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Work of the Week – George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Since its world premiere in 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has become one of the most famous symphonic works of the 20th century, and features regularly in the programmes of orchestras around the world. On 21 July, at the Klassik Open Air in the Luitpoldhain in Nuremberg, Joana Mallwitz conducts the Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg and pianist, Michail Lifits, in a performance of this iconic work.

Towards the end of 1923, famous band leader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin, who until then had mainly been writing works for Broadway, if he would write a new symphonic jazz work. He requested that the new work be “an experiment in modern music” through which Whiteman and his orchestra could fuse jazz and classical music. It wasn’t until Whiteman informed the press about the new work that Gershwin in fact accepted the commission and started composing the piece.

Nevertheless, Gershwin quickly completed a version of the work for two pianos with annotations for the instrumentation, which was then orchestrated by Whiteman´s arranger Ferde Grofé. At the world premiere of the Rhapsody in Blue on 12 February 1924, Gershwin himself played the piano to an audience which included Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Fritz Kreisler.

As Whiteman’s orchestra frequently performed in various instrumentations, Grofé produced many different orchestrations of Rhapsody in Blue. While this has made it impossible to reconstruct the original orchestration from the work’s premiere, a version for Jazz-Band, which is based on the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is understood to come close. The work’s success led to a number of published versions many of which are available at Schott Music.

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue – Symphonic Jazz for the concert hall

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

Gershwin’s kaleidoscope is expressed in different melodies, which correspond in a rhapsodic open sequence, interrupted frequently by soloistic piano parts. Many chromatic grace notes and accentuated syncopations are just a few of the stylistic mannerisms taken from Jazz music which are intertwined with the language of the orchestra.

Further to the performance in Nuremberg, Rhapsody in Blue will also be performed on 21 July by the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester at the Piazza Grande in Italian Montepulciano. Many of Gershwin’s orchestral works enjoy immense popularity in concert programmes. Audiences at an Open-Air concert at the opera festival in Munich on 20 July will have the opportunity to hear An American in Paris and Gershwin’s Cuban Overture.