Faced with writing an accompaniment to the 1931 Hollywood romantic comedy Delicious, Gershwin played with the title of a new piece for piano and orchestra. New York Rhapsody? Manhattan Rhapsody? Rhapsody in Rivets? He eventually settled on Second Rhapsody, a name implying it would ride the coattails of his famous Rhapsody in Blue but perhaps underselling its originality. The filmmakers cut the work by half, but Gershwin presented it in full to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky when he agreed to premiere it in 1932. Like Rhapsody in Blue, the score to the Second Rhapsody underwent several revisions and arrangements, though none overseen by Gershwin himself. The great Michael Tilson Thomas revived the original orchestration in his landmark 1985 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he served as both pianist and conductor.
The Second Rhapsody unfolds in three distinct sections – fast, slow, and fast. The jaunty opening trumpet theme, sometimes called the “rivet theme,” captures the exuberance of urban bustle. As Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack has shown, the theme’s unique rhythmic groupings suggest a Latin quality that would later appear in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and “reflect the changing face of New York itself.” A short, sweeping piano cadenza leads into the second section and gives way to a sublimely nostalgic violin melody. Echoes of the rivet theme eventually burst at the seams to open the final section. A flashy coda decidedly reminiscent of Rhapsody in Blue closes the work.
Unimpressed after its New York premiere, composer Marc Blitzstein wrote that “the point about Gershwin’s new Rhapsody is that it is no better and no worse than his earlier one.” If anything, however, the Second Rhapsody demonstrates the vividness of Gershwin’s color palette, his ability to paint with broad strokes, the sparkle of his pianistic writing, and, of course, his empathy with jazz. After hearing the Boston premiere, a writer for the Associated Press observed that “the staccato tones of the riveter tinkled loudly from the treble of the keyboard, and succeeding themes reflected nearly every form of jazz from the slowest blues to the wildest-rhythmed dance steps and broad syncopated surges which carried the piece on to climax after climax as Gershwin touched the manifold aspects of life on the streets of New York.” Clearly the work had left at least one listener breathless. — Douglas Shadle