Why Bernstein’s “Rhapsody in Blue” Matters So Much (To Me)

#2 in my list of vital albums

I don’t know when I first heard this album, but I’m pretty sure it was in 9th or 10th grade, which means I had been taking piano lessons for about  seven years. I was already a fan of orchestral music. I had a record of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the Pastoral, which I first met in Disney’s Fantasia) and had listened to it dozens of times. I had by then also discovered jazz, so I was ripe for a love affair with Gershwin. I was also a budding romantic, as all adolescents should be, so I was enthralled by Bernstein. I didn’t fully appreciate the role of a conductor then, but I did appreciate his piano. He played with with richness and sweep, his pacing flush with energy and passion.

And there he was on the cover, pointing right at me.

I had no idea, until I googled this album in hopes of writing somewhat intelligently about it, that it is considered important. NPR claims that “Leonard Bernstein’s recording is a disc for the ages. It’s American music performed with mid-century flair, a moment never to be recaptured. Bernstein had the feel for Rhapsody In Blue, and he does full justice to the still racy and spontaneous score. His performance of the piano solo has a smoky, sultry jazziness to it, along with a brash exuberance; there is touching tenderness in the lullaby, riveting dynamism in the fast pages.” 

From the opening clarinet glissando to the dramatic conclusion, the rhapsody grabbed me, shook me, and made me almost laugh with pleasure. The great orchestration, the magical piano, and the propelling jazz of Rhapsody in Blue were another great discovery in my musical education, and I did indeed lie on the floor, headphones on, and listen to it over and over again. 

And one night, years later, some time in college probably, I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, and heard, without headphones or speakers or any equipment at all, the whole beautiful piece play in my head. Note for note. Vividly and at a fairly high volume. I have never understood how this could have happened. Drugs were not involved. I offer no explanation now, and at the time I was slightly scared. I only know that one night Bernstein’s version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue played, in its entirety, vividly in my head. 

I guess I had listened to that album a lot. 

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