Rhapsody in Blue

                                                                                                                                                Saturday, October 26, 2019

It was my Walter Mitty moment.

By Ken Shelton

            Last night Pam and I attended the Utah Valley Symphony concert featuring pianist Scott Holden playing Rhapsody in Blue, originally composed by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band in 1924. It’s a work that I’ve heard at least 500 times. Why so many? 

  • I grew up listening to this piece as an ode to jazz, the blues and classics (200 times)
  • I used to jump rope to it for a complete 16-minute workout (200 times)
  • I listened to it on my own on records, tapes, CDs, internet and Pandora (100 times)
  • I heard it played by a roommate at Old Faithful lodge in Yellowstone Park (20 times)
  • I have seen it performed live by symphonies in New York and Utah (3 times) 

            Pam and I were positioned to see the keyboard and fingers of the pianist, also the reflection of his fingers on the keys. In my Walter Mitty imagination, I was George Gershwin, playing Rhapsody with strong and fast fingers, like my friend Melody Bestor might play it. In my mind, nobody ever played the piece better than Gershwin himself because he played it first and foremost as a jazz pianist. He had lightning-fast fingers and jazz timing and rhythm.  


George Gershwin was born Sept. 26 1898 in Brooklyn, NY and died at age 39 (malignant brain tumor) in Hollywood, CA. He composed Rhapsody in Blue from Jan. 7 through Feb. 3, 1924; the work was scored originally by Ferde Grofé for solo piano with jazz band, and it premiered February 12, 1924 at New York’s Aeolian Hall, with Paul Whiteman leading his orchestra and Gershwin as piano soloist. In 1926, Grofé followed up with the version for solo piano and full symphony orchestra The version for piano and symphonic orchestra, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé in 1942, has become one of the most popular American concert works. It established Gershwin’s reputation as a “serious composer.”

The Backstory 

             George Gershwin, his brother Ira, and songwriter “Buddy” De Sylva were killing time in a pool-hall on January 3, 1924, when Ira read in the New York Tribune that bandleader Paul Whiteman would soon present a concert in New York that promised to broaden concert-goers’ conception of what serious American music could be. Neither Ira nor George were prepared for the article’s revelation: “George Gershwin is at work on a new jazz concerto.”

            Over the telephone, Whiteman explained that he had planned such a concert for some time, but a rival conductor had suddenly announced a similar program of pieces drawing on classical and jazz styles, forcing Whiteman to move up his schedule. George told Whiteman that given the short notice and the novelty of the piece, a full-length concerto was out of the question but that he would compose a free-form work, a rhapsody of some sort, spotlighting him as the soloist backed by the Whiteman band, expanded for the occasion by several instruments.

            On January 7, Gershwin began setting down notes for his rhapsody, which he notated in a score for two pianos—one representing the solo part, the other the orchestra (including certain suggestions about possible instrumentation). Ferde Grofé recalled, “I practically lived in their uptown Amsterdam and 100th Street apartment, as I called there daily for more pages. . . .  He and his brother Ira had a back room with an upright piano where Rhapsody in Blue originated.

            The word blue evokes “the Blues,” and jazz. Various aspects of jazz are prominent in the Rhapsody in Blue—but it also crosses over into a symphonic work. Gershwin devoted about one month to writing the piece, and it shared his schedule with other projects. He had to make a trip to Boston for the premiere of his musical Sweet Little Devil. Gershwin recalled: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer. . . . 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 metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

            Gershwin notated the work’s opening as a low clarinet trill followed by a scale rising rapidly through seventeen notes. At a rehearsal, Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman elided the notes into a sweeping ribbon of uninterrupted pitches. That opening glissando became an iconic sound of American music. Gershwin then presents forthright thematic material: an oscillating bluesy tune, then a brazen march-like melody, finally a grandly romantic theme in the strings.

Why I Relate to Rhapsody

            I relate both to the evocative music and the emotive backstory. As a magazine editor, I’ve often had to write to deadline with other projects on my plate. Here are two book examples.

 In 1990, as ghostwriter for Stephen R. Covey, I prepared Principle-Centered Leadership in about 100 days with several other projects competing for my attention. And, in 1994, I Covey asked me to help deliver a complete manuscript of the new book First Things First in 100 days, as the book, coauthored with Roger and Rebecca Merrill, was already one year past due. Again, under deadline pressure, we delivered.
            I also relate to how Gershwin suddenly saw on paper the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end. I have likewise been blessed with such revelation in my writing over the past 50 years, enabling me to be highly prolific while never missing a deadline.  

Dickins of a Time

            After touring America, Charles Dickins was back in England. Despite his earlier success, he found himself owing money to his publisher, and his new novel was not selling well. Fearful that his career was declining, Dickens desperately wanted to write something that would be very popular with the public. On Oct. 5, 1843, Dickens gave a speech in Manchester at a benefit for an organization that brought education and culture to the working masses.

            Dickens, 31 at the time, shared the stage with Benjamin Disraeli, who would later become Britain’s prime minister. Addressing the working-class residents of Manchester affected Dickens deeply. Following his speech he took a long walk, and while thinking of the plight of exploited child workers he conceived the idea for A Christmas Carol. Returning to London, Dickens took more walks at night, working out the story in his head. Wanting and needing the book to be available by Christmas, Dickins wrote with astonishing speed, finishing the classic in six weeks while also continuing to write installments of Martin Chuzzlewit.

Lesson:  We may have the blues and be bothered with other projects and priorities and yet produce a masterpiece in 100 days or less, as Gershwin and Dickins did, and as I have tried to do so often over 50 years as a writer/editor/publisher of magazines and books . . . with the help of an illuminating spirit that reveals “the complete composition from beginning to end”.     


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