Today I offer you a rhapsody from my heart. An effusively rapturous and extravagant discourse. My expression of enthusiasm and praise for a musical piece that I absolutely madly deeply adore.
Whoever has read my blog in the past knows that I am passionate about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I have written about it in the past and I listen to it every once in a while when I am happy or when I recharge my inner batteries. Yesterday, as I read one very surprising comment on my blog, I have realised that I have never taken the time to put together all the reasons why I love this musical piece so very much.
The comment came from a BBC Radio 4 producer who is researching for a programme about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I was first of all completely surprised that my post about Gershwin even showed up in an online search. But it was even more exciting for me when I had the joy to discuss on the phone with the producer and I was asked what feelings this particular piece of music awakens in my memory and heart.
If I want to explain what I feel about it I need to rewind my whole life. My memories of it start in childhood when I heard this piece on the radio and have simply fallen in love with it. Coming from a family that loved music, I have listened to both classics and modern music as I grew up. I have fed my spirit with opera played on old magnetic cassettes, with Chopin and Beethoven, with Ravel and Vivaldi, just like I have fed my soul later on in my life with the music of the 80’s and the rock music. When I was a child music was a great joy for us, as in the communism we did not have access to all the variety of entertainment that one can experience now. It was only natural that I fell in love with this piece that infuses Jazz, Impressionism and classical elements molten in a 20th Century romantic theme offered with brittle and quirky interruptions.
This appreciation for the Rhapsody in Blue has continued throughout all my life. Every time when I was defeated and low I have sat and listened to it. Unlike other people with linear lives I have been through many changes, I have witnessed a lot of pain, loss, death, suffering, but also love, joy, sacrifice and hope. Wherever things were worst in my family I was present. Throughout this all, whenever I have listened to this piece of music I have added another pearl of feeling to what has become now a very long string. To me it is now not only music, but a masterpiece and pure beauty. And because it has been with me through it all, happy moments, sad moments and great changes, it has become a part of me and a symbol of life itself.
When I say life I don’t mean only good things. Life has many layers, ups and downs, just like the human mind and heart. There are many shades and colours, numerous moments of darkness and light that create the clear image of our multidimensional reality, a rich kaleidoscope of feelings, moments, images and sounds that create a whole.
Many people don’t know that this piece of music was a commission and that it has been written in a train. This may sound uninteresting for some, what is a train you may say. Well, for me a train means volumes. My father has passed away in a train. I have loved travelling by train all my life. Even now the train is my favourite transportation to wherever I go. It brings memories, it revives moments in my past, it is also (for those who believe that dreams have a meaning) a symbol of change, passage and novelty in one’s life. Gershwin says himself: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… “. He is right, it often happens to me too to hear the tune in the noise…
Rhapsody in Blue was a challenge because it was created in a very short period of time, against the clock, by a young and ambitious Gershwin that didn’t want someone else to steal his idea. This speaks volumes for me again. Under a similar pressure I have left Romania and started a new life in a moment when I felt I must do and I can do more with my life. I was young, ambitious and a bit unaware of what life may bring. But I didn’t care, I had only one thing in my mind- I wanted to make it. I think it is out of such moments of determination that meaningful things get born.
Did you know that the original title was “American Rhapsody”? In the end the title of this piece was inspired by two famous paintings of James Whistler of which one, “Nocturne In Blue And Green of the Thames at Chelsea”, has been rejected and misunderstood in the beginning because it was too modern for the moment when it was offered to the public. There are people who, despite of being rejected for their ideas or passion, carry on and believe in their dream until one day that dream proves to be an extraordinary thing. They may not see all the staircase, but they go up step by step, they simply have faith. It is not easy to believe in your own value when maybe nobody else does, yet being consistent in your efforts brings great results in the end.
Gershwin was not conservatory trained, an awareness of which he carried with him to his grave, and something his arch critics would never allow future students of the piano to forget. Yet, no conservatory teaches talent, so nothing can stand in front of Gershwin’s unique style and genius. Pianists have consistently interpreted Gershwin somewhere between the classicism of Chopin and the 20th Century romanticism of Rachmaninoff, but when it comes to Gershwin’s strict rhythms, what is not heard is more important than what is, for it is the magic of the split-second spacing between the notes that brings Gershwin’s Rhapsody to life in a melodic thread woven itself into a masterpiece.
