Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Piano Concerto in F major (1925)

Program Notes Home

George Gershwin (September 26,–July 11, 1937)

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro agitato

Premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1925, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, now part of piano concerto repertory, was originally met with controversy, because using jazz in “serious” music was not commonly accepted.

More famous than the Piano Concerto in F is his jazzy Rhapsody in Blue (1924), also written for piano and orchestra. Because of less stringent formal requirements of a rhapsody, it was better received by the music establishment. After the success of Rhapsody, Walter Damrosch, who conducted its premiere, decided to commission a piano concerto from Gershwin. Gershwin, primarily a jazz composer, was not very familiar with “classical” techniques: there is an apocryphal story that after agreeing to compose the concerto, he bought a book to find out what a concerto is.

Originally titled New York Concerto, Gershwin began composing the Concerto in F in July of 1925. The third movement was completed in late September of that year. Unlike the Rhapsody, which was orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, Gershwin orchestrated Concerto in F himself, and it was complete on November 10th.

Gershwin’s Concerto doesn’t follow traditional patterns of classic form. Gershwin himself admitted: “[the first movement] is in sonata form—but. . .” The work’s structure is elastic, and thematic materials are both presented and restated unconventionally. The concerto’s architecture is roughly classical, but its lifeblood is jazz. It is the jazz elements and energy of this concerto that fascinate the listener. Gershwin called the third movement an “orgy of rhythm."

On the whole, it was considered a more musical work than Rhapsody because of its greater variety and interesting development of themes. Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes said the Concerto was “good jazz, but bad Liszt.” Prokofiev was harsher, dismissing it as a succession of “32 bar choruses."

The Concerto spawned a ballet in Vienna (1969), that was choreographed by Alan Johnson. As a result of the Concerto, Gershwin was encouraged by the establishment to write as a “serious composer” and to study counterpoint and composition, and to devote himself to serious works. Alternately, his jazz influences advised him to ignore studies, which they felt would interfere with his style, and continue writing jazz. Gershwin seemed to take this contradictory advice; he continued to write jazz, and studied composition with Henry Cowell (noted for use of tone clusters). Though never relinquishing his jazz, Gershwin did produce an opera, Porgy and Bess, a universally acclaimed masterpiece in the classical style.