American composer/songwriter George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is considered by many to rank among the great works of 20th century music, with its multiplicity of themes and textures, it’s mix of jazz and classical elements, and its incredible vibrancy. It was commissioned by American “jazz orchestra” leader Paul Whiteman for a February 1924 concert in New York City called “An Experiment in Modern Music”; Gershwin wrote the piece for two pianos but immediately handed it off to Whiteman’s arranger, Frede Grofé, who orchestrated it, first for a relatively small group, later for a full orchestra. Gershwin himself played piano at the premiere.
Gershwin once explained that the genesis of the piece came to him on a trip from New York to Boston: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
Through the years, Rhapsody in Blue has been arranged countless times for all sorts of different musical settings and combinations of instruments. The finest guitar version I’ve encountered is this one by Poland’s Kupinski Guitar Duo—Ewa Jablczynska and Dariusz Kupinski, beautifully shot at at a library in Mikołów, Poland. These two musicians are so in sync throughout the piece’s nearly 16-minute running time (yes, it’s long, but worth your time!), it’s quite miraculous. The Duo play guitars made by British luthier Philip Woodfield. Their arrangement of the piece has been published and is available through their website. —Blair Jackson