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The Music of Gershwin

Gershwin became successful almost overnight, in 1924, with a jazz concerto written specially for band leader Paul Whiteman. Debuting as No. 23 on a program and titled “Experiment in Modern Music,” it was what later came to be known as “Rhapsody in Blue.”  Many years later, Gershwin said that he got the idea for the “Rhapsody” while on a train to Boston (another local connection).To quote his own words: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ly bang that is often so stimulating to a composer…I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And then I suddenly heard — and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end…I hear it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Carol J. Oja in her article on “Gershwin and American Modernists of the 1920’s” notes that “Rhapsody’s” “premiere ranked among a handful of the most important musical events of the entire decade. [W]hen ‘a lank and dark young man’ of ‘extraordinary talent’ —as New York Times critic Olin Downes described Gershwin at ‘Rhapsody in Blue’s’ premiere—appeared on the stage of Aeolian Hall, he was hailed by some as the long-awaited American composer who could hold his own against a European titans. During its first year alone, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was performed eighty-four times by Whiteman. Gershwin recorded it that June with Whiteman’s orchestra, and sales of the disc totaled some one million copies.” With the song, Gershwin became an instant success, with hordes of adoring fans, especially women, following his every move.  At 26, he became one of the youngest persons to grace the cover of Time magazine.

Although most of Gershwin’s songs are full of vivacious joy and infectious energy, there is an underpinning sense of sadness and longing that runs deep through his melodies.Some credit it to Gershwin’s Jewish-Russian roots and family history.

George’s collaboration with his brother Ira seemed a natural fit, though reportedly the two of them couldn’t be more different.Ray White, curator of the Library of Congress Gershwin exhibit that took place during the centennial of Gershwin’s birth, notes that “George was a party animal, sophisticated and glamorous and a clotheshorse and out there playing the piano, and Ira was stay-at-home-and-read. George seems to have worked fast, in a sort of frenzy, while Ira was more contemplative or careful.”

George Gershwin died at the age of 38 of brain tumor. We can only wonder what would be the course of American music if he were to live to old age…

 

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