Brussels Philharmonic | expo: George Gershwin

expo: George Gershwin


"My people are American, my time is today. Music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the times."
- George Gershwin

The combination of various styles and cultures may well be the distinguishing feature of American music. One of the composers who excelled in this was George Gershwin (1898-1937). He knew better than anyone how to break down the barriers between musical genres. In his first orchestral work, Rhapsody in Blue, melodies and rhythms taken from the world of jazz blend in with classical forms to create an exciting composition that met with great acclaim from the celebrities of the European classical music scene as well.

Gershwin is considered one of the most popular American composers. His most important merit: breaking down boundaries between musical genres. Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a place where composers of various origins worked alongside each other, exchanged ideas and where various past and present cultural expressions mingled. As a youngster, he practised the piano for hours and attended as many performances of his favourite composers and pianists as possible. During his composition classes with Charles Hambitzer, the emphasis was mainly on the music of Debussy, Ravel and Schönberg, but his subsequent teacher, Edward Kilenyi, pushed him in the direction of popular music. This would earn him more public success. At the age of 16, he started working for Jerome H. Remick & Company in Tin Pan Alley, the legendary neighborhood in New York where many music publishers and songwriter companies were located. Initially working as a 'song plugger', he soon began composing his own pieces. His first major success came in 1919 when the singer Al Jolson recorded the joyful number ‘Swanee’ by Gershwin. It was immediately his greatest hit. This was followed by classics such as ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’, set to texts of his equally successful brother Ira. The two brothers increasingly worked together, and through Tin Pan Alley, they quickly found their way to Broadway, where they often collaborated on music such as the musical Strike Up The Band. Although the musical – a satire of America’s love of war – was not very successful, but its overture is still often performed as a concert opener.

But Gershwin was not satisfied with the success of his Broadway career. His fascination with the music of modern European composers such as Schönberg and Stravinsky impelled him to strive for a synthesis of the two worlds. In 1923, he was given the opportunity to achieve this when the jazz band leader Paul Whiteman asked him to write an orchestral work for a concert at the Aeolian Concert Hall in New York on 12 February 1924. Whiteman promoted the event as ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, seeking to demonstrate the progress of popular music by performing new music that is inspired by jazz. Legend has it that Gershwin forgot all about this proposal until, in January 1924, he saw an announcement for the concert in a newspaper. He began composing like mad, and three weeks later put the final touches on his ‘American Rhapsody’. A few details that remained to be worked out, and these were resolved by Gershwin at the première by improvising at the piano.

A few years later, Gershwin described in a letter how the idea of the composition came to him:

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer….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 blues, our metropolitan madness."

As was customary practice on Broadway, Gershwin wrote out the original composition for two pianos. Based on that score, Ferde Grofé, the in-house arranger of Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, provided the orchestration. The make-up of the jazz band at the première in 1924 was very different from the orchestras that perform the Rhapsody in Blue nowadays: in addition to a much smaller ensemble, there was also a banjo and celesta in the very first arrangement. The famous opening glissando on the clarinet was initially written by Gershwin as a scale. During one of the many rehearsals, the clarinettist played it, for a joke, as a long glissando. That version, along with the rest of the work, is now embedded for all time in the collective memory.


Film Selection: The American Dream

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue & Dvořák's Symphony No. 9: discover these oeuvres on the big screen with the film selection by Robin Broos.


expo: Antonín Dvorák

In 1892, the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák arrived in the New York to create an American national style of music. Read along and discover how he accomplished his task.