"I'm wha-a-a-a-a-a-t?"

Imagine you open your New York Times and read to your surprise on New Year's Day that you are composing a new symphony for a February concert. According to the Program Notes for tomorrow evening's Gala concert, that is how George Gershwin came to write the immensely popular Rhapsody in Blue.


Bedřich Smetana
Two Dances from The Bartered Bride (1863-1866)The story of The Bartered Bride derives from the personalities, customs and lore of the Czech countryside. The lovers Hans and Marie are prevented from marrying by her father, who has secured a more lucrative nuptial arrangement from the village matchmaker, Kezal. Kezal has engaged Marie to the cognitively challenged Wenzel, son of the second marriage of Micha, a wealthy landowner. Hans makes sure that the marriage contract specifies Marie must wed the son of Micha, and then pockets the money that Kezal promised him for breaking his betrothal to Marie. With a plot twist worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan, Hans reveals that he is also the son of Micha — by Micha’s first marriage — and claims Marie as his wife. Wenzel, his mind unhinged at the thought of marriage, appears in a bear costume and has to be dragged away while the couple and the villagers celebrate the upcoming wedding. The delightful dances from The Bartered Bride capture perfectly the bursting spirits and country manner of the opera. The Polka, which closes Act I, accompanies the impromptu dancing of a group of villagers. The Dance of the Comedians takes place in Act III when a circus troupe arrives in the village and performs a pantomime.
John AdamsThe Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) (1985)
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), written in 1985 on joint commission from the American Composers Orchestra and National Endowment for the Arts, is a by-product of Adams’ opera Nixon in China, premiered in Houston in October 1987. The opera, explained Michael Steinberg in his liner notes for the recording of The Chairman Dances on Nonesuch Records, is “neither comic nor strictly historical though it contains elements of both. It is set in three days of President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972, one act for each day. The single scene of the third act takes place in the Great Hall of the People, where there is yet another exhausting banquet, this one hosted by the Americans.”
The preface to the score gives the following description of The Chairman Dances : “Madame Mao, alias Jiang Ching, has gatecrashed the Presidential banquet. She is seen standing first where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle, and slit up to the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins to dance herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, the night is warm, they are dancing to the gramophone.... Act Three, in which both reminiscing couples, the Nixons and the Maos, find themselves contrasting the vitality and optimism of youth with their present condition of age and power, is full of shadows; Jiang Ching’s and Mao’s foxtrot in the opera is therefore more melancholy than The Chairman Dances . This is, uninhibitedly, a cabaret number, an entertainment, and a funny piece; as the Chairman and the former actress turned Deputy Head of the Cultural Revolution make their long trip back through time they turn into Fred and Ginger. The chugging music we first hear is associated with Mao; the seductive swaying-hips melody — La Valse translated across immense distances — is Jiang Ching’s. You might imagine the piano part at the end being played by Richard Nixon.”

