95 years ago today, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a mix of classical music with modern effects written for piano and jazz band, premiered in New York City. Commissioned by conductor Paul Whiteman for a concert entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” the 26-year-old Gershwin composed the 9-minute piece on a train ride to Boston—and it became one of the most popular and well known of all American concert works. LEARN More about the amazing moment, and hear the piece… (1924)
“IT WAS on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. … And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end… I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
Many important and influential musicians attended that day and witnessed Gershwin on piano, including Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Stokowski, and John Philip Sousa. The ventilation system in the concert hall was broken and—late into the concert—people in the audience were losing their patience, until the clarinet glissando that opened Rhapsody in Blue was heard.
The New York Times reported, “The audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice. … There was tumultuous applause for Gershwin’s composition.”
In 1955, the great composer Leonard Bernstein wrote: “The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky.”
WATCH the lush filmmaking and sounds in this 1945 clip of Rhapsody In Blue, starring Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father) as Gershwin, with Paul Whiteman conducting his band. The biopic traces Gershwin’s rise to fame, from his first big hit “Swanee”, performed by Al Jolson, playing himself.
Fun Trivia: The opening clarinet glissando came into being at rehearsal when, as a joke on Gershwin, Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist exaggerated the opening measure adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Gershwin told him to play it that way at the concert and to add as much wailing as possible. (Photo of album cover by Piano-Piano! –CC license)
MORE Good News on this Date:
- Women gained the right to vote in the Utah Territory (1870)
- First indoor ice rink in North America opened in Madison Square Garden (1879)
- The 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was born (1809)
- Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday was declared a national holiday (1892)
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded (1909)
- The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is set into place in Washington, D.C. (1914)
- Construction on the Gateway Arch began in St. Louis (1963)
- Al Green topped the US singles chart for the only time with Let’s Stay Together, which was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the 60th greatest song of all time (1972)
And, on this day in 1809, Charles Darwin, the Father of evolutionary science whose 1859 book The Origin of Species introduced the concept of natural selection, was born.
He learned the art of taxidermy from a freed black slave before studying at Christ’s College in Cambridge. While studying the adaptations of finches on a Galapagos island, he first observed the signs of evolution.
Happy 81st Birthday to Judy Blume the writer of children’s books and young adult fiction. Her titles, including ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ and ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,’ have sold over 82 million copies and been translated into 32 languages.
Blume has been named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress for her appeal spanning several generations of adolescent readers. (1938)
Also, on this day in 2010, PBS aired In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.
A concert to honor Black History month, Bob Dylan performed his 1964 anthem, The Times They Are a Changin’ for the first time in 30 years and President Obama joined the likes of Smokey Robinson and Joan Baez on stage to sing the finale, Lift Every Voice. Watch two video highlights from the show here.