Most Classical music is very old. When it was written, it was the ‘pop music’ of its day, and predominantly admired by the wealthy, and patrons of the arts. Everyday folk had to be content with their folk songs and hymns, as they were unlikely to ever be in a place where Classical music was performed, or even heard.
Most of us can recognise the better-known Classical pieces, such as ‘The Planets’, or ‘The Four Seasons’, and some composers, like Handel, have distinctive styles, and preferred instruments. Much of this recognition is down to the use of music to accompany films, and TV advertisements; we hear something pleasant, delve a little further into its origins, and discover the composer’s other works. Modern composers of Classical music are few and far between, and often less well-known, without the same wide audience.
In 1924, George Gershwin, the American songwriter and composer, wrote a piece of music that sought to combine elements of Classical music with the Jazz that was so popular at the time. Lasting less than twenty minutes, Gershwin’s work became an anthem to America, and remains a fascinating piece, as fresh to listen to today, as when it was first played. Rhapsody in Blue at first seems to be an amalgam of different pieces, and does not seem to work. Listen all the way to the end, and you will see that it is in fact, a complete work, combining an unusual array of solos, with a massive orchestral backing, and finale.
It became the signature tune of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Whiteman was the biggest ‘star’ of his time, and attracted all the great soloists, and composers, to his band. He toured extensively, played on radio shows, appeared in many films, and sold millions of records, as well as the sheet music, of the most popular songs played by his orchestra. The first time I heard Rhapsody in Blue, I also saw it, with Gershwin himself at the piano, in the film ‘King of jazz’, made in 1930. I saw this film almost 40 years later, attracted by the members of Whiteman’s orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and the Rhythm Boys, all well known as solo musicians, or vocalists, in their own right.
Of course, it is controversial to call Paul Whiteman’s orchestra a Jazz ensemble these days, as his passion for performing in films, and his familiar style, is no longer considered to be Jazz. However, at the time, I was happy to regard it as such, and I still am. I was not really ready for the effect that Rhapsody in Blue was to have on me. Like nothing I had heard before, or since; it raised the hairs on my arms, and stirred emotions inside me that I cannot give a name to. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again, and had to wait until I could obtain a recording.
Since then, it has reappeared many times in my life. It is on the soundtrack of the Woody Allen film, ‘Manhattan’, and has been used to sell everything, from chocolate bars, to airline travel. Like many pieces of music that you think you have never heard, it will be uncannily familiar, once you get the chance listen to it on You Tube, or anywhere you can track it down.
For Americans in particular, I cannot stress how important this work of Gershwin is. It could not have originated from anywhere else but that country, and it does that rare thing, of personifying a nation, in sound. For the rest of you, just sit back and enjoy it, and wish you had something that spoke so well of your land.
For me, it is a snapshot into my past, and a defining moment of musical appreciation. Here is the ‘Jazz’ version, from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.