Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

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Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34b

COMPOSER: Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine; died March 5, 1953, Moscow
WORK COMPOSED: Fall 1919. Originally written for the Zimro Ensemble (piano, clarinet, and string quartet). In 1934, Prokofiev arranged for chamber orchestra
WORLD PREMIERE: The Zimro Ensemble, with Prokofiev at the piano, gave the first performance at the Bohemian Club in New York on February 2, 1920. The orchestral version was first performed in Prague in 1934.
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, bass drum, piano, and strings

“In the autumn [of 1919], the Jewish ensemble Zimro came to America. It consisted of a string quartet, a clarinetist, and pianist. All of them had been fellow pupils of mine at the Petersburg Conservatory. They had a repertoire of quite interesting Jewish music for various instrumental combinations. They asked me to write an overture for six instruments for them and gave me a notebook of Jewish melodies. At first, I didn’t want to take it because I was accustomed to using my own themes. The notebook, however, remained with me, and one evening I chose a couple of nice melodies from it and began to improvise on them on the piano. I soon noticed that several well-knit passages were emerging. I spent the next day working on the themes, and by evening I had the overture ready.”

So goes Sergei Prokofiev’s version of how he came to write the Overture on Hebrew Themes. But Simeon Bellison, Zimro’s clarinetist (he became principal clarinet for the New York Philharmonic in 1920), remembers things quite differently. According to Bellison’s memoirs, Prokofiev approached Zimro with the suggestion that Prokofiev compose a “Jewish piece.” (At this point in his career, Prokofiev was largely unknown in the United States, and, as the composer himself acknowledged, he was going through a “dry spell,” creatively speaking). Bellison allowed Prokofiev to look through a notebook of Jewish themes Bellison had painstakingly collected and transcribed, and Prokofiev chose two: an up-tempo freilach, or instrumental dance, and a wedding song, Zayt gezunterheyt “May You Stay Healthy.”

The truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere in between the two accounts. Murky origin notwithstanding, Prokofiev’s Overture is a lively, colorful presentation of the two themes, with the solo clarinet prominently showcased.

Piano Concerto, Op. 42

COMPOSER: Born September 13, 1874, Vienna; died July 13, 1951, Los Angeles
WORK COMPOSED: June 27– December 29, 1942. Originally written as a commission for Oscar Levant. When Levant declined the finished work, Schoenberg dedicated the concerto to one of his students, Henry Clay Shriver.
WORLD PREMIERE: Leopold Stokowski led the NBC Symphony with soloist Eduard Steuermann on February 6, 1944, in New York City.
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, snare drum, xylophone, and strings

“Schoenberg . . . presents us, through music’s progress in time and through its continual variations and developments, with a recurring pattern of experience.” – biographer Malcolm MacDonald

Arnold Schoenberg did not generally provide comments or explanations for his music; he preferred to let his compositions speak for themselves. The Piano Concerto stands out as a notable exception. In 1932, pianist, film composer, and actor-comedian Oscar Levant studied composition with Schoenberg in Los Angeles. Levant later asked Schoenberg to write what Levant termed “a slight piano piece.” Schoenberg began work on Levant’s commission at the end of June 1942; six months later, Schoenberg had refashioned Levant’s “slight” work into a full-blown piano concerto, complete with what he called “a few explanatory phrases” to describe the music. “I was unprepared for a piano concerto,” Levant recalled in his 1965 book, Memoirs of an Amnesiac. In addition, Schoenberg’s fee, like the music, had likewise swelled far beyond what Levant had envisaged, so he bowed out of the project. Schoenberg later asked one of his former students, Eduard Steuermann, to give the premiere.

The concerto’s single movement is divided into four contrasting sections played without pause. Schoenberg’s “explanatory phrases” for each section read like a poem:

“Life was so easy Suddenly hatred broke out A grave situation was created But life goes on.”

These lines seem to reflect Schoenberg’s experience of the rise of Nazism in Austria and Germany during the late 1920s and into the 1930s (Schoenberg and his family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany).

The music combines aspects of Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional system with intensely expressionistic emotional content. “Life was easy” features a 12-tone waltz; “Suddenly hatred . . . ” explodes with agitated violence. “A grave situation . . .” turns inward, expressing grief and fear; “But life goes on” cheekily thumbs its musical nose at the hatred Hitler unleashed.

