Written in less than a month, Rhapsody in Blue premiered in New York City on February 12, 1924, with composer George Gershwin at the keyboard, performed by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra (with Sergei Rachmaninoff in the house) at the Aeolian Hall. Gershwin was 25 at the time. The ways that jazz had transformed the composer, and the ways it would come to transform Rachmaninoff and others through Gershwin's example, fit into a centuries-old pattern of popular expression influencing more elevated art forms.
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Robertson has been talking about these spheres of artistic influence for some time. "I used to give a lecture for the U.S. Information Agency all over Europe," says the California-born, European-trained conductor. "The one I was asked for the most, which I must have given 40 times, was about the influence of jazz on serious music," he says. "All the documentation you would see, especially in the '80s, concerned the influence of serious music on jazz — you know, the parent, the 'sophisticated' music, always influencing the primitive music of jazz. This is nonsense. It was nice, particularly in Europe, to throw this argument in people's faces, that there are all sorts of musics one can't imagine without jazz coming in and influencing it. Gershwin was one of the first."
Gershwin's audacious Rhapsody was less an affront to "refined" sensibilities as it was a call to a breaking down of barriers. "How suspicious the classical set almost always is toward popular music," Robertson observes. "Gershwin, however — like a lot of American creators — was freed from the notion of a division between entertainment and serious music; it was just music."
Following Gershwin's example, Robertson embraces a wide spectrum of styles — including popular elements — in his programming. Although we don't see Robertson conducting a "pops" orchestral arrangement of, say, a Beatles program (though should he choose to do so, the result would doubtless be worth hearing), we do see him performing Charles Chaplin's immensely satisfying orchestrations of his own silent films, which rate among the most popular in the history of world cinema. He leads the Fusion Series at the Touhill, which mates (so far) classical, jazz, and bluegrass with musicians playing within and outside their traditional disciplines. He tackles eclectic contemporary composers such as John Adams. And he programs established pieces with crossover popular appeal, such as George Gershwin's lush Rhapsody in Blue.
Underlying such programming may lie the question: What is popular culture anyway?
Robertson proposes: "The ways we build popular culture have to do with dance, movement, social interaction. It's been that way since before Bach. His keyboard suites are very much influenced by popular dance. We like music when we dance, we like music when we worship."
Popular culture might be defined as a crossover culture, yet Robertson believes that there is not as much mixing as there once was.
"People bringing prejudices to music has increased over time, when it should be the other way around," Robertson says. "We have progressed from the transistor radio to the Walkman, to the mp3 and the iPod, which embody the fact that we all have our own musical language with which we define ourselves." Robertson embraces many styles of music, but is frustrated by what he perceives as growing subdivisions in popular music he wants to embrace on the stage. "What are we talking about when we talk about pop culture? Just music? If music, rock? If rock, big labels or indie? Rap or hip-hop? We have all sorts of subsets and categories that are really carefully defined for people who are involved with these types of music." And these definitions tend to exclude.
This is a sore point for Robertson. "We use music the way the classical set used music for a long time: 'Let's keep the riffraff out.' People used to say you don't have the necessary social graces or knowledge to appreciate this music. But great works in any field transcend boundaries. The important thing about any art is that it communicates. You don't need a degree in art history to look at a painting or a huge amount of sophistication to appreciate classical music. Some people don't like it to be this way, and that attitude used to be only in classical music, but you find this kind of snobbery coming into popular culture more and more."
The antidote may be found in Bach dancing through a keyboard suite, or Gershwin utilizing a speakeasy melody, or a symphony orchestra re-imagined with seductive optimism and intelligence. And Gershwin may again be a model. "Rhapsody in Blue broke down the idea that popular music and jazz lack sophistication," Robertson said. "The thing that is wonderful is that Gershwin, with the force of the charm of his personality, does this in a way that is completely non-threatening, that's so sweet and gentle that you can't help but be seduced."
Chris King is the editor of the St. Louis American, and has written about music for a wide array of publications, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Weekly.
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performs Rhapsody in Blue, November 29 _30 and December 1, with Bramwell Tovey conducting from the keyboard.