Since the early 20th century, jazz always had a significant impact on classical music and classical pianists. Composers found the rhythms, the blue quality in melody and harmony, as well as the spontaneous improvisation immensely fascinating and irresistibly modern.
Gershwin brought jazz into the classical concert venues
Even though composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Soviet composers used jazz and blues in their works, it was Hollywood and Broadway which would enable jazz music to enter the classical concert venues and the key composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s symphonic works like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by French composers. In turn Maurice Ravel was strongly impressed with Gershwin, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”
…but Ravel rejected him
In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him.
Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928
They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him; “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”
. The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.
Rhapsody in Blue – an experiment in modern music
“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.” — Gershwin, about how the ideas of Rhapsody in Blue came to his mind.
Challenged by the question “What is American music?” and a comission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for an New York afternoon concert named “An Experiment in Modern Music”, Gershwin wrote the “American Rhapsody” which later was re-named “Rhapsody in Blue”. The version that was heard then was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra which was written in 1942 and eventually became the most popular version. The opening clarinet glissando suggests a sound effect quote from a number of piano pieces by Ravel such as Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit or Alborada del Gracioso.
A performance by classical pianist with serious jazz skills
Let’s hear pianist Kirill Gerstein play the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein, a renowned international classical performer is also a trained jazz pianist from the famous jazz music school Berklee College of Music in Boston before attending the Manhattan School of Music, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music degrees by the age of 20. In this particular concert Gerstein returns to his old Alma Mater in March 30, 2012 to perform togheter with students and faculty members at Berklee College of Music.
Gerstein plays Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz band version) at Berklee
Do you hear the jazz influences in Ravel’s music?
Grimaud plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G
How did George Gershwin play the piano himself?
Hear a live capture of I Got Rhythm from 1931
Read a recent interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein:
He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz… all that is unexpected
While most pianists and piano music aficionados enjoy playing, or at least listening to, both classical and jazz, a combination of different musical genres can obviously compromise their unique genuineness. Or what do you think? Let us know in this week’s reader poll!
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