J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian BACH


Frederic Chopin
Frederic CHOPIN


Charles-Valentin Alkan
Charles-Valentin ALKAN


George Gershwin


Jack Gibbons, Cincinnati, USA, 2004


Jack Gibbons writes about Gershwin's neglected masterpiece


A note on Second Rhapsody

George Gershwin is perhaps one of the best-known but most misunderstood of all composers. His association with the world of popular music has led many to underestimate his genius as a composer. This statement could not be more apposite when it comes to the neglected score of Gershwin's Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra. This is a remarkable work, containing at its centre one of Gershwin's most haunting themes, yet few concert goers are familiar with the work as its appearance in the concert hall is very rare indeed.

Perhaps the Second Rhapsody's neglect was aided by the deliberately low key title which Gershwin chose for the work (when compared with his previous concert work titles 'Rhapsody in Blue' and 'An American in Paris'). To add to its troubles the Second Rhapsody was 'revised' many years after the composer's death by music editors more keen on their own self glory than preserving the masterpiece of a genius. As a result Gershwin's own masterly orchestration (so admired by the conductor Koussevitzky who with Gershwin himself at the piano gave the work's premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January 1932) has rarely if at all been heard by audiences in modern times.

Gershwin self-portrait photograph, taken around the time of Porgy and Bess (picture courtesy Edward Jablonski)

Two remarkable historic recordings were made of the work using Gershwin's original orchestration before this disastrous posthumous revision was made: one by the pianist Oscar Levant with the conductor Martin Gould and a rare recording by the composer himself  in which he is both conducting and playing the solo piano part (the audio with this web page). Gershwin's own recording of Second Rhapsody was in fact a private recording of a rehearsal of the work that took place at the NBC studios in New York in June 1931, just a month after Gershwin had completed the work. It was made purely for Gershwin's own benefit to see how his orchestration sounded. The recording was restored and made available to the public thanks to Gershwin's biographer Edward Jablonski.


Gershwin with Koussevitsky looking over the score of Second Rhapsody, January 1932

Gershwin with Koussevitsky looking over the score of Second Rhapsody, January 1932


In all likelihood the excellent musicians assembled for the Gershwin rehearsal recording session were probably sight reading or close to sight reading their parts. As a consequence in a score of this complexity there are a few errors and ensemble problems on the recording but it's still an amazing historic document: it's the only recording we have of Gershwin conducting and playing one of his major works complete with no cuts, and of course a recording too of his original orchestration.


The origins of Second Rhapsody

This work had an unusual gestation, beginning when Gershwin was in Hollywood at the end of 1930, having been asked, along with his lyricist brother Ira, to write songs for a Fox movie that was released a year later under the title "Delicious'. At possibly Gershwin's own suggestion a lengthy musical sequence was devised for the film that would give Gershwin more artistic scope. Gershwin then went one step further and used the opportunity to turn the project into a full length serious concert work. As it turned out it was only later (after the completion of this new concert work) that Gershwin's full score was then adapted, in truncated form, for a 7 minute musical sequence in the movie.

During the making of 'Delicious' the production notes refer to Gershwin's music as  either  'Manhattan Rhapsody', 'New York Rhapsody' or 'Rhapsody in Rivets', though Gershwin's score, predating all these titles has simply the title '2nd Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano'. Gershwin's full score is dated "March 14, 1931" on the title page, and "May 23 1931, 33 Riverside Dive New York" on the final 76th page of music. The filming of 'Delicious" began in California in August 1931 and the movie soundtrack (including the cut version of 2nd Rhapsody) was recorded by Fox's studio orchestra in October 1931.

The story outline for 'Delicious' (starring Janet Gaynor) had plenty of excuses for including music: the plot revolved around the life and loves of a young Russian pianist and composer emigrating to America, all the while struggling to complete his "New York Rhapsody". In the movie part of Gershwin's 2nd Rhapsody is used to enhance an almost surreal dream-type sequence of images of New York. Many of the images have a sinister edge presumably inspired by Gershwin's music (which includes a 'rivet' theme that in the movie accompanies riveters building new skyscrapers in New York City). However Gershwin said he wrote the work as purely abstract music: "There is no program to the Rhapsody. As the part of the picture where it is to be played takes place in many streets in New York, I used as a starting point what I called 'a rivet theme,' but, after that, I just wrote a piece of music without any program" [Gershwin letter to Goldberg, June 30th 1931].

Second Rhapsody occupies a quite different sound world to Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin's music was subtly changing throughout his short life, and gradually acquiring darker hues and greater intensity. As Gershwin's biographer Edward Jablonski once typically remarked of Second Rhapsody: "this is not a cheery work to listen to holding hands". He went on to describe the work: "The Second Rhapsody is a fascinating composition; it is Gershwin around the corner. He had left the twenties; the self-styled 'modern romantic' created a work that is more modern than romantic". The darker side of George Gershwin lends a very special feel to the score of Second Rhapsody, and in many ways foreshadows what was to come in his masterpiece opera Porgy and Bess. Second Rhapsody is also a work of tremendous passion and intensity, and as mentioned, has at its heart one of the most glorious and poignant melodies ever conceived by the composer of so many immortal melodies!

The videos attached to this page (courtesy of YouTube users) will give some idea of how the work was adapted for the movie 'Delicious'. The movie was actually released a month or so before Second Rhapsody received its first performance in Boston; the truncated version of Second Rhapsody heard during the nightmare sequence in 'Delicious' (the second video clip below) would have been the first if not only opportunity the general public had to get to know Gershwin's newest composition.

These notes 2007 Jack Gibbons

Excerpts from the film 1931 film 'Delicious' featuring part of Gershwin's Second Rhapsody

Prelude to the nightmare sequence featuring Gershwin's 'Manhattan Rhapsody' (as it was sometimes called for the film sequence). Here one of the main characters (a composer, played by Raul Roulien) is talking to the leading actress Janet Gaynor of his new musical composition (actually portions of Gershwin's music). The words he speaks are all fictitious of course, written to suit the scene, and bear no relation to what was or wasn't in Gershwin's mind when he completed the Second Rhapsody, several months before the film was scripted.


This second video shows the sequence in the film where Gershwin's Manhattan Rhapsody is heard at length (some 7 minutes of Gershwin's already completed Second Rhapsody score (about half the length of the total work) was used for this sequence. The movie's musical director conducted the studio orchestra for the sound track from a photostat score of Gershwin's original manuscript with selected pages held together by paperclips! Listening to the movie soundtrack there is no doubt this is Gershwin's original orchestration. In this film sequence the images are often disturbing, haunting and surreal, as they depict an illegal immigrant (Janet Gaynor) running frightened and desperate in an alien country and alien city. When coupled with Gershwin's dark score this scene presents a unusual movie sequence for the 1930s.

Read more about Gershwin's remarkable piano playing here.

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