The Rhapsody, with its composer as soloist, was premiered in front of a packed house that included Rachmaninov, Kreisler, McCormack, Godowsky, Sousa, Heifetz and Stokowski. Even the ones that later did not like it when it was first presented to the public and said it would have been “structurally flawed” have categorised it as a “sentimental” piece. It is as melancholic as my Romanian soul and it is full of feeling and light. It is sad at some points. It is happy, rhythmic and improvised too. Through all these characteristics it is ALIVE. If you would listen to only a part of it, if you would take a bit out of it, if you would listen to it all it would be just as alive, and that is amazing. It is a series of stories put all together, a series of songs that match perfectly in a single, uninterrupted composition of continuous and extravagant enthusiasm.
I have listened to it through various moments in my life and I have understood it in different ways. It speaks to me of happy childhood years. The first clarinet trill reminds me of a new beginning, of a new day, of sunrise. I am an animation movie lover, so when I have seen it translated into image by Disney’s Fantasia 2000 I have added even more meaning to it, as I thought that the animation is a perfect illustration for the hope trapped inside this fabulous piece of music. And I will always remember how I danced on this piece with the man I love. In a moment in time, in a quiet evening, in a quiet flat, in a quiet neighbourhood in London he has taken my hand in his hand and we have danced on this wonderful rhapsody. Our souls were dancing too, we were happy, the heart was full, the world was in the right place and we were in the right feeling.
I love Rhapsody in Blue for many reasons, for the sweet sentimental parts, for the crescendos, for the vivid pace, for the epic dimension of it, for the jazz veins and the classical bursts. My interpretation of it is perfectly subjective, I see it through the lenses of my own soul, maybe different than other people. But for me it represents life itself seen through the eyes of an optimist. Unflawed and tightly woven, with its early 20th Century innocence and brilliant musical statements taken in and out of the performers and listeners souls, Rhapsody in Blue is for me a personal stairway to paradise.
Photos: “Blue”, Adela Galasiu 2013
1500 words, memyselfandela, January 2014
More about Gershwin : Gershwin plays Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue – posted in April 2012
BBC Radio 4 – Soul Music – The stories behind pieces of music with a powerful emotional impact. http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/soulmusic
One of my absolute favourite tunes of all times is “Rhapsody in Blue”. Unexplainable, whenever I am in a very low mood and I accidentally stumble upon this musical piece, my mood shifts to happiness within seconds… It has happened so many times…. I wonder why? Must be some spark of miracle in it….
First presented on February 12, 1924, in a concert billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music,” composer George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra won both critical and public acclaim for elevating American jazz to a new form of symphonic invention. The quintessentially American character of the piece has since garnered it a position of popularity practically unmatched by any other work of a native composer, and has found the success of its premiere often referred to as “one of the great nights in American music.”
While many viewed Rhapsody in Blue as a stark departure from Gershwin’s more established career as popular songwriter and Broadway composer, it in fact reaffirmed his continuing involvement in the world of classical music. Some twelve-years earlier, a fourteen-year-old George Gershwin could be found refining his gifts at the piano by performing works by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, and his studies of harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint would also continue for years to follow. His first classical piece, entitled Lullaby, was composed as early as 1919, and had been written for string quartet. As a clear example of the diversity and depth of his musical talent, in the following year, George Gershwin would also pen the wildly successful song Swanee, for singer Al Jolson.
When once discussing the overwhelming misperception regarding “the limitations of jazz,” by both the classical music world and the broader public, Gershwin stated that he had “resolved to kill the misconception with one sturdy blow,” through his composing of Rhapsody in Blue.
Originally intending to call his new work American Rhapsody, it was George Gershwin’s brother and long-time songwriting partner Ira who would finally suggest its name, inspired by the paintings Harmony in Gray and Green and Nocturne in Blue and Green by American painter James Whistler. In the years to come, following the unparalleled success of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin would also begin dedicating much more of his time toward his own, personal interest in drawing and the visual arts, while continuing to compose for the increasingly popular field of moving pictures.
George Gershwin’s achievement in the creation of Rhapsody in Blue would not only bring together two musical worlds previously thought of as separate, by transforming the perception of both popular music and symphonic tradition, but would also lay the foundation for an equally important place in American musical history, some ten years later, with his groundbreaking work combining African-American folk tradition and classical opera in Porgy and Bess.
And now I get back to my feeling as I listen to Gershwin’s Rhapsody… Try it too… I am sure you will at least smile. 🙂