I chose to look at Gershwin as I liked what I was hearing but as I delved into the back catalogue I was ashamed that I did not know that he had written some of the most famous and endearing jazz classics that are still performed today. I have listened to some of those and enjoyed thumbnut especially when performed by the iconic Frank Sinatra.
I consider his three most important works to be
- Rhapsody in Blue
- An American in Paris
- Porgy and Bess
I have heard Rhapsody in Blue a few times and each time it very much makes me feel relaxed. I love the combination of classical and the jazz music of the time it was written – 1924. However it is that leading clarinet that really sticks in my mind..the glissando as it is referred to. It is very memorable when you hear it. Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1923 and received its premiere on 12th February 1924 at New Yok’s Aeolian Hall as part of a concert entitled “An Experiment In Modern Music” with Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra. It seemed to capture the mood of the public, maybe because Jazz was becoming more popular at the time and the mix of jazz and classical just caught the imagination. By 1927 had been performed by Whiteman’s orchestra 84 times. Its recording had sold a million copies. It has become one of the most performed and recorded orchestral compositions of the last 100 years. This is the only orchestral composition that George Gershwin did not orchestrate himself, he did not have sufficient knowledge of orchestration at that time.
At the time the piece received mixed reviews, as can be seen here (excerpt from Wikipedia).
The fusion of jazz into a classical setting did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries. In an article by Chris Grey of the Houston Chronicle, Carol Andres Botero, Huston Symphony Orchestras musical ambassador believes Gershwin’s influence on Ravel is unmistakeable in his Piano Concerto in G. (1931).
Rhapsody in Blue has influenced many over the years and a list of them can be found here (wikipedia). It has also evolved as a piece over the years as it has been adapted from the original performance. It broke ground as it moved away from the jazz and blues structure and developed a life of its own.
An American in Paris is a musical film which was then adapted for the stage and incorporates a number of works which George Gershwin scored, with his brother providing the lyrics. Originally premiered in 1928 and subtitled “A Tone Poem for Orchestra”, there is no piano but jazz and harmonies. It was adapted for screen in 1951for the film “An American in Paris” starring Gene Kelly. the music in the film is very danceable and apr for Gene Kelly to dance. The lyrics are beautifully coordinating with the music and give the film quite an upbeat feel. I think I may have seen the film and I am going to look to see if I can find it anywhere however I think the trailer for the film sums up the mood and the importance of the film the it was released. This gives a really good impression of how innovative the film was, over 20 years since the original music had been composed.
Porgy and Bess is considered to be the first great American opera and one which is based on a book by DuBose Heyward called Porgy and published in 1925. Hayward worked on the lyrics with Ira Gershwin. This opera was very controversial at the time and also progressive. Gershwin wanted an all black cast and in the past he had been forced to use non coloured people using blackface but he stuck to his guns which in 1935 would have been very progressive. Set in South Carolina, Gershwin wanted the songs to reflect the area and also the African American speech. At the time this was criticised as the opera was said to stereotype African American stereotypes. However the opera was praised for featuring a black cast in a serious operatic work. When you hear the songs, and I listened to the original cast recording you can hear the African American rhythm of speech which Gershwin was aiming for.
This opera now sounds very dated and I don’t think it could be successfully portrayed on a modern stage due to the current mood of #Black LivesMatter.I However looking at it now, it was very progressive as in 1935, there was intense prejudice towards Black African Americans. The songs are ones which have been adapted as jazz standards.
The opera has been reworked over the years with some controversy in places where it has been adapted for the country. http://Porgy and Bess – Racial controversy. Would it be staged now? Yes I think it could be – it could be reworked to portray African American people in a more positive way and also deal with the underlying issues of the day, so the songs could still be sung and interpreted to be more modern but the essence of the opera would remain the same.