgotten? In November 1923 the highly successful bandleader Paul Whiteman was beginning to experiment with a new kind of musical approach. Whiteman decided to try and wed classical composition with the new, truly American sound of jazz. His influence, though it owed a great deal to the African-American jazz he heard, earned Whiteman the moniker “The King of Jazz,” and in the 1920s he was that and more. He felt that the medium of jazz could be improved by careful orchestration rather than by improvisation and he brought jazz to an ever-widening audience. And so, that November he contacted the twenty-five-year-old Gershwin, with whom he’d collaborated on a moderately successful musical venture called Scandals of 1922, to ask him to compose a piece that would exemplify this new classical-jazz sound he was imagining and that would be premiered by his orchestra. Initially, Gershwin hesitated at the offer, feeling that there wouldn’t be adequate time to write it and make it work, and he put it out of his mind. Still, convinced of the enormous talent of the young Gershwin, Whiteman went ahead planning the concert premier for the following February at New York’s Aeolian Hall.

On January 3, 1924, at a billiard parlor in midtown Manhattan, George was playing pool with another successful songwriter, Buddy DeSylva (who later went on to co-found Capitol Records), while his brother Ira sat reading the day’s edition of the New York Tribune. Ira spotted an article entitled, “What is American Music?” and as he read through it he noticed that it said George Gershwin was at work on a jazz concerto for Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra. George was shocked at this news and the next morning phoned Whiteman to repeat his concerns and reluctance. Whiteman finally prevailed after telling him that, if he didn’t write it, the idea might well be co-opted by one of his composing rivals, Vincent Lopez. George had not a moment to spare. On a train to Boston from New York, as he struggled for inspiration, the rhythmic rattling of the train car on the rails presented to him the central theme of something he would come to call Rhapsody in Blue. As he reported to an interviewer some years later,

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 metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.

According to the date he penciled on the score, on January 7, 1924, he began to compose. Less than a month later on February 4 he handed the completed work to Paul Whiteman’s orchestrator and arranger, Ferde Grofé. Oddly, George was unhappy with the now iconic passage in the middle of the piece, thinking it too sentimental. Luckily, it was Ira and Grofé who implored him to leave it as it was, and he did. On February 12, with an audience in Aeolian Hall that included the likes of Leopold Stokowski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, John Philip Sousa, Igor Stravinsky, and Fritz Kreisler, Rhapsody in Blue was performed publicly for the first time. It was a long program and Gershwin’s
was the final piece. The ventilation system in the hall had failed and the audience was hot, uncomfortable, and impatient when that transcendent clarinet glissando opened the piece. Gershwin was at the piano and, still unsettled with the precise part he was to play, he improvised a number of passages. The final version was not fully notated until sometime after the performance. Sadly, it was not recorded. A review in the following day’s New York Times reported that, “the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice. … There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin’s composition.”

But what is it about this remarkable work of art that sets it astride the pillars of American musical invention? For me it embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature, in music and the theatre, and the advent of the new mediums of radio and film. Mass communication, still in its infancy, would make it possible to hear all kinds of music and not have to actually be sitting in the audience. After many years when, if a family wished to hear music they had to have someone learn to play the piano, they could now hear radio programs and phonographic recordings of unimaginable scope and style. It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was America was at a full boil, in full blossom. It was a time of Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Babe Ruth, and Amelia Earhart, when we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.

George Gershwin embodied all of that, and then, when the financial bottom fell out in the waning weeks of the Roaring Twenties, it was Gershwin and his cohorts who helped us retain our national optimism and remind us, through music and theatre and movies, who we were and who kept us on our feet and on our path through the years of great trials that swept in so quickly and without mercy. Sadly, the Great Depression years were a time of great challenge that Gershwin himself would not survive. On July 11, 1937, at the too-young age of thirty-eight, he went in for surgery to remove a brain tumor and never regained consciousness. But he had not been idle during those years between the triumph of 1924 and his death. It was in 1924 that he began a vital collaboration with his older brother Ira, fully engaging Ira’s sharp ear and his love of language to pen some of the more memorable lyrics in the American songbook.

Between them they wrote perhaps the most significant American operatic composition, Porgy and Bess, and the sensational orchestral composition, An American in Paris, which later became the iconic Gene Kelly film. And here are some of their songs, which are as beloved today as when they were written: “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “Embraceable You,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “‘S Wonderful,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

Now, some one hundred years later, as we struggle so hard as Americans, as a species, to shoulder the new realities of a pandemic that threatens both the sociopolitical order and our very lives, we must reach for things to embrace, things that will console and fortify us, and remind us of just who we are. We have the great accomplishments of the prior generations, a recognition of how they helped us survive, reminding us of the many riches and gifts left to us by the artists, the composers, and yes, the storytellers and poets of the past. The music of George and Ira Gershwin
once helped preserve our national spirit and identity through the long years of the Great Depression. Can a single piece of music such as Rhapsody in Blue really claim all of that power? I believe it can. Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.