Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

The two great between-war Rhapsodies

November 10, 2018

The greater rhapsody is the American one.

Composed by George Gershwin and performed in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue embodies the merging of our native black-born jazz with highbrow classical European instrumentation.

RhapsClarinet

The other great rhapsodic composition of that time, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, created by the immigrant Sergei Rachmaninoff, represents a Russian music-master’s exploration of an Italian violin virtuoso’s experiments. It is also a great piece of music.

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c33q87s03h4

Both rhapsodies are experimental, ground-breaking. Both are bouncy in their beginnings, disruptive in some transitional phrases. But both works resolve, rather suddenly, 2/3 of the way through development, to an exquisitely lush romantic theme.  The listener’s endurance in earlier discordant excursions through frantic forte poundings is unexpectedly rewarded with a sudden soothing melody. In both pieces, the earlier tensions disappear as they resolve,  melting into an absolutely beautiful melody.

And yet, both works return again to a frantic piano part before resolving again at the end.

Gershwin’s 1924 opus was intentionally concocted as a music experiment; it was commissioned by pioneering bandleader Paul Whiteman, and subsequently orchestrated by his jazzy arranger, Ferdy Grofé.

It turned out to be an extraordinary work of profound importance in the history of music.

By the 20th century, the hundreds-of-years old tradition of European classical music had reached an impasse. Composers were running out of ideas; they needed to break new ground. A morose preoccupation with dissonance and atonality threatened to turn orchestral music into academic drudgery.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Sergei Rachmaninoff fled Bolshevik Russia in 1917; in so doing, he also began a long process of escaping the heavy gravitational pull of a Continental musical death wish.

Europe’s rapid descent into World War I and wide-scale mechanized destruction was tragic.

America, on the other hand, was wide open with possibilities. Sergei traveled here and performed more and more frequently, accompanied by popular acclaim; ultimately he acquired US citizenship shortly before his death in 1943.

Before finally establishing residency Stateside, he had spent significant time in Dresden, Germany, and in Switzerland. While in Switzerland during the summer of 1934, he composed Rhapsody on a Theme by Pagnini.

It’s a marvelous piece of work.

Taking his inspiration from the great Italian violin virtuoso of a hundred years before, Sergei spun Niccolo’s multiple variations into an energetic iteration of thoroughly European rhapsody.

It was quite well done. . . profound, a notable accomplishment.

But Sergei did not have the benefit of one powerful influence that George Gershwin had been born into: a wide-open America with an entirely new beat, and worldview:

Black America.

America had given birth to Louis Armstrong, and  Louie— along with his ground-breaking black compadres— gave birth to jazz.

American jazz is what the Old World had been waiting for—though nobody knew—to get a new lease on creative life:

all that Jazz!

Atlantic City NJ honky bandleader Paul Whiteman was the pioneering musician who crossed the jazz bridge  that changed the world; later, he commissioned George Gershwin to compose Rhapsody in Blue, because Paul knew that something symphonically jazzy was needed.

And so Gershwin came up with Rhapsody in Blue.  The rest is history.

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH2PH0auTUU  

And that’s why I say the greatest rhapsody was the American one, the Blue one, written by an American, in America. It changed the world of  music forever.

King of Soul

Advertisements

My great jazzified orchestral adventure

June 14, 2015

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_(Ravel)

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbNoqzpbc0U

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhapsody_in_Blue

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxowOVIdnR0

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?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBhbCjSnemE

Listen on!

 

Smoke