What was the real inspiration for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue?

2 Minutes Read

George Gershwin’s inspiration to write Rhapsody in Blue was the rich cultural diversity of his native New York City, despite contemporary critics' appeals that African American, Jewish American, and other non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant voices didn’t represent “true” Americans.


George Gershwin plays a grand piano in a dark pinstripe suit.



Who was George Gershwin?

GEORGE GERSHWIN was 25 years old when he composed Rhapsody in Blue, his first large-scale concert work. A young and successful songwriter, he had dreams of writing a more expansive composition that would incorporate the rhythms and energies of the American people. But which American people?


In George Gershwin’s day, people disagreed on the sound and identity of a truly American musical style.

Then as now, there were debates on just who were “true” Americans. Our racial and ethnic diversity created culture wars that echo today. The great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent a few years teaching in the United States and believed that a true American musical style could be forged from "Negro Spirituals", as they were called. Most “cultured” Americans dismissed this out of hand. Other commentators bemoaned the influence of Jewish composers in New York City (most of the great songwriters and composers of the day, from Irving Berlin to Aaron Copland, and including of course George Gershwin).

George Gershwin sits at a piano, marking sheet music.

George Gershwin ignored traditional critics and drew inspiration from diversity in his compositions.

In each case, the elite considered African Americans and Jewish Americans alien to the central and important spine of America—white and Christian, mostly Anglo-Saxon. Gershwin himself thought deeply about the kind of music that could capture the American spirit. He considered American diversity as an enormous plus and the key organizing principle for his approach to composition. He wrote:

I’d like to write of the melting pot, of New York City itself, with its blend of native and immigrant strains. This would allow for many kinds of music; black and white, Eastern and Western, and would call for a style that should achieve out of this diversity, an artistic unity.


An early draft of Rhapsody in Blue on antique yellowing sheet music signed by George Gershwin.


Rhapsody in Blue stands apart as a musical symbol celebrating America’s diversity.

WHAT DISTINGUISHED Rhapsody, in addition to its beauty, is its combination of different styles of music that reflect the different races and ethnicities that form the United States of America, as well as Gershwin’s brilliance in finding a way to unify this complex diversity. The piece resoundingly celebrates our diversity and makes the case for our ability to be a united people not in spite of, but because of, this diversity.


I hope you will join me as I explain how this unity through diversity actually works, and as I perform America’s most beloved Classical work.

Orin Grossman

Dr. Orin Grossman sits at a piano smiling.  


Orin Grossman, (PhD, Yale) Former Dean of Fairfield University College of Arts & Sciences, Academic VP, currently Emeritus Professor of Visual & Performing Arts



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