‘A musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues,our metropolitan madness’ – George Gershwin
In the early 20th century, as new technologies — electricity, motor cars, aeroplanes, mass production, skyscrapers, radio, moving pictures — started to open up new horizons, composers began to look for ways to express the exciting but frantic pace of modern life in their music. One approach was to bring elements of popular song and dance styles into ‘serious’ art music, especially the off-beat rhythms and blue-note melodies of jazz.
One of the first great composers to bring together classical music and jazz was George Gershwin, who started out writing songs for Broadway shows (his first smash hit was Swanee, made popular by Al Jolson) and brought his gift for writing catchy tunes to the classical concert hall with Rhapsody in Blue — famous to this day for the raunchy upward slide from the clarinet that opens the piece.
Gershwin went to Paris twice in the 1920s, hoping to study with Ravel, but the great French composer felt that it was more important for Gershwin to continue to develop his own musical vision, and refused to teach him! An American in Paris is Gershwin’s musical memoir of his time in the French capital.
Gershwin took his love of jazz and pop music not only to the concert hall, but also to the opera theatre with Porgy and Bess, written for an all-African-American cast and blending the musical languages of jazz, spirituals and Broadway show tunes with traditional operatic recitatives.
One of the other great champions of jazz in classical music was Leonard Bernstein. Unlike Gershwin, who came to classical music ‘from the outside’, out of a successful commercial songwriting career, and felt keenly his lack of formal musical education, Bernstein was a leading figure in the classical music world, internationally respected as a conductor. His operetta Candide shows him completely at ease with the conventions of European art music, able to manipulate them brilliantly to comic effect. He was also a popular composer of musical theatre, and West Side Story, with its jazz-infused rhythmic energy and soaring tunes, remains one of the greatest musical scores of all time.