Who wrote Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue?

Who wrote Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue?

By Malcolm Sharps

That was the question. Correct. Who wrote Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? The answer would appear to be a no-brainer: George Gershwin did. But it’s a less straight-forward question than it seems. If I ask the question in another way: who wrote down the actual notes we listen to today and recognize as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? Who was responsible for the burst of sound we hear as the train crosses the Yankee Stadium viaduct in the opening scenes to Manhattan, provoking a cascade of anointing fireworks to rain down on New York city’s famous skyline? We find there is a far more complicated answer to the question. Let me start by telling you that in his lifetime George Gershwin never heard that piece that acts as a prologue to the Woody Allen film; at least, not written in that way. So what did George Gershwin actually write? And who contributed the rest to the most successful orchestral piece ever composed by an American?

Let’s begin in the time before a single note of Rhapsody in Blue was composed. Paul Whiteman’s standing amongst the band leaders of the 20s could hardly have been higher. But, like Duke Ellington, he had a far wider vision for the jazz genre than just a series of 5 minute pieces or open-ended improvisations. He nurtured the idea of larger-scale compositions and works with inter-related movements, championing the idea of “Symphonic Jazz”, which combined the sounds of Classical, early Jazz/Blues, and pop music. He probably created the term himself.

The project became almost a conscious race on the part of Whiteman to be the initiator of the first Symphonic Jazz work before someone else beat him to it. Whiteman had already worked successfully on songs with Gershwin in 1922 and 1923, so it was foreseeable that he should consider Gershwin as a likely candidate in his enterprise and he approached Gershwin in 1923 with the proposition of a longer piece written in a new style which was just a conception in Whiteman’s head that had not yet been realised as a distinctive musical sound.

Gershwin accepted Whiteman’s commission using the forces at Whiteman’s disposal in the band’s current line-up: oboe, clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), alto saxophone (doubling 2nd soprano saxophone), tenor saxophone  (doubling 1st soprano saxophone), baritone saxophone, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, gong, piano (doubling celesta), guitar (doubling banjo), violins, and basses, in addition to the solo piano.

There is a tradition in the musical comedy and big band world, unlike in the symphonic world, that composers don’t supply their own orchestration; this is a separate, specialised skill for a master in the field. The musical comedy composer is primarily a tunesmith. Gershwin worked within this tradition and accepted the collaboration of Whiteman’s staff orchestrator. This was the thirty-two year-old fellow New Yorker, Ferde Grofé. He couldn’t have made a more fortunate choice himself. Grofe was a brilliant craftsman who over the years wrote concert pieces and songs and worked extensively in the theatre and cinema. A composer in his own right, amongst his many works he produced two glittering suites that have held their place – the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi.

So we might imagine Grofé received a completed score from Gershwin and began orchestrating. But Gershwin didn’t feel fully secure in his new role as concert hall composer and consulted Grofé on many aspects of the composition far earlier than the completion of his initial two-piano score. He had a number of themes he’d composed, but had not made a final selection or made decisions about their final order and he wanted Grofé’s opinion. What should he include; what didn’t fit or was below par? He sat down at the piano and played the musical sketches to Grofé: for Gershwin, it was a happy position to be in with a piano and an audience, we know such impromptu recitals constituted some of the happiest moments in Gershwin’s life. Of course, put in Grofé’s position, an arranger with a super-successful composer is wise to accept most of what he hears and he reads the body language if the composer has some doubts, and reacts to that. Grofé’s position as judge seems all-powerful but it’s one I wouldn’t envy.

The themes for the work chosen, Grofé had the task in addition to orchestrating of welding them together where Gershwin had left the development uncertain or open. As Gershwin’s biographer, Isaac Goldberg, said, “the contribution of Grofé was of prime importance, not only to the composition, but to the jazz scoring of the immediate future”.

Gershwin left a lot of discretion to Grofé in how the work was structured and set, so may we assume that famous opening glissando was the result of a touch of inspiration on the part of Grofé? Or was it Gershwin himself? In fact, Gershwin wrote a trill only to indicate how the work should begin; this was improvised half-jokingly in rehearsals by Whiteman’s accomplished clarinetist, Ross Gorman, a player of multiple instruments who was famous for producing odd sounds on them. Gorman ran with the notes and extended them into a sweeping glissando that we can imagine as the gliding entry of the Jazz Age into the Symphonic World. When Gershwin heard what Gorman did with his introductory idea, he was like a film director shouting ‘print!’ after a great take, it was the very thing he wanted, Gorman’s glissando established itself immediately as belonging in the work and it was there to stay!

The final result of Grofé’s efforts was the original 1924 premiered version of the Rhapsody in Blue for jazz orchestra; it’s a darker, smokier version than the one we know best, redolent in parts of a jazz ensemble session in a basement club. There was a reduced line-up with no strings and much else we associate with Rhapsody in Blue missing.

It was still not the iconic version of Rhapsody in Blue; something closer to this followed in 1926 with Grofé’s further orchestration using a standard theatre pit orchestra, including the crucial addition of a string section. If we compare this to the orchestration of the Piano Concerto in F (1925), which Gershwin orchestrated himself, we find there is less Hollywood and Broadway in the Concerto. The smoky jazz club is there, however, together with the mist on the Hudson River. It is only when Grofé and Gershwin work together that we hear what is now taken as the characteristic Gershwin orchestral sound: compulsive, urban, sophisticated; often charmingly playful and with a seam of heart-melting sentiment.

It was only in 1942, 5 years after Gershwin’s death, that Grofé wrote his final orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue for full symphony orchestra. This is the one which we now identify as the Rhapsody; played all around the world and particularly popularized in America and beyond by Leonard Bernstein. This final version gives an extra spin of fluency to the slickness of city life; it is also more sentimental and more suggestive of open spaces missing in earlier versions, bringing in something of the grandeur that Grofé put into his own Grand Canyon and Mississippi Suites. Gershwin declared that he wrote ‘American music’ (his original title for the work was American Rhapsody) and it is fitting that this most American of works, which has become a symbol for both the country and the city of New York, is a cultural amalgam combining the rhythms and melodic intervals of the founding African American jazz tradition together with Latin American and European influences, and all this is realized through the genius of a New York Jewish composer and a Latino American orchestrator.

Gershwin died tragically early and childless, leaving us with so many possible works unwritten. But in Rhapsody in Blue he fathered a child of the jazz age which never ages. I’d like to think it’s possible as one listens to the Rhapsody to recall and live out the words of musician Oscar Levant about his friend and idol: “George Gershwin died on 11 July, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”


Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – and playing the piano – in a 1976 performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

4 Responses to Who wrote Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue?

  1. David Daniel says:

    Thanks for the backstory and the deep dive on this iconic piece. Recently, watching Peter Jackson’s intriguing rocumentary on the fashioning of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” album, I was struck again by how collaborative an art music making can be.

    BTW: I dug your line about RIB: “The smoky jazz club is there . . . together with the mist on the Hudson River.”

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    A deep, convincing and revelatory analysis of Rhapsody in Blue which makes me want to listen to all the various versions. I had heard Grofe’s two suites but had no idea he collaborated with Gershwin.