Concerto in “F”lux? Gershwin and Classical/Popular Fusion

May 30, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen, PhD

“Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight.  He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.”

George Gershwin was both a classical composer and a Broadway songwriter.  That banal, superficially accurate sentence has colored both the public and the scholarly assessment since his death in 1937. And this is also reflected on the concert stage. The composer’s Concerto in F, probably his most sophisticated concert work, still has trouble asserting itself on the “serious” classical stage and is often relegated to the main work on a “pops” program.

At first glance, that appears to be the case on the Colorado Music Festival’s July 5 concert, “Revolution & Freedom.” The Independence Day holiday, which always falls somewhere in the festival’s second week, has posed interesting challenges over the years. During Michael Christie’s tenure, “Patriotism and Pops” was the norm, and guest conductors were common.

This summer, the “pops” theme is certainly not dead, and the concert concludes with Sousa marches, but music director Peter Oundjian will conduct, and there is a definite “anchor” piece—none other than Gershwin’s Concerto in F. One could view this in two ways: either sigh at the inclusion of the Gershwin on yet another “pops” program or rejoice in the fact that the “pops” program is more of a “serious” concert this year with the inclusion of such a substantial work.

The second reaction is obviously the healthier one. But we need not disregard the first entirely, and we certainly don’t need to sigh or lament at it. Gershwin’s concerto is an obvious fit on a concert such as this, which includes Tchaikovsky, Rossini, and Copland as well as Sousa. To deny the work’s “popular” elements is to deny reality, no matter what Gershwin’s intentions were. In fact, Peter Gutmann argues that the Concerto in F represents “the last successful attempt to meld serious and pop music”[i] before the definitive rift between them in the later 20th Century.

One could view this in two ways: either sigh at the inclusion of the Gershwin on yet another “pops” program or rejoice in the fact that the “pops” program is more of a “serious” concert this year with the inclusion of such a substantial work.

More problematic is the concerto’s relationship to jazz. 

In the 1920s, jazz was not necessarily viewed as a primarily African American genre, and the most famous jazz musicians, at least at the time, were white. After his death, Gershwin was often described as a jazz composer. In his lifetime, however, he objected to this. Like Dvořák before him, Gershwin recognized that the heart of a true “American” music was to be found in “black” America. But he regarded jazz itself as an “unpolished” or “crude” genre, and while he was happy to incorporate certain elements such as syncopation or “blue” notes and harmonies, his closest connection to jazz really remained its tenuous link to the Broadway stage.

Gershwin was certainly aiming to write a “serious” concerto, but he was not going to be a different composer than he was before. The hybrid character was inevitable. And that character is ultimately what makes it an immortal and lasting part of the repertoire, whether on a “pops” program or not.

Roots in the Rhapsody

Without Rhapsody in Blue—the one-movement work for piano and orchestra that is by far Gershwin’s most famous piece—there would have been no Concerto in F. Bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned the Rhapsody for a huge concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City called An Experiment in Modern Music, which took place February 12, 1924.  Whiteman had asked Gershwin for “a concerto-like piece” for a program that would be heavily jazz oriented.

It took some persuasion, but Gershwin—who was keen to establish his credentials as a serious composer—agreed to do so with five weeks left until the planned concert. At the time, he had little experience in orchestration and agreed that, after sketching out the orchestral parts with minimal indications of color, the task would be taken by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger. To classical audiences, Grofé is best known as the composer of the Grand Canyon Suite. Over the years, Grofé produced three different orchestrations, the largest of which (and the one most often performed) was completed in 1942, five years after Gershwin’s death. The original jazz band orchestration was specifically made based on the personnel in Whiteman’s group.

The Whiteman concert is considered a landmark event mainly because it featured the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue with the composer at the piano.  In attendance was Walter Damrosch, director of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Damrosch reached out to Gershwin to commission a full-length piano concerto for his orchestra, closer to classical models than the Rhapsody but still with its composer’s signature voice.

