Article | Isabella Hiew
Photography | Magnum Photos
I was a little younger than ten when I first heard George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It was at the music school my parents sent me and my siblings to every Saturday. Among piano lessons, theory, orchestra, and choir, our musical history lessons made for a fairly regimented schedule. For the most part it, except the classes on Baroque music which I personally found a little boring, but 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 a smart-alecky presence making a mockery of the pompous music I’d previously learned about. It was overzealous with syncopation, witty and effortlessly cool, though never leading to the resolving chords you’d assume it would. Then, with the 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.
But it was only 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 false romanticized pretenses. All these strangers with a million different reasons to be here—it made me wonder what made mine special? How could we all succeed? Surrounded by doubt, I questioned everything, felt disengaged, disgruntled, my mood blue. I blamed this city—what was Gershwin on about? 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 composition only to discover that Rhapsody in Blue was not this great homage to New York that I believed it to be.
I had always thought it was Gershwin’s sheer love of his city that sparked this amazing music. But 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”. He 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 , naming him “at work on a jazz concerto” in an article about the concert.
Until then, Gershwin had been a Broadway show-tunes composer, and only once before had he dipped his finger into the classical arena with a 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, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. And as you can imagine, here was George Gershwin—a mere twenty-five years old and at the pinnacle of his career—unsure that what he embarked on was even possible, no doubt feeling that all-comsuming NYC pressure, squeezing him into a tight spot.
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 which it was. And, 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, a reality check. All this time I saw New York on the surface, thinking 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, and you can find inspiration when New York 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 New York from the heart. He had to. Could his true feelings for his city, and the polyphony of his work, reveal themselves without its friction? I don’t think so. Perhaps that’s why Rhapsody in Blue is the perfect soundtrack for New York. Because, 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, and creating a truly magical, metropolitan madness.
I just have to finally learn how to play it right.