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It was chilly and snowy in New York Metropolis 100 years in the past at the moment, and Aeolian Corridor, throughout from Bryant Park, was packed. Composers Sergei Rachmaninov and John Philip Sousa have been within the viewers, together with violin sensation Jascha Heifetz, conductor Leopold Stokowski and actress Gertrude Lawrence. A whole lot, reportedly, have been turned away. All of them got here to attend “An Experiment in Trendy Music,” a live performance mounted by the favored bandleader Paul Whiteman.
“My concept for the live performance,” Whiteman wrote in his autobiography, “was to point out these skeptical folks the advance which had been made in fashionable music from the day of the discordant early jazz to the melodious type of the current.” Judging from that, and articles akin to one in a 1921 version of Women’ House Journal whose headline learn “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” one would possibly ponder whether Whiteman was making an attempt to whitewash the perceived lowbrow origins of jazz for the elites comfortably seated of their temple of classical music.
And but, a shock was in retailer for these in attendance. Late within the lengthy program of primarily fluffy confections, akin to Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys,” got here a caterwauling clarinet, slithering up the dimensions. It was the opening salvo that launched George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue, a chunk teeming with potentialities not just for the composer however for what American music may sound like.
“Gershwin is effectively conscious of what he is doing, and he actually does not give a rattling what folks suppose,” says Joseph Horowitz, creator of Classical Music in America: A Historical past of its Rise and Fall. “He needed to bridge musical worlds that have been separate.”
These worlds have been jazz — the pop music of the day — and classical. And bridge them he did. Gershwin’s Rhapsody was thunderously applauded that day, and Whiteman toured it relentlessly for years. Extra profitable mergers from the composer adopted, with An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, the Cuban Overture and the opera Porgy and Bess. The issue, Horowitz says, is that Gershwin was shunned by the American composers who have been finest positioned to dictate the course of American classical music.
“Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, all of them write about Gershwin as if he is a dilettante — cannot be taken fully significantly,” Horowitz says. Jazz, they thought, wasn’t critical music — and for Gershwin to introduce it into classical music was like poisoning the effectively.
“You understand in addition to I try this the Rhapsody isn’t a composition in any respect,” Bernstein wrote in a 1955 essay on Gershwin, forged in a pretend dialogue between himself and an imagined music supervisor. “It is a string of separate paragraphs caught collectively — with a skinny paste of flour and water.”
If the Rhapsody‘s debut viewers had embraced it, the critics have been far much less accepting. The next day within the New York Tribune, Lawrence Gilman wrote about “how trite and feeble and traditional the tunes are,” whereas as late as 1933, Paul Rosenfeld, in The New Republic, wrote: “The Rhapsody in Blue is circus music. … It stands vaporous with its second-hand concepts and ecstasies,” including that the Rhapsody was “not a lot music, as jazz dolled up.”
The perspective towards Gershwin had potent implications for classical music in America. Within the Twenties, white composers might need drawn from the wealth of homegrown Black music. However they did not — besides Gershwin. Acknowledging that resistance is crucial, Horowitz says, to understanding the restrictions classical music confronted in America between the 2 world wars. “Classical music in the USA has by no means actually acquired its personal indigenous identification.” It is why, he argues, classical music nonetheless stays marginalized at the moment.
Library of Congress/George Gershwin Bain Assortment
Then there’s the query of appropriation. Was Gershwin stealing from Black tradition? And the way does the query change as soon as later generations of Black musicians start to borrow chord progressions from Gershwin? “It is a subject that we do not speak about lots,” says trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, who himself straddles the fence between jazz and classical. In 2021, he turned the first Black composer to have a piece staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “Whenever you say appropriating, it is like any person who’s taken music with out giving credit score to the originators. And I do not suppose Gershwin was that approach. Have been they taking the DNA from that? In fact. However I do not suppose it was performed with in poor health intent.” A part of that DNA got here from Gershwin hanging out in Harlem, absorbing the energetic “stride” piano model, which integrated components of ragtime, blues and people music.
“I feel that numerous the writing in Rhapsody in Blue undoubtedly isn’t stuff that Gershwin realized in his piano classes as a younger boy,” says pianist Lara Downes, who has performed the Rhapsody many instances and is touring a brand new model of it. (Full disclosure, Downes and I work on the NPR program Amplify.) Sitting at her personal piano to exhibit, Downes says Gershwin picked up lots from the stride piano giants, a few of whom have been his mates, akin to James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Luckey Roberts, who claimed he gave Gershwin classes. “It is this very athletic sort of taking part in,” she says. And you may hear it by a lot of the Rhapsody.
However Downes hears extra than simply jazz in Gershwin’s piece — she hears politics. “Simply three months after Rhapsody in Blue was carried out, the Johnson-Reed Act was handed,” she factors out. “Extremely xenophobic, anti-immigrant laws that primarily shut down Ellis Island, fully stopped immigration from Asia, drastically in the reduction of immigration from southern and Japanese Europe.”
Gershwin himself was a second-generation Russian immigrant, who informed biographer Isaac Goldberg he considered his Rhapsody as “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” You possibly can hear sounds of Tin Pan Alley, the place as a youngster he labored as a music promoter; there are whiffs of Yiddish theatre, Spanish music, the hurdy-gurdies of the Decrease East Facet and, in fact, jazz.
“I do not hear Rhapsody in Blue anymore as only a piece of leisure,” Downes provides. “I feel it is a bit little bit of an act of revolt, or on the very least, it is a assertion about what America ought to be and what that feels like.”
What America sounds prefer to Downes is nothing lower than a vibrant gumbo of cultures. She and Puerto Rican composer and saxophonist Edmar Colón have taken Gershwin’s hundred-year-old melting pot concept into the current, collaborating on Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined, an expanded model of Gershwin’s authentic that folds in a beneficiant measure of Afro-Cuban flavors in addition to Chinese language music. The work acquired its world premiere final October and a recording was launched earlier this month.
However they are not the one ones remolding Gershwin’s malleable Rhapsody. To mark the anniversary, Banjo guru Béla Fleck has simply launched Rhapsody in Blue(grass). Fleck, who has received 17 Grammys in 13 separate fields, isn’t any stranger to the Gershwin multicultural ethic. The Rhapsody translated into bluegrass feels like simply one other fluent musical language for Gershwin, and a testomony to the durability of his singular melodies.
“Whenever you take heed to Rhapsody in Blue, it appears to be steeped within the cloth of American tradition,” Blanchard says. “I feel Rhapsody in Blue is a kind of items that basically opened the door for lots of people.” That is very true of the numerous composers who’ve, over the a long time, tried to mix classical and fashionable music. There’s a lengthy line of jazz-classical mashups from the likes of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein himself, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Wynton Marsalis and Tyshawn Sorey. Plus, a whole lineage of Black composers — together with William Grant Nonetheless, Florence Worth, William Levi Dawson and lots of others — who integrated Black spirituals, dances and subject songs into their works.
Gershwin died in 1937 from a mind tumor, at simply 38. Who is aware of what American classical music would sound like at the moment if he’d survived, or if American composers had taken extra significantly each him and the Black music that impressed him. However that does not take any energy away from Gershwin’s music for Lara Downes.
“After we hear Rhapsody in Blue, we’re in some way connecting with Gershwin and his enthusiasm and his open coronary heart,” she says, “and his wanting to point out us one of the best of what our nation may be — whether or not we all know it or not.”