30 Day Song Challenge, Day 13 – “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

The subject for Day 13 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song that shifted your taste in music“. This was another difficult one for me, as I can’t really say that one song shifted my overall taste in music. My music tastes have always been pretty eclectic. My earliest music memories are hearing my much older brother (16 years older than me) play his Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers records in the late 50s, and my parents play their Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme albums. By the mid-60s, I was heavily into pop and R&B, especially music by the Beatles, Supremes, Four Tops, Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark and Mamas & Papas.

Looking back, there are some songs from genres I didn’t previously care for that made a very strong impression on me at the time. The first that comes to mind is Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969, which was harder and heavier than anything I’d heard before. I hated it at first, as I found it quite repellent, but eventually grew to love it. Although it made me a fan of Led Zeppelin, it didn’t necessarily make me a fan of hard rock or heavy metal, as I never cared to listen to the music of their contemporaries like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, KISS and Judas Priest. So no great shift in music taste there.

Another song would be Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. When it came out in late 2001, I still hated rap music, and hated the song the first time I heard it. But after a couple more listens, I fell in love with it, so much so that it ended up becoming my second-favorite song of the 2000s (after “Clocks” by Coldplay). But once again, even though I loved the song, which also made me a fan of Eminem, it did not turn me into much of a fan of rap music, because I still dislike most rap.

After I started writing reviews at the request of artists and bands, I gradually became more receptive to different styles and genres of music beyond my normal comfort zone. One of those was metalcore/death metal, with its often very dark themes and harsh screamo vocals. And though I gained a newfound appreciation for that type of music and vocal style – even writing positive reviews of several singles and albums – I can’t say it ‘shifted’ my overall taste in music either.

After that long-winded discussion, I’m left with only one plausible choice, and that would be the magnificent “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. Though my parents also had a few classical albums in their collection, I’d never formed an appreciation for classical music until one day in 1974. I was in a huge record store in San Jose with my dad and stepmom, when I heard some incredible music being played over their sound system. I asked my dad what it was, and he said it was “Rhapsody in Blue”. I was so taken with it that, right then and there, I bought an album featuring the piece, along with Gershwin’s other great composition “An American in Paris”, performed by The Boston Pops, and conducted by the renowned Arthur Fiedler.

George Gershwin was a brilliant American pianist and composer who tragically died far too young from a brain tumor at the age of only 38. Over his rather brief career, his compositions spanned both classical and popular – namely jazz – genres. He wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 for solo piano and jazz band on a commission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for his special concert program entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”. The rhapsody was then arranged for orchestra by Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, a composer and pianist who wrote the tone poem “Grand Canyon Suite” in 1931.

“Rhapsody in Blue” premiered at the concert held in Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 in New York City, with Whiteman’s band the Palais Royal Orchestra performing the rhapsody and Gershwin playing piano. The much-anticipated concert, which was intended to showcase modern musical trends, drew a large and excited audience consisting of vaudevillians, composers, symphony and opera stars, concert managers, Tin Pan Alley acolytes and flappers. The program was lengthy, with 26 separate musical movements, divided into two parts and eleven sections, with Gershwin’s rhapsody to be performed second-to-last before the final piece, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1”.

The audience was reportedly underwhelmed by many of the earlier numbers in the program which, combined with the malfunctioning ventilation system in the concert hall, caused those in attendance to become irritable and restless. Some were already heading for the exits by the time Gershwin appeared on stage to perform his rhapsody. But once they heard Ross Gorman’s haunting clarinet glissando (a continuous slide upward or downward from one pitch to another) that opened “Rhapsody in Blue”, they were mesmerized. That distinctive glissando was created almost as a joke. During rehearsals, clarinetist Gorman played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, ‘stretching’ the notes out and adding what he considered a jazzy, humorous touch to the passage. Gershwin loved it, and asked him to perform the opening measure that way, and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible. (Wikipedia)

Upon the conclusion of the rhapsody, the crowd erupted in joyous applause. In contrast to the warm reception by concert audiences, however, professional music critics gave the piece decidedly mixed reviews. One opinionated music critic, Lawrence Gilman – a Richard Wagner enthusiast who would later write a devastating review of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – harshly criticized the rhapsody as “so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive” in a review for the New York Tribune.

