90 years and 1 day ago (I missed this by 1 day…), George Gershwin’s magnum opus Rhapsody In Blue premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York. I’m sure in 10 years we’ll all be treated to a bevy of thinkpieces as to why this piece was so important to modern American music and our culture itself, but I’m going to jump the gun and write mine now. I’ll most likely be pretty busy in 10 years.
This piece is deeply rooted in my musical psyche. I fell in love with it after hearing the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra perform it, probably around the age of 9-10 (I would need Mom’s verification for a more accurate estimate). I’m not sure what it was about this piece that awoken such an overwhelming passion for it, but I remember shortly after the orchestra performance finding out that we had the recording on CD, along with Gershwin’s An American In Paris. I must have played that CD to its physical death. Constantly, I’d just play Rhapsody In Blue on repeat and find myself joining along with the orchestra, adding my own vocal “doo-doo-doo-doo, da-da-da-daaaaa, daaaaa, daaaaa” (that is one of the melody riffs in the song). It quickly became my young life’s background music. So there’s one benefit to homeschooling: Gershwin provided the loud, household soundtrack during my math and science work.
What is it about Rhapsody In Blue that caught my ear so much? I believe I was still playing piano at the time, because I remember daydreaming about learning the piano part and performing with the CR Symphony as their special guest, wowing the crowd and whatever homeschooled girl I was crushing on at the time (I would wager homeschoolers daydream much more than public/private school kids. Disparate amounts of external stimuli).
As I was playing piano, I was most likely overcome by Gershwin’s music because I theretofore hadn’t heard anything like it. I was hammering out Baroque, Classical and Romantic tunes like it was nobody’s business. My teacher and I strayed further from contemporary pieces though, so when I heard Rhapsody, I thought it existed in a universe all its own. It was this weird mix of what I thought of as jazz with distinct classical flavors. But it just kept changing as the tune went along. And I remember very distinctly being moved by it, feeling emotions in my heart as I listened. For as much music as I listen to, there are few pieces of music that can actually move me to a tangible emotional reaction. To a place where I am actually floored by what I’m hearing and have to stop in my tracks. As I listen to Rhapsody In Blue as I write, I’ve stopped typing each time I get to the movement that starts around the 10:15 mark. The swell of the strings actually makes me catch my breath as I listen.
And that’s the thing. That swell, the changes in the movements, that emotional reaction all came from the fact that I was hearing culture come to life through this piece. The instruments each became their own characters in the song’s story. As I listen to it now, what I hear (and what I think I identified as a kid) was the sound of a city. A booming metropolis, with cars and trucks and local communities hustle and bustling to work each day and fish markets and kids playing along the sidewalk. I can’t be sure (because I haven’t been there), but at least as a child, what I was hearing was the city of New York in musical form.
Obviously, I am hardly the first to make the connection between this piece and New York. But as New York is so intensely romanticized in American pop culture, it takes on a life of its own to a homeschooled Midwestern kid. The biggest city I’d seen as a 10-year-old was St. Louis, and I’d stuck mostly to the suburbs. In my mind, New York was a giant, it was a myth, it was this magical place that existed in movies and there was traffic and immigrated families and the Empire State Building and jazz and businessmen and the subway and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I could hear all of this in Rhapsody In Blue. That’s why I’m moved by it. I hear the stories of real people in this piece. It’s a relational piece of music, not just an abstract work I can’t connect to. There is sadness and struggle and hard work and defeat and opportunity and joy in these notes and in these instruments.
And I’d never made such an explicit connection between music and real life before. Other classical music, while gorgeous and evocative and moving it its own way, often felt dated to me as a kid. I could listen to (and love) something like Dvorak’s Sympony No. 9 or Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No. 4 and feel an intense range of emotion from the music. But Gershwin’s piece had something I hadn’t heard before. Rhapsody In Blue had a pulse; it was a living, breathing document. Even though it sounded like the New York in the ’20s, that city seems to have such a strong sense of its history that this piece managed to link its past and its present altogether so well.
I don’t think I’ve got the gumption to get into whether this piece is technically a jazz piece or not, or how it has impacted American musical culture and how it changed American classical music. What I do know is that this is one of the first times in my life that I remembered having a distinct, emotional reaction to a piece of music, and that has stayed with me for nearly 20 years. I am indebted to George Gershwin, and I also have to give a shout out to United Airlines for sowing the seeds of love for this tune before I realized what I was hearing.