Rhapsody in Blue and America. I know, comparisons like these have been done almost to the point where starts and stripes reluctantly ooze out of their seams. Gershwin has become the Uncle Sam of music—at least, to those of us who are looking through classical glasses. But it seems as though a few paragraphs on the masterpiece are necessary in time, especially right after hearing a live performance.
Rhapsody in Blue isn’t the National Anthem or anything. It doesn’t come blasting out of speakers at middle schools, and we can’t find its name on mass-produced patriotic bumper stickers at convenience stores. But its similarity to American culture is unavoidable. Not only is the style and overall genre American, but the method of composition, the composer, the usage of instruments, and many other aspects are too. The whole piece is easily morphed into a metaphor of American society. Perhaps this direct comparison was not at the intention of Gershwin, but a man like him has a hard time being un-American.
George Gershwin’s experience with writing the piece is not unknown to most classical music lovers. He, his brother Ira, and a friend were playing pool when Ira picked up a newspaper. An article read that George was to be writing a jazz concerto for Paul Whiteman to premiere at Aeolian Hall, to the surprise of George. He had talked to Whiteman about the piece but never knew that conversation was an official commission. With only five weeks left, Gershwin had to get working. On a train ride to Boston, Gershwin was inspired. “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,” George said.
The moods in Rhapsody are deceiving—they evoke things like trains and metropolis-walking, but it is hard to identify the specific passages that are directly linked to these inspirations. But that is what makes Gershwin’s writing spectacular; it isn’t obvious. There are no percussion instruments that imitate metal wheels clanking against tracks or deep whistles, and this is what makes it convincing; its mystery and ease of listening.
Our culture is constantly moving. Even though we have great downfalls, we are constantly accomplishing and creating. Rhapsody in Blue is a melting pot of styles. The whole work has an overall feeling of improvisation, and, obviously, jazz—how more American can you get than our country’s own genre? The Rhapsody has march-feeling tempos as well. Demonstrated in the later solos, America sometimes feels exhausted, but like a person it needs to be organized. The piano at one point jumps in energetically with a high-tempo solo that widens your eyes and forces your toes to tap feverishly, switching the path and unveiling yet another mood of the piece.
Bernstein conducting/piano solo-ing Gershwin's piece.
Gershwin’s solos are the legs of the piece. The clarinet glissando that sets the piece off wasn’t even part of the score originally, but added in during rehearsals after the clarinetist improvised it. American society, though stressful at times, is productive and demanding. The pace of writing and aspects like the glissando mirror our hurried velocity. Trains—one of the main inspirations of the piece—transport us and allow us to commute; they’re like our brains.
On the other hand, the clarinet slide is lethargic like someone dragging their feet. The trombone has this element too, and it represents another side to our society, the worn-down and tired one. The solo muted trumpet, Charlie-Brown-adult like in sound, has vocal and linguistic tones. It speaks with stresses, tonally upturning questions, and low, resolved sentence endings. It’s conversational and slangy, like the dozens of dialects and accents (and languages) in America. The French horn repeated three-note theme (E, E♭, D) does not stick to one beat and switches the strains—it is undecided but on tempo with the rest of the orchestra. American society is frantic at times, but our successes are notable. And the French horn solo is definitely a success.
Rhapsody in Blue coats the ears in city sounds, language, and beautiful solos. The piece is America’s looking glass—“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,” Gershwin said. Only a composer like Gershwin could piece notes together to convey not an emotion, not an image (thought he does those also), but a country, society, and group of people. Hopefully, Rhapsody in Blue can be considered in the saying with apple pie and baseball. But for now, I think I’m ok with just listening.