That is the beginning of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, first performed by him in a concert with the Paul Whiteman orchestra on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1924. We’re hearing a recording from 1927, with Gershwin himself at the piano, and with orchestration by Ferde Grofe, Whiteman’s chief arranger. The sound of this recording is rough, even a little primitive—different from a certain smoothness we’re used to hearing today, but I think it has value. It brings out the sassiness and depth of this music. And we also get to hear George Gershwin playing.
In Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? Eli Siegel asks this question, which I see as central in explaining the Rhapsody:
Is there what is playful, valuably mischievous, unreined and sportive in a work of art?—and is there also what is serious, sincere, thoroughly meaningful, solidly valuable?—and do grace and sportiveness, seriousness and meaningfulness, interplay and meet everywhere…?
Right from the start, with that solo clarinet glissando played by Ross Gorman, there is an interplay of the “playful, valuably mischievous” and the “thoroughly meaningful.” It gets your attention immediately—each note is played so carefully, seriously, beginning with that low register trill which changes on its way up into a slurred chromatic scale. That slur actually was Ross Gorman’s idea, and Gershwin loved it. Glissando means to slide from one note to another, and the clarinet is very playful here, even seems to laugh. But as we just heard, it can also wail.
The second time the clarinet does its glissando, instead of continuing, the melody is now played by a high trumpet with “wah, wah” mute. Repeating the melody shows Gershwin wants us to take it seriously. But now, he’s joined it to yet another comic sound—that trumpet. And what follows? The very opposite: a little bit of serious, meditative low piano—the first time we’ve heard the soloist, by the way. Then, the main melody appears a third time, now shouted out by the whole orchestra. A longer piano solo follows, with comic interruptions from the bass clarinet and the orchestra.
I first heard this music as a young girl on Long Island. My mother would turn on the old Zenith radio when she was washing the dishes, and I stood in awe. The way it’s both sassy and deep, sportive and profound made me feel composed. How much I needed to know what Eli Siegel was teaching just 40 miles away in Aesthetic Realism classes about the relation of art and life: that every person is trying to put opposites together and that I could learn from this very music how I wanted to be.
My “playfulness” had a very different purpose from Gershwin’s music. I could be serious as I studied music and art, but was also wild and unreined in ways I despised myself for. Though I smiled sweetly, inwardly I felt hard and tough as I made fun of people, laughed at them, in my mind. I was sarcastic, especially with men. Years later, I was to learn from Aesthetic Realism that this contempt, building myself up through scornfully diminishing others, making light of their feelings, was the cause of my feeling inwardly heavy-hearted and mean.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations I learned about how contempt kept opposites separate in my life, and how I could change. In one consultation, when I spoke about my worry that I couldn’t be serious for very long—that I liked getting rid of things, my consultants asked, “Do you think there’s that desire in everyone?” I said, “Yes.” And they continued: “Do you think the person who respects the world and the person who has contempt for it are in two different universes?” I did, and as I learned what it means honestly to like the world, and to criticize the drive in me to disparage, I became more truly lighthearted and more thoughtful. In Rhapsody in Blue—the high-jinks, the playfulness, even a usefully mocking sassiness, are not only in the same universe as warm, large, tender feeling, but at one with it.
Part of the reason Rhapsody in Blue is “valuably mischievous”—to quote Mr. Siegel’s phrase—is the speed, and the teasing stop and start quality with which Gershwin plays that piano. Is it sportive or profound? It’s both. And more than once, there’s an unexpected dissonant blare from the orchestra that seems to sharply criticize what came before. Here’s a passage containing such a blare, and Gershwin follows it with a little Latin sound.
George Gershwin said he conceived the piece on a trip to Boston:
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer….I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And there I suddenly heard and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end….I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.
And now we’ve reached that grand, majestic section, which I think is the most beautiful part of the Rhapsody. Its largeness and lyricism seems to grow directly out of all the fun that came before. How Gershwin composed this is ever so fine; we hear a sound that goes out wide—yearningly—yet at the end of each phrase, as that grand arching melody reaches its longest notes, what do we hear underneath? A jazzy countermelody on French Horn, playful and sportive. This music is saying: “It’s the same world that has both the grand and the mischievous, and both are in behalf of respecting, not diminishing, reality.” The counterpoint Gershwin has between those two melodies resolves the conflict that practically ruined my life, between mockery and reverence, high jinks and seriousness.
Let’s hear it now, and I go to a more recent recording with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Earl Wild on the piano.
After that grand melody, the music continues to search—building in a dramatic way. And as the Rhapsody concludes, we hear the most triumphant music in the entire piece. In a moment I’ll play this to end my paper, and I want to say I’m very thankful to be studying in classes here at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, and getting the richest education in the world.
Originally presented at “What Music Says about Our Lives—A Celebration!” a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.