Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Leonard Bernstein: Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue

Leonard Bernstein performs George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue (1924)," at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1976. Here Bernstein shows his virtuosity on the piano, earning his reputation as an modern American renaissance man.  You can view the rest of Bernstein's performance here.


Leonard Bernstein once said in a 1955 Atlantic Monthly article: 
The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific – inspired, God-given. I don't think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it's still the Rhapsody in Blue. 
Yet, although it defies tight definition as a jazz piece or a technical composition in the purest sense, it endures. One reason is that it tells a series of vignettes or stories, although each are separate, the power is that "the piece still goes on as bravely as before." The result is a sincere piece, thereby expressing the sentiments of the optimistic, if not reckless, 1920s that Gershwin viewed and felt in his native New York City at the time. What prevailed was a positive can-do spirit that many would like to duplicate today.

Note that Bernstein, despite such critical words, enjoyed performing the piece. Perhaps it could be said that he understood the piece's importance in the canon of American music. (You can listen to the original Gershwin recording of 1924 here.)

George Gershwin [1898-1937]. On March 28, 1937: Less than four months later, on July 11, 1937, George Gershwin would die from a brain tumor. He was 38.
Photo Credit: Carl van Vechten [1880-1964]; Taken on March 28, 1937
Source: US Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.


  1. What did Bernstein think of the suites by Bach and Handel, which were collections of independent melodies, any of which could be cut out? What did he think about symphonies, which have independent movements? His comment about Gershwin is very peculiar.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    I am not sure what Bernstein thought about other composers. But the smile on his face belied these thoughts on Gerhswin; it's clear that he enjoyed playing the piece.


Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.