One of the things I want to talk about every so often is Fantasia and its sequel, Fantasia 2000. For many of us, these two movies were a huge part of our musical upbringing, maybe even the catalyst for our love of classical music in general. The backstory to Fantasia is fascinating and deserves its own post at some point, but given the BSO’s upcoming All-Gershwin concert, I’d like to talk about Fantasia 2000‘s “Rhapsody in Blue” segment.
Video and discussion behind the cut!
True music must repeat the thoughts and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today.
Such is how Gershwin approached composition. Rhapsody in Blue can almost be seen as a microcosm of 1920’s America, and that is how it is portrayed in Fantasia 2000. Commissioned by the Paul Whiteman Band and first performed in February of 1924, the time was more than ripe for a jazz-classical hybrid of the piece: classical music was still entrenched in the culture of the time, while jazz was new and exciting.
Gershwin artfully straddles the two musical forms. Rhapsody is (shockingly!) in classical rhapsody form and allows for no improv, but its use of the blues scale (lowered seventh with a mixture of major and minor thirds), and the modulation by thirds popular in Tin Pan Alley at the time make it heavy with jazz influence.
It was on the train to Boston, 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 blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance…
“A kaleidoscope of America, our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Could the team behind the Fantasia 2000 segment have read this quote? Not unlikely, but even if they didn’t, this quote perfectly sums up the feel of the cartoon short. It is a piece about the people of New York in the 1920’s, and how even as they come from different walks of life they share they same longings. The Harlem Renaissance, the “Jazz Age,” the stock market crash of 1929 — all are represented, and enhanced by the Al Hirschfeld-style drawings, being as he was an extremely famous cartoonist of the time.
“In developing the story, we really let the music lead us first,” Eric Goldberg, the director of the segment, says in the Fantasia 2000 DVD audio commentary. “The story really came out of the strong images that the music was presenting. ‘Gee, that sounds just like a pile driver.’ ‘That sounds just like cars screeching to a halt.’ And we wanted to do a story that connected the dots, not just of this imagery, but what emphasized what urban life—and more importantly, New York life—was like, where people are constantly affecting one another, sometimes in profound ways, without ever realizing it.”
It is in this way that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is an example of what he considered to be ideal music: it is truly evocative of its time and place. As you watch the cartoon, you never feel (as I have sometimes even within Fantasia in other pieces) that the music has been forced to coincide with the imagery. There is something so… organic about the entire experience. I really do think Gershwin would have been pleased.