Other reviewers were more positive. Samuel Chotzinoff, music critic of the New York World, conceded that Gershwin’s composition had “made an honest woman out of jazz,” while Henrietta Strauss of The Nation opined that Gershwin had “added a new chapter to our musical history.” Olin Downes, reviewing the concert in The New York Times, wrote: “This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it 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…. In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form.(Wikipedia)

On the whole, “Rhapsody in Blue” has stood the test of time, and remains one of George Gershwin’s most recognizable creations and an important composition that helped define the Jazz Age. The piece inaugurated a new era in American musical history, established Gershwin’s reputation as an eminent composer, and eventually became one of the most popular of all concert works. It’s among my favorite classical pieces, and was the most instrumental in my coming to love and appreciate classical music.

Song of the Day Challenge – Day 5: Rachmaninoff – “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”

Song A Day Challenge

Today’s Song of the Day Challenge theme is “A song everyone should listen to at least once in their life”, and my pick is the magnificent classical masterpiece “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Many have heard a famous snippet of the piece, namely the beautiful 18th variation that’s been featured in numerous films, but I’m guessing relatively few know where that variation is actually from, nor have they heard the exquisite 24-minute long work in it’s entirety.

Although I love classical music dating back to the early 1700s by composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach, my personal favorite period for classical music is the late romantic and post-romantic era lasting generally from 1860-1935, especially by composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Three of my top 10 all-time favorite classical works – “Symphony No. 2 in E Minor”, “Piano Concerto No. 2”, and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” – are by Rachmaninoff, making him my favorite composer.

He wrote “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” at the age of 61 while in Switzerland during the summer of 1934. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto, but in a single movement. Although it’s performed in one stretch without breaks, it can be divided into three sections, corresponding to the three movements of a concerto: variations 1 to 10 correspond to the first movement, variations 11 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement, and the remaining variations make a finale.

It boggles my mind that someone could compose such gorgeous melodies, then decide upon just the right types and number of instruments to use to bring those melodies to life. And then the fact that people are able to coax those gorgeous sounds from musical instruments! It’s also amazing that Rachmaninoff could write such a beautiful work given the fact the world was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and that in Germany next door, Adolph Hitler continued to consolidate power and had already begun his 12-year-long reign of terror.

Rachmaninoff played the solo piano part at the piece’s premiere at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The very first recording of the piece was also done by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Stokowski conducting and Rachmaninoff playing piano, and released in late 1934 by the RCA Victor Red Seal label.

Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The slow and stunningly beautiful 18th variation is by far the best known, and is often included on classical music compilations without the rest of the work. It’s based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini’s theme, in which the A minor Paganini theme is literally played “upside down” in D major, with a few other changes. Rachmaninoff himself recognized the appeal of this variation, saying “This one, is for my agent.” (Wikipedia) That variation is arguably one of the most beautiful and moving melodies ever written, and so breathtaking that it brings tears to my eyes.

The 18th variation has also been used in various movie and TV show soundtracks to different degrees, including The Story of Three Loves (1953), Somewhere in Time (1980), Dead Again (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), Ronin (1998), the 2014 documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, and a 2015 episode of the TV show The Good Wife. But the entire piece is gorgeous, and worth a careful listen.

I’ve included two videos. The first is a beautiful 2018 performance by the German Philharmonie Südwestfalen at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Netherlands, conducted by Gerard Oskamp, with the brilliant young pianist Anna Fedorova doing a masterful job playing the challenging piano parts.

This second video is of one of the definitive performances of “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970, conducted by André Previn and with piano by the great pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. I have this recording on both vinyl and CD.