April Midday Masterworks
George Gershwin 1898-1937
George Gershwin
1898-1937
George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue

The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I.

It was in Europe, however, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).

George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra

In 1923 Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from a conductor of popular music, Paul Whiteman, who promoted concerts of jazz music in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman was the self-styled “King of Jazz” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and more respectable. He tried to adapt it from dance music to concert music. Whiteman’s commission followed an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs.

Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. Lacking the skills to orchestrate the work, he turned it over for piano and jazz orchestration to Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as it came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full symphony orchestra.

The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring musical contribution, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.

It is useful to be aware that the rhapsody and fantasia of the classical tradition were the genres most related to jazz in that they embodied both freedom of form and improvisation or improvisatory writing. Gershwin's – and Grofé's – take on the form transfers the jazz idiom into a work Liszt would have been proud to have written.

The Rhapsody opens with probably the most famous clarinet riff in music history. Example 1 It is answered by the horns with the principal counter-theme. Example 2 Nearly three quarters of the way through the piece, the tempo slows and the Rhapsody's next "big theme" is introduced. Example 3
Ferde Grofé 1892-1972
Ferde Grofé
1892-1972
Ferde Grofé
Grand Canyon Suite

Composer, pianist and arranger Ferde Grofé began his musical career at 14 by running away from home to work as pianist in the mining camps of Northern California. Later he served for 10 years as a violist with the Los Angeles Symphony. He then switched gears completely with his own jazz combo in the dives and vaudeville houses in San Francisco. In 1920 big band leader Paul Whiteman hired Grofé as a pianist and arranger, helping establish Whiteman as the leading figure in symphonic jazz. Grofé’s own reputation was firmly established in 1924 with his orchestration of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work that inspired him to compose large-scale works himself.

In most of his compositions, Grofé tried to present a picture of the American landscape and its people, which he knew intimately from his extensive travels. His works are tone paintings in the truest sense of the word, and he considered the music of these colorfully orchestrated suites as the natural outgrowth of scenery that would be obvious to any listener.

The Grand Canyon Suite, composed in 1931, is by far the most popular of Grofé’s works. The inspiration for the work, however, had occurred quite a bit earlier, in 1922, while he was working in the Grand Canyon area. The opening movement, “Sunrise,” uses a background of gently rising scales ending with a grand orchestral fanfare to portray the mysterious dawn in the Canyon, where the arising glow awakens crickets and birds. Example 1 The sun first shines on the highest rocky peaks, finally bursting forth over the whole canyon. Example 2 Grofé was not the first composer to use this device; Joseph Haydn composed a symphonic sunrise in his Symphony No. 6, the first of a trilogy depicting morning, noon and night.

“The Painted Desert” is a delicate, static musical portrayal of the ageless, moon-like landscape, delicately pulsing with heat and punctuated by sudden moments of drama. Example 3 Note how the melody itself conjures the “lifelessness” of the desert. In the Suite’s most popular movement, “On the Trail,” glissandos on solo violin portray the braying of a recalcitrant mule. The fiddle morphs into an oboe playing a jerky melody in triple time against the duple time of the mule’s hoofbeats. Example 4 In the original score, the composer scored coconut shells muted with leather for the clip-clop of the mule’s hooves on the rocky trail. The middle of the movement portrays a rest stop cabin, with the suggestion of a music box. Example 5 The movement ends with another mule bray and its echo.

“Sunset” reverses the mood of the opening movement. Just as Grofé portrays the sunrise with an ascending melody, he paints the sunset as a gradually descending one. The lush orchestration gradually fades as the sun dips below the horizon. Example 6 The evening calm, however, is interrupted by a “Cloudburst,” as Grofé adds his take to the substantial repertory of musical storms. The wailing wind and flashes of lightning are sound effects as music. Example 7 Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who recorded the Suite, considered this movement one of the most vivid and terrifying pictures in music. The movement ends with a spectacular coda, to which Grofé added a heading: “Nature Rejoicing in its Grandeur.”
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019