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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America
Richard Taruskin

Gershwin intended his jazz-inflected concert music to reflect contemporary American urban life—that is, American modernity. Rhapsody in Blue was conceived on a train, Gershwin wrote in a letter to his first biographer, in response to “its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang,” and the composition was “a musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”42 The Concerto in F, for similar reasons, was originally to have been called New York Concerto.

Both compositions open, as Copland’s Music for the Theatre also opens, with what Gershwin called an “icebreaker,” a term used on Broadway for a device to grab the audience’s attention. In Copland’s case it was a trumpet flutter-tongue. In the Concerto in F it was a noisy solo on the kettledrums. The most famous one, at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue, is a clarinet glissando of a type that was pioneered as a special effect by African-American jazz players (based, W. C. Handy wrote, on the “false fingering and incorrect lipping”43 of self-taught players). It was imparted to Gershwin by Ross Gorman, a player in Whiteman’s orchestra, and (in the words of the conductor Maurice Peress) it became “the bane of symphony clarinettists ever since.”44 So far Rhapsody in Blue sounds just as aggressively (or “futuristically”) modernistic as Music for the Theatre.

Thereafter, however, the piece settles down into a medley of five tunes, each resembling a Tin Pan Alley chorus in one way or another, connected by cadenzas and virtuoso roulades, all adhering more or less strictly to the obligatory AA′BA format (Ex. 11-10). Whether because Gershwin selected them with an eye toward the coherence of the whole, or simply because it was such a cliché of the Tin Pan Alley style, four out of five exhibit the same standard ragtime syncopation —()— at some point. Their complete statements are as follows:

I: mm. 38–54, 72–90, 225–240

II: mm. 91–106

III: mm. 115–129, 179–194, 198–213, 486–501

IV: mm. 138–153 …, 257–271 …

V: mm. 300 ff.

The numbers in italics represent statements that conform exactly to the specifications of the 32-bar chorus, here reduced to 16 bars (4 + 4 + 4 + 4) by the use of halved note-values and double measures, typical of instrumental arrangements. Elsewhere the phrase lengths are truncated or extended for the sake of character or variety, just as Haydn and Mozart had varied the symmetrical patterns that typified their “classical” style, by tried-and-true methods that could be compared either with those of the eighteenth-century masters or with those of contemporary pop music performers.

Comparing the “classic” statement of I with its first appearance, for example, one observes how the initial AA′ is extended from eight bars to ten by adding a measure of “riffing” (motivic repetition) to each phrase, just as a blues singer might do. The riff itself, assigned by Grofé to the distinctive timbre of the bass clarinet, is the same standard tag line (“Good evening, friends”) that Milhaud had already appropriated in La création du monde (Ex. 11-2). Even in its “classic” statement, chorus I is somewhat unconventional thanks to the sudden modulation that takes place at the bridge and is never undone, so that the tune ends in a different key from its beginning. That was a technique routinely employed in musical comedy overtures, in essence tune medleys like Rhapsody in Blue, to achieve smooth transitions.


ex. 11-10a George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue themes, I (mm. 225–240)


ex. 11-10b George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue themes, II (mm. 91–106)


ex. 11-10c George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue themes, III (mm. 179–194)


ex. 11-10d George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue themes, IV (mm. 138–153)


ex. 11-10e George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue themes, V (mm. 300ff).

Chorus III, the tune most frequently heard in Rhapsody in Blue, and the one usually thought of as its main theme, is also the one most explicitly “bluesy” in character, with its double-inflected seventh degrees (“blue notes”) and its measure-long riffs. Chorus II, heard only once, is a “Latin” (or “Cuban”) number, with its languorous melodic triplets and its 3 + 3 + 2 accompaniment patterns. Chorus IV is always heard incomplete, its final A dovetailed into a sequential development. These modulatory sequences, which proceed through/ 0 3 6 9 /circles of minor thirds, suggest that Gershwin actually turned to Liszt’s rhapsodies for guidance (just as the white-key/black-key opposition elsewhere suggests that he had been playing or listening to Stravinsky’s Petrushka.)