Gershwin accepted the commission as a chance to further burnish his credentials. This time, he was determined to do his own orchestration, and he studied the craft intensely in preparation. He began sketching the work in May 1925, then produced a two-piano score from July to September, largely working in a practice shack at New York’s Chautauqua Institution.  By November, he had completed the orchestration. Because of his inexperience in that area, he hired a 55-piece orchestra to read through his draft so that he could see if it worked. He and Damrosch made some revisions and cuts based on this run through.

Composers for the Broadway stage did not attempt their own orchestrations and were in fact encouraged not to attempt it, as there were specialists available for that very purpose. That is still the case today.  In the classical music world, things are and were different. The composer and the orchestrator are the same person, even in opera. Gershwin knew this, and it became a point of rather extreme sensitivity later regarding the Rhapsody. He was known to assert on several occasions that the Rhapsody in Blue was his piece, no matter what Ferde Grofé might say.

Without Rhapsody in Blue—the one-movement work for piano and orchestra that is by far Gershwin’s most famous piece—there would have been no Concerto in F. 

Gershwin’s orchestration of his Concerto in F was a triumph. Having the experience under his belt, he was able to go on and compose his orchestral masterpiece An American in Paris, and he orchestrated his opera Porgy and Bess himself. 

The concerto was premiered by Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925, with the composer as the soloist. The concerto was well received, but even then, critics stumbled on the question of whether it should be classified as jazz or classical. That it was a highly successful fusion, leaning toward the classical side, only became a later consensus.

The Concerto in F had a more difficult path to popularity than the Rhapsody in Blue, and while the Concerto is a more sophisticated composition, that remains the case today. Gershwin was emulating classical models, even if he did not strictly adhere to them. The concerto is in the expected three movements, with the second being the traditional slow movement. The third movement is a rapid rondo-like piece, which also follows a long precedent. But it is difficult to place any of the movements in a formal box.  The first movement resembles a traditional “sonata form, but there is no clear beginning to the “development section” and no obvious distinction between a “principal theme” and “secondary theme.”

The work’s most successful structural element is that of cyclical construction. The third movement clearly has its own themes and identity, but it gradually incorporates material from the preceding two movements, which initially provides contrasting episodes but gradually becomes more prominent.[ii]

First Movement: A Web of Memorable, Jazzy Elements

Gershwin shows off his newfound orchestral skill right away in an extended introduction. It is not a full “orchestral exposition” as would be found in classical models, but it is extensive enough to be somewhat analogous. The opening is bold and surprising. Booming timpani have the first word. A high woodwind flourish, then contributions by three other percussion instruments (bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals) provide the first element. The percussion idea recurs several times, but is it a “theme?”

One could view this opening as an homage to Gershwin’s career in the theater, where such a gesture would be expected at the beginning of a show. But it could also be a nod to Beethoven, who began his Violin Concerto with timpani (albeit in a much different manner). The introduction introduces two other elements that will become important in the course of the movement. The first is the “Charleston rhythm,” typified by an emphasis on the first and fourth beats of a four-beat measure, but with a third accent placed between beats two and three, creating a distinctive syncopation. The second is a rising figure in long-short rhythm based on the pentatonic scale, initially presented by bassoon and then bass clarinet.

Gershwin’s orchestration of his Concerto in F was a triumph. 

When the piano does enter, it is with the most prominent theme in the movement and the entire concerto, played in the related key of A-flat major. Repeated syncopated notes lead to sighing gestures and then an aspiring upward motion. The theme is repeated with a counterpoint from cellos and English horn, with the remaining woodwinds and strings entering and building up to a climax and another short piano solo passage.

This merges into a faster speed and into the next musical idea, a highly rhythmic, energetic figure characterized by increasing motion and syncopation within each measure. This builds in the orchestra until the piano enters again with the “Charleston rhythm.” A further buildup is interrupted, but then the “main theme” (if it is that) erupts again, this time with the melody in the orchestra and the counterpoint in the piano. This dissolves into a short piano cadenza.

A highly unstable and exciting passage follows that could correspond to a “development section.” It is based on the “Charleston rhythm” and the long-short pentatonic idea. Here, the piano is given jazzy ideas that include heavy syncopation and dissonant half-step clashes. This continues at some length, incorporating the “main theme,” but then suddenly stops for the appearance of a gorgeously lyrical new melody in E major. 

