If you read this blog, you might have guessed that I am a big George Gershwin fan. I used to have an LP of Gershwin himself playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and played it so much that it sort of disintegrated. (….so did record players, so it wasn’t as tragic as it seems.) Thus I was delighted to see this book for children on Gershwin, which is subtitled “George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue.”
As the book begins, the author reports that Gershwin, even as a child, heard music in his head all the time in the streets of New York where he grew up. His mother bought a piano for George and his brother Ira, but Ira decided he had no interest. As for George though, as the author reports, “When he felt those smooth keys beneath his fingers, his face lit up like the lights on Broadway.”
He learned to play almost by instinct. He also began studying piano and sneaking into concerts to hear others play. When he was 15, he got a job at a music store, playing whatever sheet music customers wanted to hear. He penned his own songs too, and at 17, he sold his first tune. He wrote “Swanee” when only 20 years old. But he loved jazz, and decided to write a jazz concerto, which was of course “Rhapsody in Blue.” It premiered on February 12, 1924. The author opines:
“No one had ever heard anything like it. Except George. He’d been hearing beautiful music all his life.”
Like other books for children on music, this one is full of musical onomatopoeia that helps conveys the sounds incorporated into Gershwin’s music.
Much of the inspiration for the author’s text comes from Gershwin’s own words, who, for example, told his biographer:
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
The illustrations by Stacy Innerst put the words of the author into motion, cleverly showing the influences that went into “Rhapsody in Blue” in stylized jazzy acrylics painted in a palette dominated by blue.
An Author’s Note at the end of the book lists some of Gershwin’s other accomplishments, from his songs for Broadway (they included “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Embraceable You”) to writing the acclaimed opera “Porgy and Bess” (my favorite opera, of course). (Note: Many of his lyrics were written by his brother Ira.)
Tragically, Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38. (It is possible his death could have been prevented. You can read an article on what happened here.)
Evaluation: I think it would be fun and interesting for kids to learn about musical antecedents, from “Tin Pan Alley” to the beginnings of jazz and blues. Much of what they listen to today owes a great deal to these roots.
Published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2016