Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Version of ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ 1925

In early 1924 George Gershwin was a successful young songwriter in New York’s Tin Pan Alley when he accepted a commission to write a “jazz concerto” for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s ambitious concert, An Experiment in Modern Music. Whiteman was interested in blending jazz with European-style orchestral music and was impressed by Blue Monday, Gershwin’s 1922 jazz opera. Under intense deadline pressure, the 25-year-old Gershwin produced one of the most popular works of 20th century music: Rhapsody in Blue. The composition came together during a train ride from New York to Boston. As Gershwin told his biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1931:

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.

Gershwin wrote the piece for piano and then handed it to Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé for orchestration. Gershwin published Rhapsody first in a version for two pianos and four hands, with the second piano part a reduction of Grofé’s orchestration. A year later Gershwin recorded his own performance of that version in two parts for the Aeolean Company in New York. Part II, with its famous slow theme, or “Adante” (beginning at 9:07 above), followed by the piece’s bravura finale, was released to the public in May of 1925, but the longer Part I wasn’t released until January of 1927. According to David Schiff in Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, the piano roll performance corresponds closely to the two-piano, four-hand score, with minor deviations. The Rhapsody in Blue sessions were among the very last of some 140 piano roll recordings that Gershwin made, beginning when he was 17 years old.

In 1989 the pianist and scholar Artis Wodehouse received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make a comprehensive study of Gershwin’s piano rolls. She digitally reunified Parts I and II of Rhapsody in Blue on a Yamaha Disklavier piano for the 1993 Nonesuch Records release, Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls. You can listen to the reconstituted piece above. Although Wodehouse says that Gershwin’s piano-roll version of Rhapsody is less authoritative than his phonograph recordings with Whiteman’s orchestra, it does give a good sense of the young composer’s unsentimental playing style. In her essay ‘Tracing Gershwin’s Piano Rolls,” Wodehouse puts Gershwin’s playing in perspective:

Threading one’s way through the performance documents of rolls and discs of Rhapsody in Blue, one is hard-pressed to say which rendition most represents a live, unfettered Gershwin performance. However, all of Gershwin’s recordings and especially his rolls reinforce the impression that the composer’s approach to playing his songs and the Rhapsody have little to do with later, more romanticized readings. His was surely an aggressively confident and livelier way, based in the raggier dance performance style of the era and completely devoid of sentimentality. Of course, it could not have been otherwise: as a tracing of his piano rolls makes clear, Gershwin cut his teeth on the exhilarating popular music of the late 1910s and early 1920s. He flowered in that rich and frenetic time when ragtime and the syncopated dance craze peaked and when jazz and the blues would change America’s musical landscape forever.

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