This melody is strategically placed at the exact midpoint of the movement.  It could even be the typical “secondary theme.” But if it is that, why is it appearing in the middle of the “development section” (if that is indeed where we are)? The melody is an anomaly.  It is presented by the strings with piano decorations, builds to a climax and then abruptly cuts off. Its placement right in the middle indicates significance, but it can’t be squared with traditional classical “sonata form.”

After this beautiful but strange interruption, the unstable developmental material resumes, this time with highly percussive piano bass harmonies underscoring the “Charleston” idea and the long-short pentatonic one. This eventually devolves into more playful material in D-flat major. The rhythmic idea with increasing motion and even the central lyrical idea is incorporated in a huge buildup.

That buildup leads to the triumphant return of the “main theme.”  Is this the traditional classical “reprise?” Perhaps, but it is in a different key (D-flat major) than it was before. The orchestra blasts it out with thundering repeated chords in the piano. This is the climax of the whole movement, but it eventually subsides. An abrupt change to the home key heralds an extended coda that utilizes the “rhythmic, energetic figure,” now combined with the “Charleston rhythm,” and includes the return of the thundering timpani and percussion from the opening. The long-short pentatonic idea also returns in full piano chords. These elements are combined in a virtuoso display for both piano and orchestra that brilliantly concludes the movement.

Second Movement: Lyrical Blues

Gershwin also approaches a typical classical form with his slow second movement.  A three-part ABA structure would be expected here, with a contrasting middle section and a full return. The skeleton of that structure is there, but the return is so brief that it basically amounts to a coda. Thus, it is really a two-part form with contrasting ideas in each half.

The central key of the movement is D-flat major, which appeared at the climax of the first movement. The stylistic influence throughout is the blues.  The orchestral introduction before the entrance of the piano is again extended. A muted horn begins, followed by clarinets. But then an extended trumpet solo, played with a felt mute, is given the full presentation of the blues theme, which is characterized by a prominent upward turn around a central note. There are also wailing high notes and big downward leaps.

The clarinets continue to accompany the trumpet as well as when the oboe takes over the melody. Then the trumpet returns, bringing the introduction to a close.

When the piano enters, it is at slightly faster speed, utilizing a variant of the blues idea that focuses on its high repeated notes, provided with crunching grace-note embellishments. Here, Gershwin directs the violins and violas to “strum” their accompanying chords like a banjo. There are hints of the eventual “second theme” of the contrasting section in the woodwinds, but they are fleeting. 

The same material continues at some length, with some brief key changes, until a passionate violin solo leads to the opening blues idea in the clarinets and the return of the muted trumpet. This passage is transitional and leads to E major, the key of the second section. This was notably the key in which the “anomalous” central lyrical episode of the first movement occurred.  The piano enters to complete the transition in a solo passage that devolves into a cadenza. The cadenza hints at the second section theme, which we have yet to hear in full.

After the piano comes to a rest, the orchestra finally presents the warm contrasting theme in its entirety, in luxurious E major. It is still blues-inspired, but it also has the exceedingly lyrical character of the first movement’s central episode in the same key. The brass chords accompanying the melody are particularly rich. The piano enters again, first with chords, then with some snippets of the theme itself. Gently and charmingly, almost shyly, a solo flute provides a brief reminder of the first section, echoed by the piano.

The piano then takes over the presentation of the lyrical theme. The orchestra interrupts with an agitated passage that increases the tension, passing fragments of the theme back and forth with the piano. Finally, the lyrical theme is given its grand final statement from the orchestra against trenchant piano chords.  But it does not reach fulfillment and is cut off.

The opening blues material returns in D-flat major, but it is an ephemeral reminiscence presented by the piano and solo flute. Oboe and clarinets enter for the gentle conclusion.

Third Movement: Rondo with a Cyclic Twist

The third movement is the culmination of Gershwin’s artistic achievement in the concerto. In terms of performance time, while the first two movements are about the same length, the third is half as long.  It is faster, but it also moves through its themes more quickly. In classical concerti, the finale was typically a “rondo,” a form where a single main theme keeps recurring at regular intervals, alternating with contrasting material. Gershwin basically writes a rondo here, but the contrasting material includes one subsidiary element unique to this movement and several that come from the first two. In its exciting course, the themes from the first two movements increase in prominence.

