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Gershwin’s evolving ‘Rhapsody’

Edward Steichen/The National Heritage Museum Library

On Sunday, the Boston Chamber Music Society presents a concert including George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” performed by pianists Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson. The four-hand piano version of “Rhapsody” was the first version published; it more or less follows Gershwin’s manuscript. Beginning only five weeks before the piece’s 1924 premiere (a deadline, depending on the story, either forgotten or sprung on Gershwin by bandleader Paul Whiteman via a newspaper article), Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody” in short score — two staves for the solo piano part, two staves for the instrumental accompaniment, orchestrated for jazz band by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s usual arranger. But even that first published “Rhapsody in Blue” is not quite the original; manuscript and engraving diverge in numerous places.

In fact, one distinctive aspect of “Rhapsody in Blue” is the impossibility of definitively pinning it down. The most commonly performed versions — the piano duet, Gershwin’s later arrangement for piano solo, Grofé’s jazz-band arrangement, and his 1942 version for full orchestra — differ in ways small and large. Such fluidity was introduced even as “Rhapsody” was being written. Ryan Raul Bañagale, in his 2014 study “Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon,” analyzed a previously overlooked source — the ink copy of Gershwin’s two-piano score, from which Grofé worked — finding that, as copyists transferred Gershwin’s pencil manuscript into ink, Gershwin himself would step in, making further revisions and emendations while continuing to compose.


Bañagale goes on to survey the work’s mutable adapted afterlife: interpretations by Hollywood and Leonard Bernstein, arrangements by Duke Ellington and for harmonica player Larry Adler, appropriations by Woody Allen and United Airlines. Even academic treatment of the piece has changed, tracking the evolution of Gershwin biography: When the dominant image of Gershwin was that of a prodigious but unschooled and naive talent (an image Gershwin himself abetted), “Rhapsody” was considered little more than an effective potpourri of pop themes (Bernstein himself notoriously described it as “a string of paragraphs stuck together”). More recent studies, by Arthur Maisel and Susan Neimoyer, for instance, have emphasized the piece’s ambitious intent and structural unity, reflecting increasing evidence that Gershwin knew (and studied) more than he let on. It illustrates what Bañagale calls the work’s “inherent malleability” — and suggests the possibility that the multiplicity seeded in “Rhapsody in Blue” from the beginning helped make it a uniquely American icon. Like the country, the work is both brashly evident and purposefully protean.

Matthew Guerrieri


The Boston Chamber Music Society presents music by Fauré, Debussy, Gershwin, and Ravel, Jan. 25 at 3 p.m. at the Fitzgerald Theater, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway, Cambridge. Tickets $8-
$56; www.bostonchambermusic.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.