Program Notes
Program Notes

Classics Series
Chorale Season

All Events
Make A Donation


Gershwin 1920’s Radio Hour

Today's concert program celebrates George Gershwin and his contributions to American music.  At the same time, it honors the Big Band sound that Paul Whiteman helped to create. It is a story of a popular musician gravitating toward classical form, and of a classical musician discovering popular music.

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in September, 1898.  By age 15, he was working as a Tin Pan Alley 'song plugger."  His first hit, Swanee. was popularized by Al Jolson in 1919, and before long, Tin Pan Alley lay at Gershwin's feet. Broadway soon followed, as with his older brother Ira he wrote one musical hit after another, including Lady Be Good (1924), Oh Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up The Band (1927 & 1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931) -- the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Paul Whiteman was born in Denver in 1890. After performing regularly with the Denver Symphony on both violin and viola, in 1907 he migrated to San Francisco, where as a classical violist he joined first the World's Fair Orchestra and later the San Francisco Symphony. In San Francisco, Whiteman discovered jazz, and he became fascinated by its driving rhythms and improvisational nature. After serving as a bandmaster in World War I, he returned to San Francisco to form the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which rapidly became the most popular dance band of the 1920s.

Whiteman's Big Band music is often called "symphonic jazz" because of its detailed, written musical arrangements, and because in contrast to Dixieland jazz, it used sections of instruments – trumpets, trombones, saxophones doubling on clarinets, sometimes even strings -- rather than individual instruments on each part. In most Big Band jazz, the individual improvisation that so characterized Dixieland jazz was confined to certain sections of the music and performed only by that section's featured soloist. Whiteman's emphasis on top-quality performances of "arranged" jazz permanently changed the character of popular music.

Whiteman was a canny promoter, but he was also a master musician; and he used his influential orchestra to explore connections between his two career-long loves, the music of the symphony orchestra and the radical, rhythmic freedom of jazz.  In 1924, he produced a concert in New York's Aeolian Hall titled 'An Experiment in Modern Music,' which marked a milestone by bringing jazz and American popular music into the concert hall. Several leading composers received commissions for the evening, including Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Edward MacDowell, Irving Berlin, Ferde Grofé, Rudolf Friml, and an up-and-coming youngster by the name of George Gershwin.   

Gershwin's submission for the Aeolian Hall event was Rhapsody In Blue; and the version you will hear in today's concert stems from that 1924 performance. The piece was an overnight hit, and became the Whiteman Orchestra's signature tune.  More important, at a time when classical music was still an overwhelmingly European art form, it introduced a uniquely American voice in a classical context.  National folk and popular music had long been a common source for European composers. With Gershwin's Rhapsody, American popular music began to infuse the classical tradition.

Following the Aeolian Hall Concert, both Gershwin and Whiteman continued to explore and expand the classical American sound,  In 1925, Walter Damrosch of the New York Symphony commissioned the other great piano work on today's concert, Gershwin's 'Concerto in F.'  It was originally written for full symphony, but Whiteman also popularized it in a version for Big Band, taking the second movement as a much faster clip than is standard today. The next year, Gershwin began his blues and jazz-infused folk opera Porgy & Bess, which opened its Broadway run on October 10, 1935.

In 1937, George Gershwin, at the height of his career, died of a brain tumor.  He was not quite 39 years old. Paul Whiteman continued making music until his death in December, 1950. Today we pay tribute to both these innovators, to the Jazz Age and the Big-Band era, and to the historic convergence of Tin Pan Alley and the classical concert hall.

George Gershwin (b. Jacob Gershvin New York, September 23, 1898; d. Beverly Hills, July 11, 1937)

Rhapsody in Blue  (1924)

At 25. George Gershwin was already well-known in the world of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for his impressive, rhythmically complex, sublimely melodic songs and jazz-influenced musicals.  When Paul Whiteman approached Gershwin late in 1923 to suggest that he write a piece for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Gershwin sketched a few themes, but then turned back to his more pressing Broadway commitments.  To his horror, on January 4, 1924, he read in the New York Tribune that he was at work on a "jazz concerto" to be premiered by the Whiteman Orchestra at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, in a concert billed as "An Experiment in Modern Music". Gershwin protested, but the announcement stood; and ultimately he rose to the challenge, producing one of the most iconic masterpieces ever written by an American composer.  

Five weeks later, at the Aeolian Hall in New York City in front of an eager audience that included such musical luminaries as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, and Efrem Zimbalist, Sr., Rhapsody in Blue was premiered, with Gershwin himself performing the piano solo. The work daringly incorporated all of Gershwin's musical influences—Scott Joplin's tuneful ragtime piano, rhythmic improvisational jazz from Harlem's best clubs, the folk music of Yiddish theater, and the lush experimental harmonies of post-Romantic classical composers such as Ravel, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It was an instant success, completely eclipsing the rest of the evening's program, and went on to win an enduring worldwide reputation.

