Unrefined brilliance may be a thousand times more striking than uninspired finesse, but such realities are not always obvious to the artist at work. How did George Gershwin’s opinions of his Second Rhapsody measure up to those of the public?
Read on to find out!
By Cassidy Goldblatt
“Second-rate: adj., of mediocre or inferior quality.” Applied to George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody (1931), it’s only a halfway accurate description, applicable more to public sentiment than to the work’s compositional coherence. George described the piece as, “in many respects, such as orchestration and form, . . . the best thing I’ve written,” and critics widely acknowledged that Second Rhapsody was more technically developed and skillfully orchestrated than the composer’s earlier works. Yet the piece never gained popularity with audiences and performers, and it has since been overshadowed by Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. If George’s Second Rhapsody was perhaps one of the works he was most proud of, why was it not more favorably received by the general public?
By 1927, George had begun making a serious effort to elevate his compositional skill and engage the world of the established “classical” composer. His work on An American in Paris (see our post here) makes that abundantly clear; he strategically aligned the piece’s composition with a trip to Europe, during which he mixed and mingled with—and sought to learn from—the best-known composers of the time. While An American in Paris emerged as a brilliant, sparkling piece that captivated the American audience’s ear, contemporary composers still found Gershwin’s skill to be lacking. George’s colleague Vernon Duke summarized general sentiment on the work: “Brilliant in spots, adequate in others, but on the whole top-heavy” and, essentially, poorly orchestrated. It was widely accepted amongst composers that, though George Gershwin’s ideas were vivacious and enchanting, his lack of a formal musical education damaged his music’s effectiveness.
Despite these critiques, however, George’s desire to write “serious” music ran too deeply for him to be easily dissuaded. According to one of his earliest composition teachers, Edward Kilenyi, “[Gershwin] often spoke of his desire to quit writing popular music and retire somewhere far away so that he could devote himself to serious music.” Kilenyi pragmatically advised his student to keep a foot in both worlds—a strategy the rising composer rather successfully adopted—but George’s fascination with more formal composition never waned, regardless of the criticism he faced with Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and, later, An American in Paris.
After the 1928 premier of An American in Paris, George took some time away from formal symphonic writing, instead completing two broadway shows (Show Girl and Girl Crazy) and beginning a few other theatrical collaborations (East is West and The Dybbuk) which never came to fruition. By 1930, when he and Ira were hired by Fox Studios to visit Hollywood and score the movie-musical Delicious, George once again felt prepared “to write a serious composition” and eagerly set time aside during the brothers’ working vacation to do so. The resulting creation was Second Rhapsody, of which the composer recalled:
I wrote [Second Rhapsody] mainly because I wanted to write a serious composition and found the opportunity in California to do it. Nearly everybody comes back from California with a western tan and a pocketful of moving-picture money. I decided to come back with both those things, and a serious composition—if the climate would let me.
George and Ira arrived in Hollywood November of 1930, where they began working on Delicious with such gusto that in six weeks they had finished nearly the entire score. George, delighted, was left with “seven weeks of almost uninterrupted opportunity to,” in his own words, “write the best music I could possibly think of!” He worked diligently, finishing the orchestrated score by May 23, 1931, and arranging for an informal reading session with the National Broadcasting Company that June. Though the session itself was intended to provide the composer with an accurate glimpse of the realized piece, NBC’s offer to record it (in fact, you can find this very recording here!) further equipped Gershwin by providing him a listening copy from which to make modifications—something George clearly planned to do. He wrote Aileen Pringle soon afterwards: “… I can listen to it over and over again and then make any possible changes I care to.”
Apparently, the piece had already undergone significant modifications since George’s time in Hollywood, because he also told Aileen of the session, “I’m writing to tell you I like the result… I’m sure you would approve of the changes.” But by late 1931 / early 1932, he was still not entirely satisfied with the work, examining it with his former teacher Kilenyi and purportedly requesting guidance on how to shore up the ending. Kilenyi also recorded that Gershwin contemplated how Goetschius—a respected compositional theorist whose textbooks he had studied—would approach the piece’s form. George was not treating Second Rhapsody like a musical trifle; he was approaching it with the same care and consideration of any serious composer.
