Wednesday, July 13, 2011

George Gershwin and my Rhapsody in Blue

My writing on music has two main sources of ideas.  The first is the richness that I have derived as a person from the music that I have grown up with, my impressions of which I wish to document for the coming generations (my kids, and the other kids whose music makes me question the definition of music).  The other is from listening to a moving piece of music that I might have recently acquired or am listening to after a long time.

However, some of my writing is triggered by endeavors of other commentators on music, usually articles, blogposts or podcasts.  Such an event took place today, when I visited M. W, Ruger's wonderful blog, Letters About Music (which I discovered through another inspiration of mine, Brian Coverville Ibott, google him) to read his post about Gershwin.
Essential George Gershwin
The earliest recollection I have of jazz surprisingly came from my parents classical collection.  One was Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (I know, I know, but I have always understood it as something way too radical to be called classical) and the other was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches
It was much later that I heard other works by Gershwin and began to understand and appreciate his contribution in totality.  But this post is an attempt to recapture the magic of listening to Rhapsody in Blue for the first time, and then playing it again, and again, and trying to figure out what was happening, not just within me, but also with the phrases and textures and melodic lines.

Gershwin is remembered primarily as a songwriter and composer with most of his work written for Broadway musicals and operas.  While most younger listeners have heard the Gershwin masterpiece, Summertime, in one or the other of its myriad interpretations in jazz, soul, and even rock, and perhaps even his other popular songs, Ain't  Necessarily So, I got Rhythm, Embraceable You, and of course, Swanee, it is in his orchestral compositions that his genius really comes through.  I have only heard three of them and they continue to astound me with their richness, complexity and beauty.

The Rhapsody in Blue album I first heard had Concerto in F on the B side, and it wasn't till much later that I heard American in Paris.  My exposure to jazz was very limited, but I had the good fortune of hearing the popular music of my parent's generation, with a smattering of big bands and dance (samba, cha cha, bossa nova, and the like, still find it difficult to look at my parents and visualize them grooving to that stuff) to complement the standard Beatles, Stones, Moody Blues ouvre.

From the opening lines, it was a revelation.  With the wailing clarinet climbing up the scale in what is known as a glissando, the rhythm sets in, growing to a collective growl, and ending in a powerful and clear phrasing of the central motif.  This theme, usually referred to as the glissando theme and the following blues scale train theme are the two central ideas in the entire composition.  Liberally sprinkled with stride and vaudeville styles of piano playing, the work also uses instruments typically not found in classical orchestration to infuse it with the spirit of jazz.

Myths about the inspiration behind the work abound, from the train theme to the trunk of unused melodic ideas.  But at the end of the day, Rhapsody captures the sense of urgency and alienation that are the essence of the urban immigrant experience in any part of the globe.  Perhaps that is the root of its universal appeal.

My younger friends rarely listen to classical orchestral music beyond the elevator variety so frighteningly packaged by music labels (greatest hits of Tchaikovsky, for example), but even the most hardened rap or hip hop fan will find Gershwin's Rhapsody in blue an ear opener.  While Indian stores have warmed up to stocking Jazz and Classic titles over the last two decades, it is still hard to find what you look for.  The image below will take you to amazon in case you want to get it from them.
Gershwin: An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue; Ives: Symphony No. 2

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