About this Recording
8.559750 - GERSHWIN, G.: Rhapsody in Blue / Strike Up the Band: Overture / Promenade / Catfish Row (Weiss, Fullam, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Strike Up the Band – Overture • Rhapsody in Blue • Promenade • Catfish Row


Strike Up the Band – Overture

During the early 1920s in New York City, as jazz and pizzazz topped the charts and filled nightclubs and theaters from Broadway to Harlem, a song-plugger from Brooklyn was poised to fire up The Great White Way like never before. His name was George Gershwin, a wunderkind with a talent Big as the Apple. His signature style was marked by a mélange of alluring tunes and the heartbeats of blues and ragtime, just right for the Zeitgeist of New York. In sum, in a lifetime far too short, the creative wealth which emerged from his pen was peerless for his time, and remains so yet today.

After its revision in 1929, with reworked lyrics by his brother Ira, George Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band became a flashy hit on Broadway. Based on a storyline by George S. Kaufman, the musical was a spoof on international politics and big business as the United States went to war against Switzerland about who made the best chocolate. In addition to the title song, the other big hit from the show was the all-time favorite, I’ve Got a Crush On You. The current Overture was thoroughly rescored for full orchestra by American arranger Don Rose in the early 1970s, with lime-light instrumental colors and march-time rhythms to the fore.

Rhapsody in Blue

A little conspiracy lies behind the genesis of Rhapsody in Blue. The piece was requested by the popular New York cabaret bandsman and impresario Paul Whiteman, who wanted a snappy showpiece for a concert at Broadway’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924. A bit like Diaghilev, Whiteman had a wizard’s instinct for an exceptional star on the rise, and he was certain that 25-year-old George Gershwin was a man on the ascent. Moreover, Whiteman was spot-on to guess the world was ready for a jazz-inspired concert piece for piano. And when Gershwin demurred and replied that he knew little about writing for orchestra, Whiteman was ready: American composer Ferde Grofé was standing by to score the orchestration.

Gershwin was reticent mostly because his full energy was focused on the première of his new musical titled Sweet Little Devil, scheduled for a trial opening in Boston. Aside from a few passing sketches, he had no time to devote to the new Rhapsody. Fortunately, the trip to Boston put his Muse on track. Gershwin noted:

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattely-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise—and there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot for the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

Although Rhapsody in Blue broke away from the formality of the great showcase concertos for piano and orchestra, the departure was not at the expense of rich themes and keyboard panache. It all boils down to the issue of style, simple as that. From the familiar deep trill of the clarinet to the punchy B-flat chord at the end, the jazzy motif is tart and true, with lyricism and virtuosity served up in full measure. (About the famous upward glissando played by the clarinet at the beginning of the piece, Gershwin carefully rehearsed the effect with Whiteman’s lead clarinetist, Ross Gorman, who was well-known for his jazz and dixieland improvisations.)

Beyond the charmed esprit of the music, we should note that the keyboard role requires keen facility from the soloist, who must blend the soul of jazz with fleet technical prowess. (As an aside, we are fortunate to have Gershwin’s own recording of the Rhapsody, made on punched-paper piano rolls in 1925, just before the dawn of electronic recording. The rolls reveal that Gershwin tossed off the piece in ‘record time,’ brighter in tempo than most of the up-beat interpretations we hear today.)

Finally, we have this ultimate compliment to the upstart from Tin Pan Alley: with Gershwin at the piano for the première of Rhapsody in Blue, the audience that evening included composers Sergey Rachmaninov, Igor Stravinsky and John Philip Sousa, violinists Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, and the conductors Leopold Stokowski and Willem Mengelberg—a gallery par excellence!


Gershwin was a master tunesmith whose celebrity extended across the nation, and Hollywood took note straightaway with a commission to write music for the film Delicious, released in 1931. The composer later blended the score into his Rhapsody No 2 (Naxos American Classics: Gershwin, 8.559705).

Returning to California in 1936, Gershwin wrote sound-track music for two films starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance. The latter was released in 1937 by RKO Radio Pictures and features a delightful screen sequence known as “Walk the Dog.” The scene was filmed over one of Gershwin’s savvy ‘trip-along’ tunes. Sadly, the music turned out to be the composer’s final instrumental piece.

Shortly after his death, Ira Gershwin retrieved the music from the film archives and had it reconstructed as a stand-alone concert piece titled Promenade. One of the several settings of this now-popular tune is the current version for clarinet and orchestra, a quaint mix of orchestral timbres and licorice-stick jazz.

For reference, as a dashing and dapper New Yorker, George Gershwin fit the creative milieu of Los Angeles like a honeybee on a sunflower. Most notable was his friendship with Arnold Schönberg, with whom he shared tennis in the morning and painting in the afternoon. (They were both aficionados of the brush and easel, and each produced self-portraits. For extra measure, George painted a new portrait of Arnold).

Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess

Early critics were very uneasy about the appeal of Gershwin’s first (and only) opera, Porgy and Bess, which had its première at Broadway’s Alvin Theater on October 10, 1935. Anticipating the controversy, Gershwin had described his effort as a Folk Opera. But high-brow critics were determined to resist. The opera’s marvelous tunes were just too catchy to be trusted, especially since the sassy/jazzy settings came from an iconoclast New Yorker who was simply too empathic with common folks. Gershwin offered a defense:

“It is true that I have written songs for Porgy and Bess. But songs are entirely within the operatic tradition. Nearly all of Verdi’s operas contain what are known as ‘song hits’. Of course, the songs in Porgy and Bess are only a part of the whole. I have used symphonic music to unify entire scenes. If I am successful it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Die Meistersinger.”

Dear George had no need to worry: Ars longa, vita brevis—Art is long, life is short. In three acts, Porgy and Bess is based on a play by DuBose Heyward, who produced the libretto in collaboration with Ira Gershwin.

During the last two years of his life, Gershwin was much in demand to perform as a soloist in his own Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. At the same time, word traveled fast about the wonderful tunes in Porgy, and rather than performing them as solo encores, he decided to offer a concert suite derived from the opera. The suite has been restored by composer Steven D. Bowen who writes:

“Between January 21, 1936 and January 20, 1937 Gershwin conducted his new suite exactly ten times. After his passing the score found its way into storage at the Beverly Hills home of Ira, where it remained unseen for over twenty years. In 1958 Ira re-titled the score as Catfish Row to distinguish it from another well-known concert suite from Porgy by arranger Robert Russell Bennett.”

Gershwin devised the suite in five orchestral tableaus with an ear for contrasting moods. The first movement, Catfish Row, sets the scene on the waterfront ghetto of former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. The curtain opens with madcap, fiery strings from the downbeat of the original Overture, and continues to the bluesy, honkytonk piano scene with Jasbo (Jazbo) Brown, followed by America’s favorite lullaby, Summertime, in a lovely rendering for solo violin.

Porgy Sings offers a lush souvenir of two well-known tunes from Act II, I got plenty of nothin’ and Bess, You is my Woman Now. The middle movement, Fugue, is a snapshot from Act III, depicting the angst after Porgy kills Crown. The urgent music may remind listeners of a similar moment in Bernstein’s West Side Story. The fourth movement, Hurricane, is a reprise of the tonal tempest from Act II, which Gershwin conjured with the whirlwind dash of a seascape artist. The Finale, Good Mornin’ Sistuh!, is taken from the opera’s closing scene, and includes tuneful recaps before the curtain closes with Porgy’s Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way – S’Wonderful!

Edward Yadzinski

Close the window