I recently asked the contemporary American composer/pianist Avraham Sternklar what current opinions are regarding George Gershwin's influence on music composition. He responded that today's composers, like Gershwin, search for a tangible language to represent their time that is a fusion of the mind and heart along with life experiences. He went on to say that although little is written in textbooks about Gershwin's direct influence, today's composers are separated from him by only a few generations. For example, the violinist Mischa Elman had performed at Lewisohn Stadium with Sternklar a mere fifteen years after Gershwin's death. Elman had attended the Aeolian Hall concert when Gershwin premiered the Rhapsody in Blue. Subliminally, he had absorbed something from that experience and communicated it in his playing with Sternklar, who subsequently brought Elman's impact to his own audiences, and so on. This continuum of information from the elders to the next generation is a part of music history that is real but not readily definable in words.
Sadly, in the case of Gershwin, there has been a very small window of opportunity to study his actual work. No Gershwin "school" ever emerged despite his enormous following. With this in mind as we close the 20th Century, we are reminded of the renewed interest in the recapture of authenticity in many of the arts. There seems to be a "fin de siecle" celebration, a revisionist vogue if you will, of America's classic popular music and popular classical music. It seems only fitting, therefore, to re-examine the most visible and famous of all American compositions, the Rhapsody in Blue and to study Gershwin's actual manuscripts. In doing so, we can gain a new understanding of his influence.
The dictionary describes a rhapsody (the Greek word 'to sew') as being a single, uninterrupted composition of stitched together themes suggesting free form but with continuity, and with an expression of extravagant enthusiasm. Any competent arranger can stitch together a series of melodies to accommodate this definition, but Gershwin's handling of his harmonic and melodic material clearly underscores his genius. In the Rhapsody in Blue, he combines Jazz, Impressionism and classical elements which he uses for his unique 20th Century romanticism. He utilizes the "esthetic distance" (an expression of emotion without sentimentality) of the Impressionists and grounds it with his earthy rhythms. He then crowns his work with gorgeous melodies that would have had earlier Victorian audiences swooning save for his ingenious insertions of lighthearted motifs between the grand swells of the major themes. For example, the Andantino Moderato section opens with the most compelling theme in the Rhapsody, a theme so haunting it could have easily descended into an emotional mire were it not for the introduction of a sub motif in the third and fourth bars. It is so important to Gershwin to restrain the music emotionally, that one never hears the Andantino Moderato theme without its brittle and quirky interruptions. This form of control over his listeners is perhaps attributable to his views on the short life of popular music. He is quoted as saying,
"Unfortunately ... most songs die at an early age and are soon forgotten by the self-same public that once sang them with such gusto. The reason for this is that they are sung and played too much when they are alive, and cannot stand the strain of their popularity. This is especially true since the invention of the phonograph and more so since the widespread conquest of the airwaves."This seventy year old statement is as true today as it was in 1924 - perhaps even more so. Because Gershwin's genius guided him in the development of his melodic material, the public has yet to tire of the Rhapsody in Blue!
The genesis of the Rhapsody can be found in Gershwin's 1922 opera Blue Monday, which Gershwin composed for George White's Scandals. To enhance one's understanding of the Rhapsody, it is a good idea to study the piano score of Blue Monday. In it one finds the seeds which ultimately took root in the Rhapsody, his Preludes, Porgy and Bessâ and even the Concerto in F. Blue Monday is the missing link in Gershwin's evolution into the Rhapsody in Blue. When Paul Whiteman invited Gershwin to compose something for his "Experiment in Modern Music", he (Whiteman) recalled having conducted Blue Monday in the "Scandals" and was duly impressed with Gershwin's attempt to fuse classical styles with early Jazz. On the other hand Gershwin, having little time to compose a major work for the forthcoming Aeolian Hall concert, no doubt searched his memory and drew ideas for the development of the Rhapsody from Blue Monday. (The endings of both pieces are identical!)
The Rhapsody, when first composed and performed in 1924, simultaneously became the object of adoration and condemnation; the former by the public and the latter by Gershwin's peers. He was a genius. This fact was incontrovertible. However, the Rhapsody was considered "structurally flawed" - a judgment made by his colleagues. After all, Gershwin was not conservatory trained, an awareness of which he carried with him to his grave, and something his arch critics would never allow future students of the piano to forget. Whether through lack of understanding or a reluctance to accept Gershwin's unique style, performers throughout the years have taken dramatic liberties with the Rhapsody, bringing to it a romanticism out of context with its original intent. This performance style has reflected more the principles of 19th century piano pedagogy and less Gershwin's 1920s world of silent movies, Jazz and his own considerable, albeit atypical classical training. Its disparity can be explained by the fact that Harms, Gershwin's publishers, were a commercial, not classical music publishing house. The Harms' editors who first prepared the Rhapsody for publishing in 1924, probably acting in sincere good faith, sought to make the piece simpler, shorter and more stylistically accessible to the multitudes of amateur pianists of the day. In doing so, they either altered or neglected to include many of Gershwin's original interpretive clues; and by deleting over four minutes of music from the piano part, forever changed the complexion of the form of the piece by creating a fragmented, truncated work.
