Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, slapstick, snare drum, suspended cymbal, wood block, xylophone), strings, and solo piano
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 16, 1940, Albert Coates conducting, with pianist Oscar Levant
On February 12, 1924, in New York’s Aeolian Hall, George Gershwin presented the world premiere of his Rhapsody in Blue with the Paul Whiteman band. Present in the audience were Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski, John Philip Sousa, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Kreisler, and John McCormack, to drop just a handful of stellar names. McCormack subsequently noted that he had heard Rachmaninoff, inspired by the event, playing some jazz pieces privately, although they never entered the composer-pianist’s repertoire.
This wedding of jazz and classical style in the Rhapsody created a sensation, the audience vociferous in its approval, the critics sufficiently divided to create at once a succès d’estime and a succès de scandale. One canny listener in attendance, with a good ear for what would create another sensation, was Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony (later New York Philharmonic), who responded with a request for Gershwin to compose for his orchestra – and act as soloist as well – in a piano concerto. Gershwin agreed, and not long after a rumor began to circulate that his first act was to purchase a book telling him exactly what a concerto was. More likely, it was a handbook on orchestration, a subject in which he was not well versed: the Rhapsody in Blue was orchestrated for him by Ferde Grofé. Although Gershwin always claimed to have ultimately orchestrated the Concerto by himself there is evidence that he sought (and accepted) the advice of several experts in the field, including Robert Russell Bennett, who, in addition to composing his own classical works, was celebrated for aiding the orchestrationally challenged, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers.
Gershwin began sketches for the Concerto in London in May of ’25. The entire work, orchestration and all, reached its final form in November of the same year, and the composer would write, “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident... I went out to show them that there was plenty more where that came from. I made up my mind to compose a piece of “absolute” music. The Rhapsody, as its title implied, was a blues impression. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program [although he had originally titled it “New York Concerto”]. And that is exactly how I wrote it. I learned a great deal from that experience. Particularly in the handling of the instruments in combination.”
Reaction at the premiere of the Concerto on December 3, 1925, in Carnegie Hall by Gershwin and the orchestra under Damrosch, was muted compared to the reception accorded the Rhapsody, the audience being less of a partisan crowd than that which attended the Rhapsody’s debut. Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, and Josef Hofmann were, however, on hand to praise Gershwin for his execution of the solo. Other contemporary reports indicated that the audience found the Concerto rather “tame” compared to the swaggering Rhapsody, while the critics pointed out “structural deficiencies”.
In a response of sorts, many years later, Gershwin’s melding of the classical and popular was beautifully summed up by the composer and Gershwin biographer David Schiff in an article, Misunderstanding Gershwin, written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1998, from which the following:
“In Gershwin’s music the classical element is minutely stylized, not the popular. The piano concerto, for instance, begins with a percussion fanfare that has little to do with the rest of the work but is a saucy send-up of classical pretensions, as is the elaborate faux fugue that surfaces (and vanishes) in the final movement. Although Gershwin’s stylization of the classics was most often based on Liszt and Tchaikovsky, he kept abreast of contemporary developments, and turned them to his own purposes. In An American in Paris he showed that even without studying with [Nadia] Boulanger he could imitate the insouciance of Les Six – the group of young composers who were all the rage in Paris – and make use of polytonal harmonies out of Stravinsky, while writing tunes that were memorable and completely Gershwinesque. And in Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ he conspicuously deployed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method in one variation. Gershwin’s use of these classical devices was not inept and half-baked, as his critics claimed; these sly, knowing trivializations opened a dialogue between classical and popular elements in which the popular side – those gorgeous tunes – would dominate.”
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.