In fact, Second Rhapsody does surprise the listener with its level of complexity, exhibiting a specificity and compositional care unheard in Gershwin’s earlier works. The piece incorporates new types of dissonance, explores the use of polychords, and is built on a rich network of counterpoint whose secondary lines are derived from the main material itself. This technique, dubbed “contrapuntal layering” by Steven Gilbert, was noticeable enough to be commented on by several critics. Howard Pollack has since referenced Debussy, Prokofiev, and Bartók as the work’s most apparent inspirations; and Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the premiere, stated, “[i]t is a masterful orchestration… [t]he boy’s talent does not stop with composition—his talent to orchestrate is what amazed me.”
In addition to being acknowledged as more compositionally advanced than George’s earlier pieces, Second Rhapsody was publicly anticipated as the first Gershwin rhapsody since Rhapsody in Blue. The premiere by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony had unusually high attendance, but more importantly, Koussevitzky chose to showcase the work on a symphonic program—the first appearance of Gershwin’s music on a “serious” program rather than a pops concert.
Second Rhapsody was initially called a “triumph” for the composer, praised for its “decided individuality” and compositional improvement over the earlier rhapsody—but H.T. Parker’s review from the Boston Evening Transcript aptly summarizes the more prevalent mixed opinions on the work. Though more technically advanced than its rhapsodic predecessor, Parker claimed that Second Rhapsody’s material “lack[s] the arresting and driving qualities of the themes of the First [Rhapsody,]” with George “wax[ing] in craftsmanship but at the cost of earlier and irresistible élan.” Olin Downes of the New York Times, too, admitted, “This rhapsody has more orchestration and more development than the ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’” but at the cost of the former work’s “individual and originative” nature. Some critics called Second Rhapsody “trite,” others “dull,” and still others “pretentious,” yet these sentiments do not seem to represent critics’ opinions alone. Second Rhapsody was rarely played after its premiere, and many of its early performances were given only cursory mention in the papers, the piece often overshadowed by other, more alluring works on the programs. It would seem that though George drew nearer to his ideal of formal composition with regards to technique—he had finally created a piece more widely acknowledged for its craft—he did so at the cost of that zest so bewitchingly inherent in his earlier works.
With Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin began a quest to surmount the barrier between himself and the realm of classical composition. By the time he completed An American in Paris, he had formally engaged contemporary composers, but the general criticism that his technique was still lacking left his aims only partially reached. Second Rhapsody was his first work widely acknowledged for its technical finesse, with critics and even some composers commenting on the piece’s complexity, its admirable orchestration, and its commendable craftsmanship. Yet these improvements, though praiseworthy, did not make the work, and critics’ primary objection now concerned the piece’s lack of natural fluidity, innate character, and spontaneous brilliance. Perhaps Second Rhapsody’s unpopularity most strongly speaks to the value of such qualities. Though George had finally succeeded in creating a work worthy of formal critique and to him truly “serious,” his technical preoccupation had distracted him from the more effective, natural communication of music and meaning. How aptly does this tale remind us that technical proficiency is not the root of art, nor is critique (as that which so harshly berated Rhapsody in Blue for its lack of compositional maturity) the appropriate impetus for creativity.
“A Letter from London.” The Globe (1844-1936): 13 Feb 1932. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Globe and Mail, p. 12.
Downes, Olin. “Music in Review: George Gershwin Plays His Second Rhapsody for First Time Here with Koussevitzky and Boston Orchestra.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 6 Feb 1932. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index, p. 14.
Duke, Vernon. “Gershwin, Schillinger, and Dukelsky.” The Musical Quarterly 75.4 (Winter 1991): 119-124.
“Gershwin to Play for Jobless Fund: With Symphony, to Give Extra, Noon Performance Saturday.” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960): 27 Jan 1932. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Boston Globe, p. 10.
“Gershwin Wins Triumph: Second Rhapsody Delights Boston Symphony Audience at Premiere.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 30 Jan 1932. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index, p. 13.
H.T. “17,000 Hear Gershwin Program.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 17 Aug 1932. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index, p. 13.
Niemoyer, Susan. “George Gershwin and Edward Kilenyi, Sr.: A Reevaluation of Gershwin’s Early Musical Education.” The Musical Quarterly, 90.½ (Spring / Summer 2011): 9-62.
Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. University of California Press, 2006.
Wierzbicki, James. “The Hollywood Career of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 60.1 (Spring 2007): 133-186.