“Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh, no. Make that, he romanticized it all out of proportion.”
Thus begins the opening scene of Woody Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan,” setting George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to its famous montage of images of the New York City skyline. It is an overture appropriate to the kind of city that Manhattan is: a city home to some of the greatest musical institutions in the world that bustles to the tunes of Frank Sinatra. In the shadow of august skyscrapers at twilight glistening with the reflection of fireworks, Gershwin’s piano concerto finds the perfect home on the silver screen in this, Woody Allen’s masterpiece.
Having just reached adulthood on the cusp of the roaring twenties, George Gershwin belonged to an age of composers who made reaching a larger audience the name of the game, while seeking to eliminate the elitist climate that seemed to have befallen the concert hall. The decade eventually redefined the term decadence, turning a term for social, cultural, and ethical decay into one symbolic of the artistic and social dynamism embodied above all things in the blossoming of jazz and the enfranchisement of women.
Completed in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue was premiered just before Gershwin departed for Paris, where he sought to study with the notable music teacher Nadia Boulanger, to whose tutelage countless famous composers and performers attribute their success. Gershwin was rejected both by Boulanger as well as his idol Maurice Ravel, both afraid of robbing the young composer of his knack for jazz.
The opening wail (glissando) of the clarinet that has become so characteristic of Gershwin’s tune was a last minute addition to the work, conjured up as a joke by clarinetist Ross Gorman in a dress rehearsal with the composer himself. By bringing jazz harmonies and rhythms to the setting of the traditional European orchestra, Gershwin’s works met a fair amount of criticism, even from forward-minded musicians such as Leonard Bernstein. For many listeners around the world, it has come to truly symbolize the sound of the United States, a country proud to claim jazz as its folk music.
It has been over 90 years since the composition and premiere of Gershwin’s inspired concerto, and still cry “bravo” as pianists bow their way off the stage to the sound of thunderous applause and audiences humming the tunes of New York’s finest composer.