George Gershwin’s composition of Rhapsody in Blue is iconic in American classical music. Its combination of classical music with jazz influences has become one of the most popular works in the American concert genre. Commissioned by American Band Leader Paul Whiteman, Gershwin composed a “jazz concerto” that follows the structure of a piano concerto. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a masterful composition that blends classical and jazz elements through a creative combination of instrumentation, tempo and dynamics, tonal qualities, and main melodic themes.
Rhapsody in Blue is primarily written for piano with a full orchestra. An orchestra is a large formal group of instruments, usually in multiple sections. An orchestra for a typical musical arrangement consists of strings (violins, viola, cello, double basses), woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), brass (French horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba) as well as percussion (drums, triangle, xylophone). The composition opens with a full orchestra and a single clarinet solo by saxophonist the late Rudy Wiedoeft, starting with the E-flat major motif (Davies & Russell, 14). The strings then take over for the main melody, and a quick transition follows with the saxophone and the woodwinds playing the same melody.
Tempo and Dynamics
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue generally follows a traditional tempo. Most of the piece is marked at a moderate Tempo, also known as Andante, or in an even more specific term, at a Tempo di valse. However, some notable tempo changes feature at some crucial moments. An example of this is a transition during the bridge which features an incline in tempo leading to a Presto alla Marcia (Cook & Davide, 72).
The dynamic variations in the composition are notable. The piece follows a piano dynamic but features many crescendos and diminuendos throughout. This allows the performer to emphasize certain sections, creating a sense of heightened emotion. One of the most notable dynamic changes is the crescendo leading up to the piece’s climax, which ends in a fortissimo.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue featured a tonal quality that was both distinct and delicate. The composition generally featured a warm, strident tonality, embodying a certain feeling of playfulness and comfort, which was further accentuated by the accompanying orchestra (Jablonski & Edward, 39). The tonality was further exaggerated by Gershwin’s creative use of rubato (a tempo fluctuation or pause).
Main Melodic Themes
Rhapsody in Blue features two main melodic themes. The first theme is the opening motif, which is featured prominently throughout the piece. The melody begins with a single clarinet by Gershwin’s saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft (Katorza & Ari, 331). The second melodic theme is first presented during the second verse, which enters with the strings and transitions into a jazzy bridge which then features a sax solo.
In conclusion, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a unique and iconic musical composition that effectively blends classical music with jazz-inspired effects. Its instrumentation, tempo and dynamics, tonal qualities and main melodic themes all combine to create a work of genius. To fully appreciate this piece, it must be listened to in full, taking the opportunity to observe the variance of its nuances, as well as its full dynamic range.
Cook, David. “Three Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano/Rhapsody in Blue/Concerto for Clarinet/Zigeunerweisen/Three Romances/Hommage á Edith Piaf and Sonata.” The Clarinet 47.4 (2020): 71-72.
Davies, Russell. “Under the skin: George Gershwin, then and now.” TLS. Times Literary Supplement 6103 (2020): 14-15.
Jablonski, Edward. “Music with an American Accent.” Music in American Society 1776–1976. Routledge, 2019. 27-46.
Katorza, Ari. “It Ain’t necessarily so: Gershwin, whiteness, altruism and the distortion of American Jews’ music history.” Jewish Culture and History 21.4 (2020): 323-341.