A three-part form can also be seen, where the first section is mostly new material, the second section introduces themes from the second movement, and the last section themes from the first movement. But the main rondo theme and its subsidiary do keep returning all the way through.

The rondo theme itself is distinguished by its rapid repeated notes, sharp syncopated accents, and shifting meter. It is first presented by the orchestra, but in the wrong key, G minor. Its salient features are all present, though, including the insertion of passages in 3/8 meter to disrupt the prevailing 2/4.

Before long, the piano presents the rondo theme, abruptly shifting down to F minor, on the right key center (the concerto is more major than minor, but the rondo theme is an exception). The piano part here looks and sounds more difficult than it is, which was undoubtedly the calculation. The crunching half-step dissonances add a biting flavor. The orchestra comes in to assist the piano in its presentation, including highly effective scoring for the xylophone.

The rondo theme winds down, and it is time for contrasting material. And what is that contrasting material? A jaunty version of the “main” syncopated theme from the first movement, clearly recognizable as such and in the key of D-flat major, where it was heard at the climax of that movement. The piano, then the woodwinds present it in full.  Then the rondo theme returns. It leads to the third movement’s own unique contrasting material. It is one of the jazziest tunes in the whole concerto, initially presented by a muted trumpet and violins, and it also has shifting meter, with suddenly slower insertions in 3/4. It also includes a distinctive rapid downward-plunging figure. The piano initially confines itself to fragments of the rondo theme during this presentation, but it eventually takes part. The xylophone also intones the rondo theme.

At this point, there is a key change to B-flat for the middle section. The piano begins the rondo theme, but against it, the strings begin the big lyrical theme from the second movement, now at this movement’s faster speed. It is only a brief statement, then the piano returns to the “jazzy” contrasting theme, the first time it has presented this material in full. The orchestra takes over, using the “jazzy” material for some close imitation, the counterpoint building to a small climax before the piano again presents a full statement of the rondo theme, now in B-flat minor. The xylophone gets another turn as well.

Suddenly there is yet another insertion from the second movement, this time the piano’s variant of the main blues material, here presented by the strings with piano decoration. The blues melody is barely recognizable in this joyous transformation. This is followed by the final statement of the “jazzy” contrasting material, now developmental in character and presented by the piano alone. The “Charleston rhythm” from the first movement sneaks into the left hand, and then takes over, directly quoting four measures from the earlier movement.

F minor returns for the final section. The orchestra plays the rondo theme, but now it is a transition to the climax of the movement and the whole concerto: a statement of the first movement’s “main theme,” marked “grandioso,” closely mirroring the appearance at the end of the first movement. It is so momentous that Gershwin introduces it with a huge beat on a gong, the only time it is used. When this climax subsides, the rondo theme returns for the last time, introducing the fast and exciting coda. And the coda culminates with the surprising return of the booming timpani from the very beginning. The piano has a reminiscence of the rising pentatonic figure, now without the long-short rhythm, and the concerto comes to its fulfilling F-major close.

A True Classical Concerto

The brief analysis above shows that Gershwin’s concerto can be parsed with a nod to traditional forms. His twists on those forms show not a lack of discipline, but his own logic. Yes, the concerto has jazz and popular elements. It may be far less rhapsodic than Rhapsody in Blue.  Still, it demonstrates the flux between these classical and popular elements that characterize Gershwin’s entire career. It can fit on a patriotic “pops”-type concert, but its presence will automatically elevate that program to something beyond “pops.” And only an enduring masterwork in just the right style could so easily do that.

[i] Peter Gutmann, “Classical Notes – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.”

[ii] For much of the following analysis, I refer to Mayta Lerttamrab, “An Exploration of Gershwin’s Concerto in F and His Cadenzas,” Doctor of Music thesis, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 2016, and Steven Schwartz, “Classical Net – George Gershwin: Concerto in F Major for Piano & Orchestra (1925).”

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