Friday, November 9, 2018
The two between-war Rhapsodies
The greater rhapsody is the American one.
Composed by George Gershwin and performed in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue embodies the merging of our native black-born jazz with highbrow classical European instrumentation.
The other great rhapsodic composition of that time, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, created by the immigrant Sergei Rachmaninoff, represents a Russian music-master’s exploration of an Italian violin virtuoso’s experiments. It is also a great piece of music.
Both rhapsodies are experimental, ground-breaking. Both are bouncy in their beginnings, disruptive in some transitional phrases. But both works resolve, rather suddenly, 2/3 of the way through development, to an exquisitely lush romantic theme. The listener’s endurance in earlier discordant excursions through frantic forte poundings is unexpectedly rewarded with a sudden soothing melody. In both pieces, the earlier tensions disappear as they resolve, melting into an absolutely beautiful melody.
And yet, both works return again to a frantic piano part before resolving again at the end.
Gershwin’s 1924 opus was intentionally concocted as a music experiment; it was commissioned by pioneering bandleader Paul Whiteman, and subsequently orchestrated by his jazzy arranger, Ferdie Grofé.
It turned out to be an extraordinary work of profound importance in the history of music.
By the 20th century, the hundreds-of-years old tradition of European classical music had reached an impasse. Composers were running out of ideas; they needed to break new ground. A morose preoccupation with dissonance and atonality threatened to turn orchestral music into academic drudgery.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Sergei Rachmaninoff fled Bolshevik Russia in 1917; in so doing, he also began a long process of escaping the heavy gravitational pull of a Continental musical death wish.
Europe’s rapid descent into World War I and wide-scale mechanized destruction was tragic.
America, on the other hand, was wide open with possibilities. Sergei traveled here and performed more and more frequently, accompanied by popular acclaim; ultimately he acquired US citizenship shortly before his death in 1943.
Before finally establishing residency Stateside, he had spent significant time in Dresden, Germany, and in Switzerland. While in Switzerland during the summer of 1934, he composed Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
It’s a marvelous piece of work.
Taking his inspiration from the great Italian violin virtuoso of a hundred years before, Sergei spun Niccolo’s multiple variations into an energetic iteration of thoroughly European rhapsody.
It was quite well done. . . profound, a notable accomplishment.
But Sergei did not have the benefit of one powerful influence that George Gershwin had been born into: a wide-open America with an entirely new beat, and worldview:
America had given birth to Louis Armstrong, and Louie— along with his ground-breaking black compadres— gave birth to jazz.
American jazz is what the Old World had been waiting for—though nobody knew—to get a new lease on creative life:
all that Jazz!
Atlantic City NJ honky bandleader Paul Whiteman was the pioneering musician who crossed the jazz bridge that changed the world; later, he commissioned George Gershwin to compose Rhapsody in Blue, because Paul knew that something symphonically jazzy was needed.
And so Gershwin came up with Rhapsody in Blue. The rest is history.
And that’s why I say the greatest rhapsody was the American one, the Blue one, written by an American, in America. It changed the world of music forever.
King of Soul