I had worked my 63-year-old body to a point of exhaustion last Wednesday afternoon, and so I took a little break from pressure-washing. The green mold that likes to grow on vinyl siding had now been blasted from two more high gable ends of the apartment buildings for which I am responsible. I am, you see, a maintenance guy.
So I slid slowly down the ladder and slogged over to my little shop. Plopping wearily into the padded chair, I activated the radio with expectations of easing for a little spell of time into some fanciful musical escapade. Alas, I was not disappointed. My favorite radio station, WDAV, http://www.wdav.org/ immediately came through in classic style to whisk my overworked mind far beyond the ladder-heightened adventures of blasting H20 onto doomed algae colonies.
And then, strains of unfamiliar, though strangely captivating, orchestral sound came wafting to my ears. The music was soothing, with an elegant piano that stroked my worn-out being, but it was punctuated occasionally with bursts of symphonic divergence in a fashion that indicated some orchestral work of the early 20th century.
These impressionistic, mildly jazzy strains seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I could not place them. Surely it’s Gershwin, I wondered; the snappy snippets erupting here and there reminded me of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is one of my favorites. The very rhythmical slow-to-intense piano allegrettos landed me in a bewildered ponderance of trying to identify the composer. It was Gershwinesque, for sure, spicy with dynamic thrusts of emergent jazz, and slashing staccato poundings on the keyboard, while rambunctious woodwinds answered in the background, followed by lush strings that tamed the composer’s carefully-constructed disruptions into interludes of pure repose.
Then that captivating first movement energy slid languidly into an adagio second movement that soothed my weary soul like balm in Gilead. I had a few moments of unparalleled restorative calm, a true respite from my pressurizing labors.
Now comfortably installed at my shop’s work table, I began replacing the inner parts of a removed toilet tank, one of the 94 that I regularly maintain.
Suddenly, rapid bursts of precise piano, then bravissimo winds and sassy brass, were bursting forth in the last movement’s Presto prestissimo, affirming my ruminations that surely this incredible piece of music was the work of some great composer. A few minutes later, sure enough, Joe Brant’s vocal coda identified the opus as Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.
Composed during 1929-31, it was a musical opus that Ravel had said “nearly killed him.” I learned this a day or two later on Wikipedia.
That 25-minute concerto took him two years to write. The piece’s intricacy and innovative energy, with brief boogie-woogified left hand in the last movement and all that jazz, convinces me that the composer’s desperate statement is “nearly” true. This intricate piece of music took a mountain of work. It was an exhaustive labor of love, the outcome of which was to to unify two great traditions of music, old European orchestral and new American jazz, in such a work as this.
Here’s pianist Helene Grimaud performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev:
George Gershwin was doing similar renovations in classical music at about the same time as Maurice Ravel. And I was curious about this. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is, I think, so similar in feeling and era-sensitive timing to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I was wondering who came first. I was thinking that Gershwin’s Rhapsody had premiered in 1934. Yesterday I learned on Wikipedia that Ravel’s upstart, jazzified Concerto in G was first performed in 1932.
So Ravel’s groundbreaking innovation scooped Gershwin’s?
Actually, not. As it turned out, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924! not 1934, as I had thought.
Which only makes sense–that the American, being born and raised in the land of the blues, the western continent of jazz’s birth, with Louie Armstrong blowin’ his horn down in N’awlins, King Oliver movin’ up in Chicago, Duke Ellington finessin’ in New York, etc etc., it only makes sense that George would scoop the Frenchman Maurice Ravel in this musical transition from one golden age to another, one old continent to one new one.
Here’s a contemporary YouTube of pianist Makoto Ozone performing Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. But warning! to you classical music purists out there: this is Ozone’s jazzed up version of Gershwin’s jazzed up original composition! George Gershwin would, I believe, be impressed:
But the discovery of this jazzed-up symphonic scoop is not the end of my story. A little further research early this morning online took me to one of the many black prodigies of American early jazz, Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was ticklin’ the ivories in Harlem and over on 52nd Street back in the day, early ’20’s, before George caught a vision for his blue masterpiece, and before Maurice grabbed hold of his jazzifyin’ Continental groundbreaker Concerto long abouts 1929-31.
Willie the Lion was an amazing, transitional piano impresario, and a legend back in the jazz age. Now this is where my great musical adventure, having begun in a moment of repose on Wednesday, and then morphing through Ravel and Gershwin, right into now, in the midst of Sunday morning’s research-driven blogfest. Are you ready for Willie?
Tags: 1924, 1932, classical music, early 20th-century music, George Gershwin, jazz, jazz age, Labor, Maurice Ravel, music, musical innovation, opus, orchestral music, Piano Concerto in G, piano music, Rhapsody in Blue, symphonic music, Willie the Lion Smith