Piano Concerto

George Gershwin

Piano Concerto in F major

About this work

Gershwin successfully combined the sweep and mood of the typical Russian concerto with the blues, jazz, and rag elements he brought from his successful pop music career. And why not? His family had recently immigrated from Russia when he was born in 1898. He had, of course, been immensely successful as a pop tune composer and as a Broadway show composer before he wrote this 1925 concerto. It was, specifically, the success of his Rhapsody in Blue which led Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society to commission this concerto. Gershwin resolved to orchestrate it himself (Grofé had done both the jazz band and the symphonic arrangements of the rhapsody.) Even if he had to delve into textbooks to learn orchestration and even to discover what the form of a concerto might be, he created an entirely successful work. Although some critics thought the concerto was derivative of Debussy and other composers, it is in fact a remarkably original and personally characteristic work for being any composer's first unassisted piece.

Gershwin was not ready for formal innovation; the three-movement form of the concerto is in fact textbook. The introduction is fresh, breezy, and contemporary, based on the rhythm of the very popular dance Charleston by James P. Johnson. A bassoon introduces the sprightly first theme, while the piano itself has the warm-hearted contrasting theme. Throughout the movement -- and the concerto as a whole -- the themes have jazz-like syncopations and make liberal use of the "blues scale."

The second movement is remarkable for its muted trumpet theme, a nocturnal, wistful tune with the potential to haunt the memory. It is contrasted with an upbeat, strolling theme on piano. The form of the movement is reminiscent of the slow movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, and possesses the same kind of passionate outburst shortly before its conclusion.

A virtual fanfare for timpani, cymbals, and bass drum launches the highly energetic finale in rondo form. Like many of the fast themes of the whole concerto, its main subject makes good use of aggressively repeated notes. There is a lyrical theme which manages not to slow things down, initially. Gershwin recollects the second theme of the first movement and yet another melodic idea for muted trumpet with strings. Gershwin ends this high-energy romp with a brief coda.

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