1924: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premieres at Aeolian Hall. Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898 to Russian and Ukrainian Jewish parents. They came to America when life in Russia became precarious for Jews. George was uninterested in music until the age of ten when he attended a friend’s violin recital. While the elder Gershwin’s had bought older brother, Ira, piano lesson, it was George who spent more time at the instrument. George quit school at age 15 and became a “song plugger” (a singer or pianist who performed songs to help sheet music sales). George worked in Tin Pan Alley, earned $15 a week, and began publishing his own music with “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em”. By that time, he was 17 and made fifty cents for his tune.
In 1916, Gershwin began working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York City both recording and arranging music. He made many, perhaps hundreds, of music rolls both under his own and assumed names. He met William Daly and they collaborated on Broadway musicals. Gershwin worked with other composers while honing his own craft. He composed both popular and classical music with Rhapsody in Blue being his first. The work was orchestrated by Ferde Grofe and Gershwin was on piano with Paul Whiteman’s concert band playing along on the debut on this day.
On November 23, 1923, an experimental classical-jazz concert was put on starring French-Canadian singer Eva Gauthier. The event was at Aeolian Hall. Whiteman asked Gershwin to write a piece for an upcoming event. Whiteman asked for a concerto piece to be played at an all-jazz concert. The planned date was for the following February and Gershwin declined due to time constraints. Although he had written similar works in the past, they had not been commercially successful. On January 3, 1924 Ira Gershwin read from the newspaper to his brother which was how George learned he was working with Whiteman to create a jazz concerto. Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert were also in on the project. It was only then the George consented to enter the evening’s performance list. With only five weeks left, he got busy.
Rhapsody in Blue combines solo piano with jazz band backup and has elements of both classical composition and the jazz influenced music of the times. The piece was handed off to Grofe for orchestration and was finally complete on February 4. Paul Whiteman’s band, Palais Royal Orchestra played at an event called An Experiment in Modern Music. It became an instant hit and sold a million copies the following year. The song also made George a star. He and his brother continued to write music together and separately. George died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937. He was 38 years old. Rhapsody in Blue can be heard at You Tube, here.
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise….
And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole.
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. – George Gershwin, explaining how he came to write Rhapsody in Blue