Rhapsody in Blue was first performed by Paul Whiteman and his band Palais Royal Orchestra, with an added section of string players and George Gershwin on piano. Gershwin decided to keep his options open as to when Whiteman would bring in the orchestra and he did not write down one of the pages for solo piano, with only the words “Wait for nod” scrawled by Grofé on the band score. Gershwin improvised some of what he was playing, and he did not write out the piano part until after the performance, so it is unknown exactly how the original Rhapsody sounded.
The opening clarinet glissando came into being during rehearsal when; “… as a joke on Gershwin, [Ross] Gorman (Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinettist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favourably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.”
Sold A Million Copies
By the end of 1927, Whiteman’s band had played the Rhapsody eighty-four times, and its recording sold a million copies. To get the whole piece onto two sides of a 12″ record it had to be played at a faster speed than it would usually have in concert, which gave it a hurried feel and some rubato was lost. Whiteman later adopted the piece as his band’s theme song, and opened his radio programs with the slogan “Everything new but the Rhapsody in Blue.”
The piece received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Olin Downes, reviewing the concert in The New York Times:
This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master…. In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form…. His first theme … is no mere dance-tune … it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin’s colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice…. There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin’s composition.
Join the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra on Saturday May 9th at the Helzberg Hall at 8pm. Please call 913-381-2711 for tickets or visit kauffmancenter.org for more info.