Emmanuel Chabrier
España (1883)
“Every night finds us at the bailos flamencos [sic], surrounded by toreros in lounge suits, black felt hats cleft down the middle, jackets nipped in at the waist and tight trousers revealing sinewy legs and finely modeled thighs. And all around, the Gypsy women singing their malaguenas or dancing the tango. ” Thus ran an excited report from the French composer Emmanuel Chabrier to some Parisian friends concerning his trip to Spain in 1882. Chabrier transcribed Spain’s indigenous music at every stop, and he told the conductor Charles Lamoureux, director of the Société des Nouveaux Concerts in Paris, that he planned to write a new work on the themes he collected, “... una fantasia extraordinaria, muy española ... my rhythms, my tunes will arouse the whole audience to a fever pitch of excitement; everyone will embrace his neighbor madly.” Chabrier set to work on España as soon as he arrived home in December. He played the original piano version early the next year for Lamoureux, who was so impressed that he encouraged the composer to orchestrate the piece so that it could be programmed at the Nouveaux Concerts later that season. España created a sensation when it was premiered in November 1883 — it was Chabrier’s first unqualified success and overnight established him among the leading creative figures of French music. Chabrier noted that the chief characteristic of España is the manner in which it juxtaposes and blends the fierce, rough strains of the jota with the sensuous, dreamy undulations of the malagueña, both sections based on songs he had collected in Spain. To these motives he added a melody of his own invention, introduced by the trombones in the work’s middle section.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Selections from Suite for Variety Orchestra (late 1950s)
Dmitri Shostakovich is a modern master of music’s most profound forms — symphony, concerto, quartet, opera, ballet — but he was equally adept at the popular genres of his day. In 1928, he made an orchestral arrangement of Tea for Two (called Tahiti Trot in Russia) from Vincent Youmans’ 1925 Broadway hit, No, No, Nanette (in 45 minutes, on a dare from conductor Nicolai Malko!), and three years later provided the music for a Leningrad vaudeville piece titled Declared Dead concocted by the Russian jazzman, actor and former acrobat Leonid Utyosov. (The caustically satirical show — a succession of surreal scenes involving a citizen “declared dead” for refusing to participate in a practice air raid drill — was closed down within days.) In 1934, Shostakovich agreed to serve on a commission sponsoring a jazz competition in Leningrad, for which he composed the Jazz Suite No. 1, which includes a Waltz, Polka and Foxtrot (Blues); he wrote a Suite No. 2 four years later for the newly formed State Orchestra for Jazz. The Jazz Suite No. 1 survives intact, but the original Suite No. 2 probably disappeared during the Second World War, though sometime in the late 1950s Shostakovich (or, more likely, some now-unknown hand) arranged an eight-movement Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 (there is no “No. 2”) from his movie and ballet scores; the sources for three of the movements are unknown but they may be remnants of the original Jazz Suite No. 2. (The Suite for Variety Orchestra has been recorded several times under that title.) The score was discovered in the 1980s and Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in its first performance in December 1988, but the Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 was not generally available until it was published in Germany in 2003.
The opening and closing movements (March and Finale) of the Suite for Variety Orchestra, whose title refers to the inclusion of accordion and a full complement of saxophones in the scoring, were adapted from the score for Korzinkina’s Adventures (1940). Dance II was arranged from ballet The Limpid Stream (1934–1935). Waltz II comes from the score and subsequent orchestral suite The First Echelon (1956; director Stanley Kubrick used this music in his final feature, the 1999 Eyes Wide Shut). The origins of the Little Polka and Lyrical Waltz are unknown, but it is a pleasing conjecture that they may have come from the 1938 Jazz Suite No. 2.

George GershwinRhapsody in Blue for Piano and Orchestra (1924)
For George White’s Scandals of 1922, the 24-year-old George Gershwin provided something a little bit different — an opera, a brief, somber one-acter called Blue Monday (later retitled 135th Street) incorporating some jazz elements that White cut after only one performance on the grounds that it was too gloomy. Blue Monday, however, impressed the show’s conductor, Paul Whiteman, then gaining a national reputation as the self-styled “King of Jazz” for his adventurous explorations of the new popular music styles with his Palais Royal Orchestra. A year later, Whiteman told Gershwin about his plans for a special program the following February in which he hoped to show some of the ways traditional concert music could be enriched by jazz, and suggested that the young composer provide a piece for piano and jazz orchestra. Gershwin, who was then busy with the final preparations for the upcoming Boston tryout of Sweet Little Devil and somewhat unsure about barging into the world of classical music, did not pay much attention to the request until he read in The New York Times on New Year’s Day that he was writing a new “symphony” for Whiteman’s  program. After a few frantic phone calls, Whiteman finally convinced Gershwin to undertake the project, a work for piano solo (to be played by the composer) and Whiteman’s 22-piece orchestra — and then told him that it had to be finished in less than a month. Themes and ideas for the new piece immediately began to tumble through Gershwin’s head, and late in January, only three weeks after it was begun, the Rhapsody in Blue was completed. There was some critical carping about the work’s laxity in the structure when it was premiered, on February 12, 1924, but there was none about its vibrant, quintessentially American character or its melodic inspiration, and it became an immediate hit, attaining (and maintaining) a position of popularity almost unmatched by any other work of a native composer.