Rhapsody in Blue – George Gershwin (Piano solo arr.) with sheet music
Rhapsody in Blue is a 1924 musical composition by the American composer George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band, which synthesizes elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. The composition was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman.
The piece received its premiere in the concert, “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York City, by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The work was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, the 1926 “theater orchestra” setting, and the 1942 symphony orchestra scoring.
The rhapsody is regarded as one of Gershwin’s most recognizable creations and as a key composition which defined the historical period known as the Jazz Age. The Nation has described Gershwin’s piece as inaugurating a new era in America’s musical history. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks have posited that “the Rhapsody in Blue (1924) established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works.”
Form and analysis
The opening bars of Gershwin’s score for the rhapsody, often referred to as the Glissando theme.
As a jazz concerto, Rhapsody in Blue is written for solo piano with orchestra. A rhapsody differs from a concerto in that it features one extended movement instead of separate movements. Rhapsodies often incorporate passages of an improvisatory nature—although written out in a score—and are irregular in form, with heightened contrasts and emotional exuberance. The music ranges from intensely rhythmic piano solos to slow, broad, and richly orchestrated sections. Consequently, the Rhapsody “may be looked upon as a fantasia, with no strict fidelity to form.”
The opening of Rhapsody in Blue is written as a clarinet trill followed by a legato, 17 notes in a diatonic scale. During a rehearsal, Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist, Ross Gorman, rendered the upper portion of the scale as a captivating and trombone-like glissando. Gershwin heard it and insisted that it be repeated in the performance. The effect is produced using the tongue and throat muscles to change the resonance of the oral cavity, thus controlling the continuously rising pitch. Many clarinet players also gradually open the left-hand tone holes on their instrument during the passage from the last concert F to the top concert B♭ as well. This effect has now become standard performance practice for the work.
Rhapsody in Blue features both rhythmic invention and melodic inspiration, and demonstrates Gershwin’s ability to write a piece with large-scale harmonic and melodic structure. The piece is characterized by strong motivic interrelatedness. Much of the motivic material is introduced in the first 14 measures. Musicologist David Schiff has identified five major themes plus a sixth “tag”. Of these, two appear in the first 14 measures, and the tag shows up in measure 19.
Two of the remaining three themes are rhythmically related to the very first theme in measure 2, which is sometimes called the Glissando theme—after the opening glissando in the clarinet solo—or the Ritornello theme. The remaining theme is the Train theme, which is the first to appear at rehearsal 9 after the opening material. All of these themes rely on the blues scale, which includes lowered sevenths and a mixture of major and minor thirds. Each theme appears both in orchestrated form and as a piano solo. There are considerable differences in the style of presentation of each theme.
The harmonic structure of the rhapsody is more difficult to analyze.The piece begins and ends in B♭ major, but it modulates towards the sub-dominant direction very early on, returning to B♭ major at the end, rather abruptly. The opening modulates “downward”, as it were, through the keys B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, B, E, and finally to A major. Modulation through the circle of fifths in the reverse direction inverts classical tonal relationships, but does not abandon them. The entire middle section resides primarily in C major, with forays into G major (the dominant relation).
Such modulations occur freely, although not always with harmonic direction. Gershwin frequently uses a recursive harmonic progression of minor thirds to give the illusion of motion when in fact a passage does not change key from beginning to end. Modulation by thirds is a common feature of Tin Pan Alley music.
The influences of jazz and other contemporary styles are present in Rhapsody in Blue. Ragtime rhythms are abundant, as is the Cuban “clave” rhythm, which doubles as a dance rhythm in the Charleston jazz dance.Gershwin’s own intentions were to correct the belief that jazz had to be played strictly in time so that one could dance to it. The rhapsody’s tempos vary widely, and there is an almost extreme use of rubato in many places throughout.
The clearest influence of jazz is the use of blue notes, and the exploration of their half-step relationship plays a key role in the rhapsody. The use of so-called “vernacular” instruments, such as accordion, banjo, and saxophones in the orchestra, contribute to its jazz or popular style, and the latter two of these instruments have remained part of Grofé’s “standard” orchestra scoring.
Gershwin incorporated several different piano styles into his work. He utilized the techniques of stride piano, novelty piano, comic piano, and the song-plugger piano style. Stride piano’s rhythmic and improvisational style is evident in the “agitato e misterioso” section, which begins four bars after rehearsal 33, as well as in other sections, many of which include the orchestra. Novelty piano can be heard at rehearsal 9 with the revelation of the Train theme. The hesitations and light-hearted style of comic piano, a vaudeville approach to piano made well known by Chico Marx and Jimmy Durante, are evident at rehearsal 22.
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