George Gershwin: I Got Rhythm Variations
Composed largely during a three-week holiday in Palm Beach, George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations was premiered in January 1934. As the title suggests, the basis of this piece comes from Gershwin’s hit song I Got Rhythm, which featured in the musical Girl Crazy. The work was dedicated to George’s brother Ira Gershwin.
The piece was composed for a new tour that Gershwin was involved in as an alternative work to Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. The work is a masterful display of Gershwin’s breadth of creativity and imagination, as it showcases a range of different style from a waltz to oriental jazz.
I Got Rhythm Variations was the last orchestral concert work that Gershwin composed and is written for orchestra and a solo piano. Opening with repetitions of the main I Got Rhythm melody played on the clarinet, Gershwin immediately begins exploring the pentatonic scale. The piano answers the clarinet, which then brings the orchestra in with their response. After the vivacious full orchestral introduction, the piano takes over to state the main theme from the song.
From this point the orchestra then play through a set of variations, which are all in different styles. The music passes through the styles of waltz, atonal, serialist, oriental, jazz and symphonic. Gershwin’s use of the piano adds so much colour to this score as the orchestra support and decorate in key areas of the variations. Sparkling tuned percussion add gravitas to the music as the piano’s jaunty movements keep the thrill for the listener high.
The slower and more indulgent sections are rich in jazz harmony and thick textures. The gloriously rich strings lay the foundation for pointed muted brass to sing above. The level of communication between the piano and orchestra is very high, with lots of call and response figures being played throughout the work. Gershwin inverts the melody and spins it on its head so you never quite know where it will be going next. This is really effective and makes each new variation a welcome surprise.
Towards the end of the work there is a grand restatement of the main theme, which is now slightly more agitated due to the faster speed at which it is taken. The intense syncopation during the finale section at the end of the piece brings the piece to its main climax. I Got Rhythms Variations comes to its thrilling conclusion as the orchestra unites for the final bout of chords.
Full of dramatic twists and turns, George Gershwin’s purpose-written set of variations explores a range of styles through Gershwin’s creative lens.
Ⓒ Alex Burns