05 October 2004

Rhapsody in Blue: hearing it anew

Theresa's musical education continues as she develops favourites from among my compact disc and vinyl record collections. While I was out of town nearly two weeks ago Nancy played her a recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue which I hadn't remembered owning.

Now I have any number of versions of this piece. It was the first work of "serious" music I grew to love as an adolescent. Ever afterwards, knowing of my affinity for Gershwin's music, my parents would seize upon the occasion of Christmases and birthdays to give me yet another recording of the beloved American composer's music. Since Gershwin died young at age 39, he did not have the opportunity to write as much as, say, Bach or Rachmaninov. Thus inevitably many of these recordings would include some orchestra's rendition of Rhapsody in Blue, a piece with which I am now thoroughly familiar.

Of course, familiarity with a piece of music can cause one to take it for granted, as well as to miss some of its nuances. But the version Nancy played for Theresa is a somewhat tinny-sounding performance by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with Gershwin himself at the piano. It was Whiteman who had commissioned the piece in 1923. Thus what Theresa was hearing was very close to the original performance in February of the following year.

I had always assumed that the Rhapsody was an orchestrated single-movement jazz concerto -- or, perhaps more properly, a tone poem. To be sure, it is that, at least in part. But as I listen anew to the cadences, including the wailing of the clarinet, I am now hearing something with definite Jewish roots, which are often disguised in more recent interpretations. Could it be that Gershwin's immortal first orchestral work owes a debt to the klezmer music of the east European Jewish shtetls where his own parents were born and raised? I am now persuaded of this. I am not, of course, a musicologist, but I would love to see someone compare klezmer music theory with Gershwin's compositions and try to determine the extent of this influence. At the very least, those orchestras undertaking in future to perform the Rhapsody should try to draw it out more than the standard performances have done up to now.

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