Jazz in the Concert Hall
George Gershwin may have found his fame with Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by bringing jazz into the concert hall, but he wasn’t the only composer to experiment with putting jazz and classical music together in the 1920s.
The following composers – all of whom feature in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s two Welcome to the Roaring Twenties concerts – also drew on jazz’s exciting rhythms, vibrant theatricality and new sonorities, resulting in a fascinatingly diverse repertoire of classical-jazz hybrids.
William Walton was a real musical omnivore, as his setting of Edith Sitwell’s poetry in Façade (1922) demonstrates. Composed as an orchestral accompaniment over which the poems are recited, the work showcases the composer’s stylistic versatility.
As well as drawing on popular dance styles of the 1920s, including tango, foxtrot and Charleston, the jazz he heard at the Savoy Hotel also rears its head in this quirky work.
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had always been attracted by Paris, and after being awarded a scholarship in 1923, he finally had the chance to study there. The city vastly increased the composer’s range of musical experiences, where he heard not only the music of Stravinsky and Les Six, but also jazz.
The importance of jazz to Martinů becomes particularly clear from the mid-1920s onwards in works including his ballet La revue de cuisine (1927); his operas The Soldier and the Dancer (1926-7), Larmes de couteau (1928), and Les trois souhaits (1929); his Sextet for Wind and Piano (1929); and his orchestral suite Le Jazz (1928).
Both La revue de cuisine and Le Jazz feature in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Welcome to the Roaring Twenties concerts.
The blending of jazz and classical elements in Milhaud’s 15-minute long ballet La création du monde (1922-23) actually preceded Gershwin’s more famous Rhapsody in Blue by a year. The ballet captures the French composer’s memories of the jazz he heard when visiting New York, but also pays homage to tradition through a fully developed fugue! Milhaud had been captivated by jazz since 1920 when he saw the Billy Arnold Jazz Band perform in London. Two years later, while touring in the US, he heard the Paul Whiteman Band. But it was the jazz he heard in Harlem that really swayed the composer and provided the impetus for La création du monde.
It is no surprise that Aaron Copland’s interest in developing a distinctly American style led him to jazz. It underpinned his musical style throughout his career and came to symbolise both the excitement and loneliness of modern urban life. Although from 1927 onwards, Copland made less overt references to jazz, he remained respectful towards ‘real’ jazz by the likes of Duke Ellington, Albert Ammons, and later Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and many others.
You can hear his Music for the Theatre in the second of the Welcome to the Roaring Twenties concerts. Composed in 1925, it reveals the composer’s diverse influences, ranging from the piano works of Chopin and Liszt, the European avantgarde, to American popular song, as well as showcasing his strong individual voice.
Gershwin’s career began as a composer of Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway shows, but he confessed, ‘as far back as my eighteenth year – I have always wanted to work on big compositions.’ His big break onto the classical concert stage took place in 1924 with Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra.
He premiered the work himself at the Aeoloian Hall in New York as part of a concert organised by band leader Paul Whiteman. Whiteman’s aim of proving that jazz didn’t merely consist of superficial dance rhythms but could be elevated through symphonic treatment was a success: Rhapsody in Blue was praised by both listeners and critics, and quickly became a concert hall staple.
Both this work and Gershwin’s jazzy Three Preludes (1926, arranged for clarinet and piano) can be heard in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Welcome to the Roaring Twenties concerts.
Join Royal Northern Sinfonia as they celebrate the new decade by looking back to the jazz-inspired classical music of the 1920s with two concerts.
Welcome to the Roaring Twenties 1 on Friday 10 January features William Walton’s deliciously daft Façade, narrated by Zeb Soanes, as well as music by Korngold and Gershwin.
Welcome to the Roaring Twenties 2 on Friday 17 January ends with Gershwin’s era-defining Rhapsody in Blue. Before that though, enjoy music by Barber, Copland and Milhaud.