Article | Isabella Hiew
Photography | Magnum Photos
I was a little younger than ten when I first heard George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue during a music school class my parents sent me to every Saturday. Among piano lessons, theory, orchestra, and choir, musical history lessons made for a fairly regimented schedule. For the most part I enjoyed it, except the preceding classes on Baroque music, which I personally found mind-numbing, but for whatever reason, that day we sat silently for over fifteen minutes as this unfamiliar music by a man from New York broke over our heads.
Let’s just call it an awakening for me. This was no piano concerto I’d ever heard, with its smart-alecky presence, like it was making a mockery of the pompous music I’d previously learned about. It was overzealous with syncopation, witty and effortlessly cool, never leading to the resolving chords you’d assume it would. Then there was this gooey middle section, a melodramatic trip that would sweep Grandma off her feet. It made me wonder, what kind of place, what personality produced such music? From the very first wail of the opening clarinet, George Gershwin broke my classically trained ears. And I instantly had this vision of New York in my mind, exciting, progressive, etched and permanent.
It was only recently when I moved to New York that I really listened to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I had arrived to a sea of unknown faces and began to panic that I had brought myself here under false romanticized pretenses. All these strangers with a million different reasons were here, and I began to wonder what made my reasons special? How could we all succeed? I was surrounded by doubt, questioning everything, feeling disengaged, disgruntled, my mood blue. I started to blame this city. What was Gershwin on about? So I listened to Rhapsody in Blue again to see if I had missed something. I also wanted to finally learn the piece in the city that created it, to try and understand. And so thirteen years of piano lessons wouldn’t go to waste, and my parents would stop whining. I began to read about Gershwin and his music only to discover that Rhapsody in Blue was not this great homage to New York that I believed it to be.
The basis of my New York fascination had been made up in my head. I had always thought it was Gershwin’s sheer love of his city that sparked this amazing music. But it didn’t. It was a composition that backed him into a corner and forced him to create it in 1924. Paul Whiteman, a man with a mission to define American music wanted to a showcase work from local composers in a concert entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Whiteman wanted to present jazz as the significant art form he believed it to be, comissioning Gershwin, a young composer he had some previous dealings with and whom he believed was up to the task, to create a new piano concerto in the jazz idiom. Before Gershwin formally agreed, the New York Tribune had it put in writing in an article about the concert, naming him “at work on a jazz concerto.”
Until then, Gershwin had been a Broadway show-tunes composer. Only once before had he dipped his finger into the classical arena with his one-act opera Blue Monday, which was a meager success. Nevertheless, within a few weeks he would be performing his most ambitious composition to an audience of the industry elite, including well-respected composers of the time like Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. You can imagine, here was George Gershwin, a mere twenty-five years old, at the pinnacle of his career, unsure what he embarked on was even possible, and no doubt, feeling a little on edge.
To explain what happened next…well I can’t. But in the words of the man himself, somehow on a train from New York to Boston Gershwin found inspiration:
“There had been so much talk about the limitations of jazz . . . Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill the misconception with one sturdy blow… I had no set plan, no structure to which my music must conform. The Rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not a plan . . . It was on the train, with it’s steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang…that I suddenly heard—even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end… I heard it as sort of a musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
When that steely audience first heard Gershwin’s jazz concerto creation, they were divided. The classical fundamentalists harangued him on form and the progressives accepted it for Rhapsody—a composition of a collection of ideas and motifs, irregular in form but epic in essence. It was, arguably, the perfect amalgamation of jazz and classical music since neither side could win the debate as to whether it was one or the other. Regardless of its critics, Rhapsody in Blue became the most famous of Gershwin’s work, a fantastic commercial success and interestingly enough, gradually adopted as a musical portrait of New York City, inspiring millions with its romantic disposition.
I’ve listened to Rhapsody in Blue several times since and every time I hear something different. Though now I’m more conscious of the irony, the chugging of the train as it pushes forward, relentless, the rhythms pushing against each other, quieter melodies hidden under the louder ones, the perfect imperfections, the struggle of a young, show-tunes composer to give everything he had in him to a classical form he may not have understood or ignored or wanted to change. I don’t hear it as this romanticized depiction of New York, but rather more of a reality check. All this time I saw New York at the surface and thought it took you into its arms and showed you something magestic to create from. But all my favorite creations that were born here are made of something deeper—a relationship. And like any relationship, it’s never perfect. You can feel as much admiration for this city as you can jest and sarcasm. You can find inspiration in New York when it backs you into a corner, pushes you to the limits, and questions what you’re made of. Yet we cling to its nostalgic vision.
For many reasons, Rhapsody in Blue defines New York—you only need to watch the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan to feel it coursing through your veins. For me, learning what I have makes me believe even more so that Gershwin wrote about his city from the heart. He had to. But could his true feelings, and the polyphony of his work reveal themselves without the friction from reality? I don’t think so. Perhaps that’s why Rhapsody in Blue is the perfect soundtrack for New York. For whatever romantic intentions people have for being here, there’s still a reality pushing against it, forcing a momentum, adding to a melting pot, creating a metropolitan madness.
I just can’t wait to finally learn how to play it right.