Second Rhapsody (1931)
By. Carol J. Oja, College of William and Mary
Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
“Play me a Cézanne,” an art collector once requested of George Gershwin. The composer reportedly sat at the piano and did just that. “I haven’t got any more idea than the man in the moon what he played,” recalled the collector, Chester Dale, “but emotionally there was Cézanne to both of us.”
A composer for film and musical theater and a painter in his own right, Gershwin was as famed for evoking images through music as he was for issuing bold challenges to the long-standing divide between “popular” and “classical” music. All these factors came together in Second Rhapsody, one of Gershwin’s least famous concert works. Called by many titles, its first incarnation was dubbed both “Manhattan Rhapsody” and “New York Rhapsody” when it appeared in Delicious, a 1931 film starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The film was about a young Irish woman living in New York who falls in love with a wealthy man. And it included tunes, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, such as “Delishious” and “Welcome to the Melting Pot.” There, “New York Rhapsody” was 8 minutes long, and it accompanied an urban sequence with “noise,” as the accompanying dialogue put it, and “riveters drumming your ear from every side.” Night fell and with it came silence.
When Gershwin doubled the length of “New York Rhapsody” and reshaped it into an independent orchestral composition, he wrote his biographer Isaac Goldberg of his progress, revealing other titles for the work. “In the picture for which it was written,” he informed Goldberg, “it may still be called Rhapsody in Rivets . . . [but] I am calling it just plain Second Rhapsody.” Gershwin felt this title was “much simpler and more dignified,” as Edward Jablonski, another of his biographers, reports.
Over the years, Rhapsody in Rivets has stuck as a moniker. Gershwin acknowledged that he used “a rivet theme” as “a starting-point.” “But after that, I just wrote a piece of music without any program.” The opening orchestral section of Second Rhapsody resounds with visual images, although more of urban congestion than of a riveter’s assault. It echoes the city scenes of American in Paris. Throughout, the piano is intensely integrated with the orchestra, with the two often sharing thematic material. The composer who had made the piano central to Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F kept it at the core of Second Rhapsody. At times, the piano’s persona is that of a quiet individual amidst chaos; at others, it is a boisterous participant in the action. The piano has blues-tinged passages and ones of solo bravura. But it is equally compelling when layered over the orchestra, producing the multiple levels of activity that we now associate with the Gershwin sound. At one point, the opening theme returns with a Latin flare, heralding Cuban Overture, which was to be Gershwin’s next large orchestral work.
About half-way through Second Rhapsody, a “sweet” theme enters in the orchestra. Listeners will hear its harmonic gestures and overall shape as foretelling yet another Gershwin work—this time Porgy and Bess, which Gershwin began writing a couple of years later. The opening “rivet” theme returns briefly at the end.
In spite of this conventional two-part structure with reprise, Second Rhapsody splices together brief fragments. Taking its model from film techniques or, just as likely, from the parade of tunes that makes up an overture in musical theater, the work is constructed of short segments, continually varied and abruptly juxtaposed. This was also the case with Rhapsody in Blue in fact it is a hallmark of Gershwin’s style as a whole. With Second Rhapsody, however, the number of thematic ideas is contained, as is the transitional material. Or to use the language of film: there are only a few images here, each frequently reshaped, and the editing is tight.
Unlike Gershwin’s earlier concert works, Second Rhapsody waited a few months before receiving its premiere. Gershwin completed the work in May 1931 and tried to interest Arturo Toscanini in it (Toscanini was then conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York). He passed up the opportunity. The work was finally premiered in January 1932 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, the same conductor who over the last several years had been vigorously promoting the work of young Americans such as Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions.
Such an auspicious launching could distract today’s listeners from a key point: Second Rhapsody is understood most meaningfully in terms of the world of film. George Gershwin found many ways to cross over.