Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin was playing on the radio as I drove in the car earlier this morning. It’s a piece of music that I rarely listen to but have always loved. A piece of music that provokes the imagination, attaches itself to memories.
Now, for a filmic fool such as I, it immediately brings to my mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan – both his classic movie and indeed the general idea of Manhattan that exists throughout all of his New York based films (the older, funnier ones or otherwise). There’s good for reason for this, of course, namely because it is the music that works as a backing track in Allen’s masterful love letter to the city, in particular the iconic opening scene – the black and white imagery of the skyline, the city, the streets; the music accompanying Allen’s voiceover of the writer, struggling comically to find the right words with which to open his New York themed story.
But Rhapsody’s influence on the mind certainly doesn’t begin and end with Woody Allen. The score itself is a soundtrack to New York – a composition that pays homage to the era and city in which it was born. Written and first performed in New York in 1924 Rhapsody In Blue is the anthem of New York’s golden age. This is the Manhattan of Wharton, of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; of high society and seedy speakeasies. From its warbling woodwind opening, the distinctive clarinet solo and brass accompaniment, Gershwin blends classic orchestral composition with a rattling jazz sound that’s emblematic of the ‘Jazz Era Roaring Twenties,’ of the grandiose and the opulence that heralded pre-Wall St Crash Manhattan and the rise of the great melting pot metropolis as a global city.
It’s a grand, sweeping score of rousing orchestral highs and gentle, seductive piano lows, the slow pace of a cold and hung-over morning, the sudden bursting to life of a bustling avenue. Music that rises and falls like the skyline, again to reflect this burgeoning age of the towering skyscrapers. Over more than fifteen minutes the score ebbs and flows, meanders and accelerates, every note, every change of pace or instrument reflecting the growing diversities of the city, the changing moods and varying sounds – from the rattle of the subway, the tumult of Times Square or the tiptoe through the quiet streets at night, moving between the shadows and rising steam of the manholes.
It’s all rather explicitly romanticised to be fair – reflective of a New York that exists through the softening lens of the film camera or, indeed a poetic imagination.
This is exactly why it retains such significance for me. I was an American Studies student in Liverpool in the 90s and Rhapsody brings me back to the lecture halls of those days – particularly the early days of the course, prior to me actually having the opportunity to visit New York, experience it with my own eyes, ears and, indeed nose. Before heading stateside myself I grew immersed in the history and literature of post-Civil War America – noting, as is true of Pre-Great War London, how the socio-politics of an age rub, often awkwardly, with the artistic output of the time and place.
I was growing interested in the changing times but more so of the writing of the era – of Wharton, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald et al. The Lost Generation, decamped to Paris as their fictionalised accounts of ‘back home’ took on a form of reality. Listening to the opening solo of Gershwin’s masterpiece sends me, not only to this idealised, fantasy New York, but to a cold classroom at a Liverpool campus on a wet Tuesday morning sometime towards the end of 1993.
A scene, I suspect, that’s someway removed from the ‘musical kaleidoscope of America’ that Gershwin himself envisioned.