Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel, Charlesbridge, 2006
When George Gershwin read in the newspaper in January 1924 that he was working on a concerto for a special concert of American music scheduled for February 12, he was shocked. He had spoken to the organizer, Paul Whiteman, about the possibility, but he didn’t know it was a done deal. Apparently it was, though; the concerto he hadn’t even started to write was going to be the featured work.
I’ve had nightmares that started in a similar way. Gershwin had only a few weeks to come up with the highlight of a concert that was to be “attended by the world’s musical elite.” My bad dreams, however, don’t usually end as well as Gershwin’s real-life story. Author Anna Harwell Celenza describes how Gershwin went from not knowing what he was going to write to finding inspiration for his piece in the rhythms of a train ride, the music that surrounded him, and his love for New York City. “Rhapsody in Blue” brought together jazz, blues, klezmer, ragtime, and foxtrot within a traditional form—a piano concerto—to create a new and entirely American piece of music. This book comes with a CD of the piece so you can really hear how everything works together. Gershwin did an amazing job of taking an old form and making it new, but in a very accessible way.
The author knows her stuff; she has a Ph.D. in musicology, and has written several other children’s books about how particular compositions came to be: The Farewell Symphony, Pictures at an Exhibition, The Heroic Symphony, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. There are so many interesting stories out there—I hope more books follow soon.