HBD, RIB

"Rhapsody In Blue" turns 100 today.
Scan of opening bars of Rhapsody In Blue

Note: The inspiration for this post came from two articles in the Wall Street Journal which are unfortunately behind a paywall. I’ve nevertheless linked to them above in case you’re a subscriber.

George Gershwin was 25 years old when he composed Rhapsody In Blue, the creation that arguably cemented his place in musical history. It was introduced to the world one hundred years ago on this date at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan. Rhapsody had been commissioned for that performance by a bandleader named Paul Whiteman, who, at that time was sometimes referred to as “the King of Jazz” (while others argued that he didn’t deserve that title).

As an extremely lightly talented clarinetist, I’ve always been drawn to Rhapsody because the first two minutes are among the most sensual in modern music. They begin with an opening trill that gives way to an incredible (to me) two-and-a-half octave ascending run, and it only gets better from there. If that doesn’t ring a bell, take a listen:

Two minutes of clarinet perfection. Oh, there might be a piano in there, too.

Gershwin composed the piece as a piano duet, but it was quickly put into an orchestral arrangement by Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé (aka Ferde Grofé) for the inaugural performance and that’s how it’s best know today. And speaking of that performance, here’s a recording of it (Gershwin himself was the pianist):

Performance by Maurice Peress’ All-Star Jazz Band

Rhapsody In Blue has been performed by countless musicians over the past century, and in an incredible variety of arrangements. Here’s one arranged for two classical guitars:

Performance by Sergio and Odair Assad

Banjo virtuoso [I can’t type that phrase without smiling] Béla Fleck offers a performance of Rhapsody In Blue(grass):

Performance by Béla Fleck

And jazz purists will no doubt appreciate Chick Corea‘s stretched-out version with some Latinesque flourishes (although Rhapsody purists might be somewhat less enchanted):

Performance by Chick Corey and accompanying orchestra

Each arrangement is at its heart a sincere tribute to Gershwin’s original, even if bent to a different beat. I don’t appreciate all of them equally, and I expect you won’t either, but I do applaud the musical creativity and gifts that produced them. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the definitive performance against which all others should be measured — in fact, I’m sure there’s not — but I’ll leave you with one that perhaps should rank near the top: Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra’s performance in 1959.

Earl Wild, piano; Pasquale Cardillo, clarinet. Recorded May 13, 1959.

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