Another indication that Liszt was the model is the slow “lyrical” theme at m. 300, which suggests Liszt’s method of compressing the movements of a traditional concerto (or symphony) into a single temporal span. This theme departs furthest from the 32-bar format, through a process of elision that will again, perhaps surprisingly, bring the techniques of Haydn or Mozart to mind. (But not really surprisingly, given the congruity between the formulas of Tin Pan Alley and those of any “classic” idiom.) The last note of A′ is dovetailed with the first note of B, and the final C is dovetailed with the first A of a wholesale repetition. This theme is the only one in Rhapsody in Blue to undergo something akin to a development. Again the tonal trajectory is determined by a root progression that moves through a circle of minor thirds.

This final development (or “developmental coda” à la Beethoven) is balanced at the other end of the Rhapsody by the 37-bar introduction (Ex. 11-11), which juxtaposes fragments or motives from themes I and III with the “Good evening, friends” riff. Opening in B♭ major, it goes through a possibly unprecedented eight progressions along the circle of fifths (E♭ in m. 11, A♭ in m. 16, D♭ (V) in m. 19, G♭ (I) in m. 21, B (V) in m. 27, E (V) in mm. 26–37) to prepare the first full chorus, which comes in at m. 38 in A major, the first key to be fully established as a tonic.

The last key to function as a stable tonic is E♭ major, at the triumphant final reprise of III (m. 486). (The tritone relationship that thus governs the whole trajectory can again be related to Liszt’s practice, especially as later adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov.) Thus it seems a little forced and dutiful when Gershwin yanks the key to B♭ at the very end (Ex. 11-12) for a grandiose Molto allargando, just so that the ending can parallel the opening gesture and the piece can seem to end in the “right” key, that of the beginning. Since neither the opening nor the closing B♭s play a genuinely defining role in the tonal plan, the effect of the ending, for all its pep and rattlety-bang, is a bit perfunctory or gratuitous, a letdown.

That may seem an overly critical or patronizing way to describe it, but in fact that suggestion of naïveté or clumsiness of construction seems to have been one of the factors that helped win the Rhapsody its success—or at least its initial acceptance by the same classical-music establishment that roundly rejected Copland’s “jazz”-inspired essays. The fact that the Tin Pan Alley materials in Gershwin’s Rhapsody were presented in something like their raw state, like the Gypsy tunes in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies or in Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (or the Czech folk songs in Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, or the Norwegian folk songs in Edvard Grieg’s Norwegian Dances of 1881, or the Spanish folk songs in Isaac Albéniz’s Cantos de España of 1896) lent them the character of folklore rather than commercial art.

Equating the Tin Pan Alley product with “jazz,” as white Americans tended to do, Gershwin drew the analogy explicitly in a statement published in 1933: “Jazz I regard as an American folk-music; not the only one, but a very powerful one which is probably in the blood and feeling of the American people more than any other style of folk-music.”45 In this way, Rhapsody in Blue could be seen as fulfilling Dvořák’s prescription for an American music that would elevate the musical utterances of the folk by means of “beautiful treatment in the higher forms of art.” The dynamic—mark it well—was upward.


ex. 11-11 George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, mm. 1–27

That being so, it did not hurt but actually helped if, in the eyes of the critics, the work fell somewhat short of its goal. Olin Downes preceded his remark about Gershwin’s “racial importance” by noting that the Rhapsody “shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master.”46 Going far beyond your “ilk” was one way of defining “upward mobility”—the vaunted American dream. Gershwin’s achievement thus fulfilled not only a musical but also a social aspiration, and one that embodied a message of redemption. A remark he made in an interview with a New York Times reporter in 1935 shows Gershwin’s awareness of the quasi-religious power of literate culture to cleanse, redeem, and “deliver” the oral. “When I wrote the Rhapsody in Blue,” he declared, “I took ‘blues’ and put them in a larger and more serious form. That was twelve years ago and the Rhapsody in Blue is still very much alive, whereas if I had taken the same themes and put them in songs they would have been gone years ago.”47


