This Week In History: February 12-18


This week in history: The third week in February is a musical one! Both Gershwin and Strauss premiere some of their most recognized works and master vocalist, Marion Anderson, was born. Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

February 12th, 1924– “Rhapsody in Blue” first performed in New York, NY

Commissioned by Paul Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most iconic pieces of the early 20th century. Hastily written on the train to Boston, George Gershwin composed the piece from beginning to end. He is quoted in saying,

It was on the train, 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 metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.¹

Because of the haste in writing much of the piano solo (performed by Gershwin) was improvised. The orchestration for the 1924 premiere was developed for the solo piano and the Whiteman band; this included three woodwind players doubling one oboe, one clarinet, one sopranino saxophone, two soprano saxophones, two alto saxophones, one tenor saxophone, one baritone saxophone; two trumpets, two French horns, two trombones and one tuba (doubling on double bass); a percussion section that includes a drum set, timpani and a glockenspiel; one piano; one tenor banjo; and violins.

An American Heritage columnist called it the “famous opening clarinet glissando … that has become as familiar as the start of Beethoven’s Fifth”²

Rhapsody in Blue has been used in multiple movies including Fantasia 2000 as a musical portrait of New York City and The Great Gatsby (2013). It’s also recognizable as the United Airlines advertisement music.

Learn more about the lead up to New York jazz and more with Professor Edward O’Donnell with America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

February 13th, 1867– Vienna dances to “Blue Danube Waltz” for the first time

“An der schönen blauen Donau,” Op. 314, German for “By the Beautiful Blue Danube” premiered in Vienna, Austria.

Image of Blue Danube Waltz
The first few bars of Johann Strauss’ most famous work, the Blue Danube waltz (written in 1867). Strauss’ signature appears in the lower-right corner.

Composed by Johann Strauss II in 1866 it was accepted as a mild success. Words were later written and Strauss premiered an adapted choral version for the 1867 Paris World’s Fair where it was considered a great success.

The specifically Viennese sentiment associated with Strauss’s melody has made it an unofficial Austrian National Anthem.³

Learn more about Johann Strauss (Senior and Junior) with Professor Robert Greenberg in Music as a Mirror of History

February 17th, 1902– Marian Anderson is born

Marian Anderson lived until the ripe age of 96 and fundamentally changed the music world between 1902 and 1993. She was born in Philadelpha to a salesman and former teacher. From an early age, she showed musical talents with violin and voice. Despite her blossoming skill, she faced racism when applying for a local music school. She later found a teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti, and with donations from her church, was trained and toured regionally. She gave her first recital in New York’s Town Hall in 1924, but struggled to establish a career in the United States.

Europe afforded her an opportunity to continue her studies and in 1925 she moved to London. She sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” before the Archbishop of Salzburg, prompting him to state “Yours is a voice one hears once in a hundred years.”

Anderson returned to the United States an established musician but still met racism. She was often turned away from opera houses and hotels. The most famous event was in 1939. Officials at Howard University tried to arrange a concert in Constitution Hall in DC, but were blocked by the owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution. To respond to this injustice, Anderson, in cahoots with the US Department of the Interior and encouragement from First Lady Elanor Roosevelt, set up a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.

Image of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

The performance drew a crowd of 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners. It not only put her further in the public eye in the United States, but the concert also raised attention to discrimination against African Americans.

Learn more about the amazing science behind the human voice with Mastering Stage Presence: How to Present to Any Audience

Attribution and citations:
¹Cowen, Ron (1998). “George Gershwin: He Got Rhythm”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-08-30. Quotation re inspiration on the train
²George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue Commemorative Facsimile Edition,” 1987. (Gershwin 50th Anniversary Edition, Warner Brothers Music FS0004, notes by Jeff Sultanof; this reproduces Grofé’s holograph manuscript from the Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)
³Der Donauwalzer; op. 314 in: Austria-Forum, the Austrian knowledge network online (music lexicon)