After its 1924 premiere in New York City, George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ caught the attention of both critics and audiences, and Gershwin became known as the “man who had brought jazz into the concert hall” . Gershwin intentionally combined musical styles from the classical and jazz worlds, creating controversy due to the African-American roots of jazz. As current discourse surrounding appropriation constantly increases among musicians, one may wonder why Gershwin, who was not black, would insert jazz music into his classical compositions.
Gershwin (1898-1937) began as a song plugger in NYC’s Tin Pan Alley when he was only 15 years old. He later became involved in writing Broadway shows, and eventually started composing concert music .
As Evan Rapport describes in his article “Bill Finegan’s Gershwin Arrangements and the American Concept of Hybridity,” widespread ideas surround ‘white’ versus ‘black’ music were incredibly binary and distinct from one another during the 1920s. As a result, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was considered a ‘symphonic jazz’ piece, a ‘hybrid’ of black and white music. Rapport states:
“[The concert] exploited the taboo appeal of playing music widely associated with popular entertainment and African Americans in a concert hall mostly patronized by wealthy white elites, with boasts such as “the first jazz concert that was ever given in the sacred halls of a symphonic hall“–although black composers and performers were absent from the concert, along with any mention of the black origins of jazz” .
Gershwin was so comfortable using black musical ideas because he regarded jazz as American, not specifically black, music; “In speaking of jazz there is one superstition . . . which must be destroyed. This is the superstition that jazz is essentially Negro. . . . Jazz is not Negro but American.” To Gershwin, “Jazz was ‘the voice of the American soul,’ which was ‘black and white . . . all colors and all souls unified in the great melting pot of the world’.” Others, however, believed that Gershwin was ‘diluting’ the quality of classical and jazz music by combining them .
Another fact to consider when speculating Gershwin’s intention behind ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is his Jewish heritage, and the “ambiguous racial position of Jewish Americans” at the time; “His Jewish race existed between black and white, linked to blackness and European otherness, and shaped by centuries of antisemitic rhetoric.” Gershwin’s use of jazz idioms could have therefore been geared “towards the possibility of immigrant assimilation and racial and social mobility in the New World” .
In a 1965 annual pops concert at the St. Olaf College Gymnasium was themed around Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ featuring a student as the piano soloist accompanied by the Chamber Band. The article describes the set-up:
“Tables for four complete with tablecloths and candles will cover the gym floor, thus providing a cozy atmosphere. These will be on a first come, first served basis. During the first intermission refreshments will be served to those seated at the tables. During the second intermission those at the tables will be asked to change places with those in the bleachers who will in turn be served refreshments” .
This article echoes Rapport’s description of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’s’ premiere; St. Olaf, filled with a mostly white audience, attempts to turn its gymnasium into a prestigious concert hall complete with tablecloths, candles, and refreshments. In my opinion, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a valuable American piece to study and perform, but one must discuss and consider its racial context and origins to understand Gershwin’s musical intentions.
- Carnovale, Norbert, Richard Crawford, and Wayne J. Schneider. “Gershwin, George.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 3 Nov. 2019, <https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000047026>
- Gershwin, George et al. Rhapsody in blue : American in Paris. Place of publication not identified: Vox, 1901. Print.
- “Pop concert features ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.” The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014), No. 5, Vol.078, March 12, 1965, page(s): 1 https://stolaf.eastview.com/browse/doc/46103667
- Rapport, Evan. “Bill Finegan’s Gershwin Arrangements and the American Concept of Hybridity.” Journal of the Society for American Music 2.4 (2008): 507-30. ProQuest. 3 Nov. 2019 .