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Rhapsody in Blue

New York City montage

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Leonard Bernstein

George Gershwin was only 25 when he wrote "Rhapsody in Blue" for solo piano and jazz band performance. It was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Gershwin was inspired by the sounds of New York City. In his own words:

"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. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. 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. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance."

In this Great Show Tune video Leonard Bernstein conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra against a backdrop of iconic stills and videos of New York City.

This song is a showtune for its appearance as a lead production in Fantasia 2000 with James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The music of "Rhapsody in Blue" is married with animation in the style of New York cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to tell a three-part Depression-era story of an out-of-work businessman, a construction worker, and a too-busy-to-enjoy-each-other family who start the day in miserable circumstances but are brought to rhapsodic happiness in the great city of New York. (Watch for Gershwin at the piano.)

The movie "August Rush" shows the process Gershwin may have gone through, where the composer hears every street noise as a note which inspires a contribution to an overall symphony. If you have never heard "Rhapsody in Blue" in concert or seen "Fantasia 2000," the melody may still be very familiar. United Airlines has used it in advertisements in various forms for over 30 years.

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