The work I am writing about this week is one of my favourites: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. I love American music from this period and this is such a positive, uplifting and energetic work. The pianist on the recording I recommend is the wonderful and charismatic Wayne Marshall whose energy and enthusiasm is heard throughout the work. He plays it at a fast pace and I thoroughly recommend that it is played at full volume!
Born Jacob Gershvin to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, George grew up in New York. Frequently skipping school he felt inadequate next to his talented, better-behaved older brother, Ira. There was no music in the Gershwin household but when George was 12 years old his parents bought a piano and it soon became clear that he had a remarkable talent.
He dropped out of school aged 15 and began a stint as a song plugger in New York's Tin Pan Alley during which time he was transformed into a highly-skilled composer. By his early 20s he was much in demand having formed a song-writing team with his lyricist brother Ira - he was writing two shows a year for Broadway and his fame spread to London.
By the early 1930s he was established as a popular composer and conductor mixing with composers such as Prokofiev, Poulenc and Ravel. But by the mid 30s he was plagued by headaches which turned out to be a malignant brain tumour and he died tragically aged 38.
On June 3rd 1924 Ira Gershwin read an article in the New York Tribune that the band leader Paul Whiteman, a leading light of popular music, would shortly present a concerto showcase of what he considered to be serious American music. The article went onto reveal that "George Gershwin is at work on a new concerto". George had forgotten he made this agreement and given the short lead-time a full-length concerto was out of the question but he committed to a free form rhapsodic work.
With Whiteman frantically urging him on, Gershwin completed a two piano score of a jazz piece he called American Rhapsody. It was given to the arranger Ferde Grofe to be orchestrated. His brother, Ira, didn't like the title and so copying his favourite artists James McNeill Whistler who gave his paintings descriptive titles, he changed the name to Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin played the piano at Whiteman's concert and it was this work that made Gershwin rich and famous.
The opening rising Clarinet glissando has become an iconic sound of American Music.
Wayne Marshall is a very talented musician who travels worldwide as a conductor, virtuoso organist and solo pianist and is a renowned interpreter of Gershwin, Bernstein, Ellington and other 20th century American composers. A regular performer at the BBC Proms he as appeared in both the last night and first nights. As a pianist/director and organist he has performed with orchestras all over the world and holds resident posts at a number of them.