Two original manuscripts of the Rhapsody existed; one in Gershwin's hand, composed at the piano and not orchestrated by the composer, and another, which was Ferde Grofe's. Grofe was a composer in his own right and a member of Whiteman's band. He was assigned the task of orchestrating Gershwin's piano manuscript of the Rhapsody for performance by Paul Whiteman's band on February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York City. Although legend has it that Gershwin was incapable of orchestrating the work himself (a myth dispelled by his ingenious and thoroughly skilled orchestration of the Concerto in F a mere twelve months later), the simple truth is that he was just too busy to find the time to do the work as it needed to be done. No manuscript for the Rhapsody was ever prepared for publishing by Gershwin in his own hand. He was in fact surprised that Harms Publishing had decided to print it at all. With Gershwin's approval however, the originally published Rhapsody in Blue was concise and proved to be vastly profitable. Gershwin subsequently recorded both the solo and piano/orchestra versions from the Harms published editions, while he continued to perform his own manuscript version. In the originally published 1924 two piano/four hands edition, the second piano part became a reduction of the Grofe orchestration and not Gershwin's original piano manuscript. The solo piano edition was built from that reduction, taking the Rhapsody farther and farther away from both original manuscripts. Because of this, Grofe's orchestrated original manuscript becomes eminently significant because it proves to one and all that Gershwin performed what he had originally notated in his own piano score. Grofe had left every note in Gershwin's score intact. This proves that the Rhapsody in Blue that Paul Whiteman premiered was not the fragmented piece that future pianists had to deal with.
Until Warner Bros. published the Annotated Rhapsody in Blue, no other score existed to allow the pianist an authentic range of interpretive options. By re-inserting lost passages and restoring original chords, phrases and other markings, Gershwin's highly distinctive style reveals itself, allowing for later replication. In his own words regarding performance, while referring to the popular music of his time, Gershwin defined for us what he sought in the performance of his work. He wrote:
"Our study of the great romantic composers has trained us in the method of the legato, whereas our popular music asks for staccato effects. The rhythms of American popular music are more or less brittle; they should be made to snap, and at times to cackle (sic)É,Most pianists with a classical training fail lamentably in the playing of our jazz because they use the pedaling of Chopin when interpreting the Blues of Handy. The romantic touch is very good in a sentimental ballad, but in a tune of strict rhythm, it is somewhat out of place."That pianists have consistently interpreted Gershwin somewhere between the classicism of Chopin and the 20th Century romanticism of Rachmaninoff is the clearest example of what Gershwin lamented in his statement. Indeed, when it comes to his strict rhythms, what is not heard becomes more important than what is, for it is the magic of the split-second spacing between the notes that brings Gershwin's Rhapsody to life. What he refers to as "tunes" became the melodic thread that wove itself into the masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue.
It was this fascination with Gershwin's evolution and my conviction that the Rhapsody in Blue was flawed through no fault of Gershwin's that led me to examine his only existing piano manuscript of it and also Grofe's original orchestrated manuscript as it had been prepared for the Aeolian Hall event. In these two hand-notated manuscripts I found the completeness of form I was seeking.
In the piano part of the original 1924 piano/orchestra edition, over fifty measures had been deleted in the published versions. Remarkably, eighty-eight measures were missing from the piano solo version. Where Gershwin left blanks or few indications, necessary editing had been made. However, in over sixty-five measures, Gershwin's own phrasing, chords, notes, dynamic and other interpretive clues had been altered! Grofe's orchestration of Gershwin's manuscript had not been shortened, and Grofe had not personally made any deletions from Gershwin's piano manuscript. The final result of Harms' decision to shorten the Rhapsody was a fragmented and truncated work, thus lending credence to the "structurally flawed" judgment of the work by Gershwin's critics. The originally published Rhapsody was now approximately twelve to fourteen minutes in length, but in Gershwin's original performances of it were at eighteen minutes even with his quickly-paced tempi.
The noted Gershwin scholar, biographer and authority, Edward Jablonski, relates that Gershwin sent a letter, dated July 10, 1933, to Henry Levine, the noted pianist, in answer to some queries Mr. Levine had made regarding the performance of the Rhapsody. In it, Gershwin writes:
"Dear Mr. Levine,Mr. Jablonski is of the opinion that Gershwin was very aware of the unsolicited cuts in his piece and that, but for his early death, had every intention of doing something about it. Ira Gershwin, a close friend of Mr. Jablonski, had confirmed that George was performing both the published Rhapsody and the original manuscript. Indeed, that was confirmed to me as well by the Gershwin family.
In view of all this it was timely to produce a new edition of the Rhapsody which brings it closer to Gershwin's original notation and intent. This new publication allows a clearer understanding of a style of piano playing that was born with him. What to jazz pianists comes so easily, albeit with restricted technique, is difficult to comprehend by many classical pianists who have used traditional approaches to the interpretation of this piece. Its raison d'etre speaks for itself, as does any urtext edition.
In the Annotated Rhapsody in Blue, all of Gershwin's notations have been restored according to the original Gershwin and Grofe manuscripts. New editing was applied to those sections which were blank and/or in which no indications were given by the composer or Grofe. All pedaling and fingering is suggested and up to the individual pianist except where the sostenuto pedal is called for. In adapting the orchestra part to the piano as indicated in the manuscripts, certain editorial changes were necessary while, however, leaving Gershwin's chords and phrasing intact. Where feasible, Gershwin's dynamics and phrases have been footnoted. None of them have been altered or deleted in this edition, and all missing measures have been re-inserted in their original form.
With the restoration of the Rhapsody in Blue to its original state, a masterwork emerges, unflawed and tightly woven. Its early 20th Century innocence and brilliant musical statements weave in and out of the performers and listeners souls as it brings us back to an America which was building its very own "Stairway to Paradise"!