ex. 11-12 George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, end

A “larger and more serious form” was also (and principally) a textually fixed and determined form, even if, as Gershwin implicitly acknowledged, it remained pretty much a medley of songs. By in effect teaching “jazz” to read he was offering it immortality. And respectability: the classical models to which he aspired as vessels of immortality—the folkloric rhapsodies of the romantic era—were by the 1920s a thoroughly genteel and domesticated repertory, the very opposite of modernist. The chapter devoted to the concert music in the earliest Gershwin biography—Isaac Goldberg’s George Gershwin: A Study in American Music (1931), based on interviews with the composer—is called “Lady Jazz in the Concert Hall,” and the last chapter is titled “The Wedding of Jazz to Symphonic Art.” No wonder a publicity phrase that was widely used to introduce Gershwin to movie and radio audiences in the 1930s described him as “the man who made an honest woman out of jazz.”48 That could never be said of Copland, who was seen, antithetically, as the one who degraded the higher forms of music to the level of the burley-cues. With his elite European education and his sophisticated technique, Copland’s assertively modernistic use of jazz represented a downward social dynamic. It brought out the fear of jazz as a socially regressive force. When Glazunov heard Rhapsody in Blue he described it to Walter Damrosch’s wife as “part human and part animal.”49 The remark was taken as a compliment because it was assumed that Gershwin’s mission was to humanize the animal instincts of jazz. Yet the very same racist view of American popular music worked against Copland, as we have seen, to the extent of provoking an anti-Semitic backlash. His music threatened to animalize humanistic art.

Perhaps the most pointed comment of all on the “sociostylistics” of American music with respect to jazz—that is, the social implications of stylistic assimilation—came from Edward Burlingame Hill (1872–1960), a composer on the faculty of Harvard University and a leading Francophile. The only critic to make a direct comparison between Rhapsody in Blue and the earlier European experiments in jazz appropriation (Copland’s concerto not yet having been performed), Hill observed in the Harvard Graduate’s Magazine that “Mr. Gershwin’s works indicate that it may be more profitable for the jazz composer to turn to the larger forms than for the ‘high-brow’ composer to condescend to jazz.”50 Because his work was so clearly “aspirant” rather than “condescending,” Gershwin’s reputation never suffered from a racial backlash, not even from the likes of Daniel Gregory Mason; and that is the best evidence of all that, unlike Copland, he was not regarded as a threat—until, that is, he completed his studies with Schillinger and presented himself, in Porgy and Bess, as a fully-armed professional, prompting Virgil Thomson to carp somewhat cryptically at its “gefiltefish orchestration”51 (gefilte fish, or “stuffed fish,” being a Jewish Sabbath-eve delicacy). But even then, his suppliant stance made Gershwin easy to tolerate, whether by bigots like Mason or by elite modernists like Schoenberg. His message to the establishment was flattering, and room was found for him.


(42) George Gershwin to Isaac Goldberg; quoted in Peyser, The Memory of All That, pp. 80–81.

(43) W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues (1941); Ruth Halle Rowen, Music through Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), p. 341.

(44) Maurice Peress, liner note to The Birth of Rhapsody in Blue: Paul Whiteman’s Historic Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924 (Musical Heritage Society MHS Stereo 827531 Y, 1987).

(45) George Gershwin, “The Relation of Jazz to American Music,” in American Composers on American Music, ed. Henry Cowell (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1933), p. 187.

(46) Quoted in Jablonski and Stewart, The Gershwin Years, p. 95.

(47) “Rhapsody in Catfish Row: Mr. Gershwin Tells the Origin and Scheme for His Music in That New Folk Opera Called ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” New York Times, 20 October 1935; quoted in Charles Hamm, “Towards a New Reading of Gershwin,” in Wayne Schneider, ed., The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 9.

(48) Cf. Rudy Vallee Hour, broadcast 10 November 1932, on Gershwin Conducts Excerpts from Porgy and Bess, Mark 56 Records 667 (1974).

(49) Quoted in the Alexander Glazunov Society Quarterly Newsletter II, no. 1 (July 1986): 12.

(50) Edward Burlingame Hill, “Jazz,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, March 1926; Oja, “Gershwin and American Modernists,” p. 654.

(51) Virgil Thomson, review of Porgy and Bess in Modern Music XIII, no. 1 (November 1935): 18.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011004.xml