Composer Virgil Thomson admired Schoenberg’s concerto: “Its particular combination of lyric freedom and figurational fancy with the strictest tonal logic places it high among the works of this greatest among the living Viennese masters . . . and high among the musical achievements of our century.”

Azaan (World premiere)

COMPOSER: Born December 6, 1988, Amherst, NY
WORK COMPOSED: Commissioned by the Oregon Symphony in 2017.
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle, vibraphone, harp, piano/celesta, strings

In her synopsis, playwright Dipika Guha writes, “A Stranger appears in a small American town. He has no papers identifying who he is, and even more mysteriously, he will not speak to anyone. That is, until the Police Detective’s wife, a woman with a great loss of her own, intervenes. Even though they do not speak each other’s language, they can hear each other’s memories. These memories, in the play, are represented by music; the great internal orchestra of their inner lives.”

Rogerson adds, “The music only appears in the play to highlight certain characters’ inner thoughts and memories and serves to paint a picture of their experiences. While some of this music has narration attached to it, often the music stretches on, as if time stops in the characters’ minds, and we get a window into their most private emotions. Sometimes memory can be a difficult thing to express in words. The Stranger at the center of this play cannot speak, and the music allows us to understand the emotions of his experience and his tragedy.”

Guha based The Stranger’s experiences on accounts of survivors of the chemical attack in Halabja in 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons upon a largely Kurdish population. She also drew on some of her own and her family’s experiences when writing Azaan. “My family immigrated several times, from India to Russia to the United Kingdom, and my home has been in the United States since 2006. So I do know the feeling of estrangement when you are in a new cultural setting, to feel as though you have no voice, no way to be understood because there simply is no context for who you are . . . My grandparents fled to India from Bangladesh in 1947 when our independence from the British severed one land into three. In writing this piece, I thought about how that generation never once spoke about what it was like to get on a bus or a train knowing you’d never see your family again . . . I think about the deep stain of shame in that silence, and the loss of those stories as we stand poised once again to make the same mistakes.

“Language cannot bridge the gap of understanding borne of division the way that music can. As a playwright who traffics in language, I’m enamored by the way music enters the heart directly. It seemed to me to be a shorthand for empathy. Empathy has, to me, a higher moral function than sentiment. It allows us to enter into the experience of someone else, in communion with our own experiences of joy and suffering.”

Rhapsody in Blue

COMPOSER: Born September 26, 1898, Brooklyn; died July 11, 1937, Hollywood
WORLD PREMIERE: Gershwin was at the piano when Rhapsody in Blue premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: February 19, 2006; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, glockenspiel, snare drum, celesta, triangle, banjo, and strings

Rhapsody in Blue occupies a special place in American music: it introduced jazz to classical concert audiences, and simultaneously made an instant star of its composer. From its instantly recognizable opening whine in the clarinet through its brilliant finale, Rhapsody in Blue epitomizes the Gershwin sound and instantly transformed the 25-year-old songwriter from Tin Pan Alley into a composer of “serious” music.

The story of how Rhapsody in Blue came about is as captivating as the music itself. On January 4, 1924, Ira Gershwin showed George a news report in the New York Tribune about a concert put together by jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman that would endeavor to trace the history of jazz (Whiteman gave this concert a rather grandiose title, “An Experiment in Modern Music.”) The report concluded with a brief announcement: “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” This was certainly news to Gershwin, who was then in rehearsals for a Broadway show, Sweet Little Devil. Gershwin contacted Whiteman to refute the Tribune article, but Whiteman eventually talked Gershwin into taking the job. Whiteman also sweetened the deal by offering to have Ferde Grofé orchestrate Gershwin’s music for orchestra. Gershwin completed Rhapsody in Blue in three weeks.

Gershwin’s phenomenal talent as a pianist wowed the audience as much as the novelty of jazz stylings in a “classical” piece of music. The original opening clarinet solo, written by Gershwin, got its trademark jazzy glissando from Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman. This opening unleashes a floodgate of colorful ideas, which blend seamlessly into one another. The pulsing syncopated rhythms and showy music later give way to a warm, expansive melody Sergei Rachmaninoff could have written.

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



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