The distinctive low, throaty trill and following rising glissando wail on the clarinet that begin this work have been jokingly called Gershwin's cry of alarm at the prospect of writing his jazz concerto in one month.  Others suggest that Gershwin is using the clarinet sound to imitate the trombone's "slide" that often begins a Dixieland-style jazz work.  One fanciful early critic imagined this beginning to be the birth-cry of a completely new style of jazz-influenced orchestral music.  Gershwin himself said that the rhythms that follow this clarinet wail were inspired by the repetitive clack of the train that he regularly took to Boston from New York.

Although Rhapsody in Blue was an immense popular success, Gershwin's bold and innovative style confounded the New York critics, and initially it was coldly reviewed.  Worse came when critics learned that Paul Whiteman's chief arranger at the time, Ferde Grofé (who later composed the Grand Canyon Suite), had orchestrated the entire work. Gershwin had never before written for orchestra, and was working under enormous time pressure; it is no wonder that he accepted help in distributing the instrumental parts from a man who specialized in that craft. Grofé also had the advantage of knowing the special talents of the Whiteman musicians and was able to customize the score to maximize its impact.  Thus the famous opening glissando was tailored for Russ Gorman, Whiteman's first-chair clarinetist.

Gershwin is often remembered primarily as a songwriter. He was one of the great
instinctive melodists of all time, and composed hundreds of songs for Tin Pan Alley, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood films. But he was not content to compose only in the medium of popular music. Gershwin's serious works, synthesizing jazz with classical music genres, were daring for their time; today they are standards of the piano, orchestra and opera literature.

Rhapsody in Blue
itself stands alone, with no direct descendants.  Its impact, however, was enormous, directly inspiring many serious classical composers, including Ravel, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, to explore jazz, and stirring countless pop composers to experiment with classical forms.

Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925)

Arnold Schoenberg once said that George Gershwin was a rare composer, one "whose feelings actually coincide with those of the 'average man.'"  As a Broadway composer, Gershwin had a stream of hits that earned him sums unheard of in the classical music world. Yet he was determined to write "serious" music. In a famous story, he asked Ravel and Stravinsky for orchestration and composition lessons.  Ravel reportedly replied "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?" and in fact, Gershwin's influence has been traced in Ravel's own piano concertos. Stravinsky noted that Gershwin made $100,000 dollars in a year and observed that perhaps the younger composer should give him lessons instead!  

The New York Symphony's conductor, Walter Damrosch, fell in love with Rhapsody in Blue on first hearing.  Shortly after Rhapsody's 1924 premiere, Damrosch asked Gershwin for another concerto, and the result was the most classical of all Gershwin's works: the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.

As a whole, Concerto in F successfully combines the structure of a standard concerto for piano with many rhythmic and harmonic elements of drawn from popular music and jazz.  For example, the first movement begins with tolling timpani, followed by an orchestral section in what sounds like a Charleston dance rhythm, ending with a pentatonic upward run.  The lushly harmonized, almost sultry middle section moves into a passage that resembles a Spanish dance; and Gershwin proceeds to build the entire movement out of these three contrasting motives.

Gershwin sets the mood for his slow movement with alternating seconds–-two notes that are very close to one another -- in the French horns.  Out of this slightly dissonant beginning floats a bluesy chordal sequence. A muted trumpet solo is followed later in the movement by a brief, poignant violin solo, answered in turn by another trumpet phrase.  The solo piano enters, building to an exciting blues-inspired cadenza.  A remarkable passage for flute and string quartet mimicking the dissonant theme from the first movement leads into even more blues to conclude the movement.  

The final movement also recalls the musical motives we heard in the first movement.  The Concerto's initial theme returns several times in rondo form, alternating with other phrases for contrast and variation.  The work ends with a "grandioso" return of the main theme from the opening movement.  

With each successive classical composition, Gershwin further honed his skills as an
accomplished composer. In his view, these two musical worlds—popular and classical—were not mutually exclusive, and he gained his greatest personal satisfaction by composing music that appealed to audiences in both spheres.   The Concerto in F represents a high point in the merger of European sensibilities with the freedom, rhythmic excitement, and improvisational bravado of jazz, and with the broad-ranging appeal of American popular musical theater.  

We can only imagine what Gershwin might have achieved in classical music had he lived longer. Nevertheless, his work represented a giant step toward the creation of a distinctively American classical tradition.

Program notes from several sources, including Dr. Beth Fleming



© 2018 Symphony Silicon Valley
P.O. Box 790, San Jose, CA 95106-0790
325 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
Phone or Fax: (408) 286-2600

Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José