A Beginner's Guide to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Find out what themes to listen out for the next time you hear Rhapsody in Blue.

20th Century composer George Gershwin began his career composing iconic songs like They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Summertime, S’Wonderful and I Got Rhythm. But, his musical talent stretched far beyond his popular ditties and piano-side tunes. Gershwin’s brilliant jazz concerto, Rhapsody in Blue has become a treasure of the American Music tradition. His genius fusion of strikingly different musical styles reflects the ideals of the ”Great American Melting Pot.” There’s a little bit of something for everyone in this piece, and it played an important role in bridging the gap between popular and classical music in the 20th century.

In this listening guide, you’ll learn about the history of this famous composition as well as some important themes to listen out for when you hear it next. 

Brief History of The Composition

When the visionary bandleader, Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a new jazz concerto he initially turned him down the offer. However, a few weeks before the concert, Gershwin saw an announcement in a paper naming him as the composer for Whiteman’s upcoming concert. Surprise! Gershwin was suddenly burdened with a daring endeavor: to weave the vibrant zing of jazz with the grandeur of classical composition, and he didn’t have long to do it. 

”There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing with unwonted rapidity. No set plan was in my mind – no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, as you see, began as a purpose, not a plan. I 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.” – Gershwin 

With that spark of inspiration, Gershwin composed the entire piece in just a few short weeks. It premiered on February 12 1924 in New York’s Aeolian Concert Hall. The concert was attended by some of the biggest names in music at the time like Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, stride pianist Willie the Lion Smith, and band leader John Philippe Souza.

Musical Themes – What to listen for 

As a whole, Rhapsody in Blue is a symphonic conversation between the various sections of the orchestra narrated by the piano and woven together by bold cadenzas and an imaginative sonic story. The piece centers around five main musical themes – Ritornello, Train, Stride, Shuffle, and Love – that are repeated and expanded in a call-and-response style between sections of the orchestra. Get to know these themes and you’ll be able to identify and appreciate the innovative structure of Gershwin’s standout composition like a pro.

Ritornello Theme



The piece begins with the Clarinet playing the now famous wailing glissando – a continuous slide between notes – into the Ritornello Theme, sometimes called the Jazz Theme. This famous opening came about initially as a prank played by principal clarinetist Ross Gorman during rehearsals. The joke was on Gorman, Gershwin loved the jazzy-sounding prank glissando so much that he asked Gorman to keep it for the performance.

The Ritornello theme follows a standard AABA’ pattern, beginning with the Clarinet, then the Brass section, and then eventually the full orchestra. Throughout the piece, different sections of the orchestra take over this theme adding their unique sound.

Train Theme



Gershwin reportedly came up with most of Rhapsody in Blue while on a train journey. As he told biographer Isaac Goldberg, ”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 at 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.”

The Train Theme with its famous ”chug-a-chug-a” rhythm instantly conjures up an image of a train happily chugging along its tracks. There’s also a characteristic ”Latin” feel to this section which gives it a ton of fun energy. For this theme, Gershwin again uses the AABA’ form led by the brass section. 

Stride Theme 



The Stride Theme, sometimes known as the Blues Theme, continues with the theme of a train chugging along. However, in this section, the ”train” slows down a bit to a bluesier chug. You’ll hear this theme pop up a lot throughout the rest of the piece.  The piano part in this section borrows from the popular Stride Piano technique where the pianist plays notes that take up the full ‘stride’ of the piano, sometimes crossing the left hand over the right to reach out-of-the-way notes. This section follows an AA’BA” pattern that gives it a sense of continuous change. 

Shuffle Theme



With the Shuffle Theme, also known as the Ragtime theme, Gershwin introduces a new  AA’BB’A” form, which gives this section a fun, unpredictable, and jazzy feel. In this section, the  ”train” starts to pick up speed again. This section also relies heavily on syncopated or ”ragged” rhythms – when notes are played off the beat – characteristic of popular Ragtime music.

Love Theme



What’s a good story without a little romance? This famous Love Theme, also known as the Classical Theme, adds a quintessential burst of romantic music into a very jazzy concerto following an  AA’B pattern. You can hear inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s famous Romeo and Juliet Overture in this section with sweeping lines and a similar melody. 

Nam June Paik: A Technological Rebellion


Hear the similarities?

Piano Solo

There are several mini piano solos throughout the piece, plus one big Piano Solo smack dab in the middle. The Piano Solo combines all of the themes in a virtuosic and, sometimes, improvisatory style.

Because he was under such a time crunch to write the piece, at the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, Gerwhin hadn’t notated (written down) the piano solo at all, he improvised on the spot letting the conductor know when to cue the orchestra back in with a simple head nod – much like in a jazz ensemble would. The famous piano solo that we recognize today wasn’t formally notated until much later.

MadeleineNarrated by Academy Award Nominee Steven Yeun, this documentary looks at the life and work of Nam June Paik through the artist’s writings. 

In his performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Julian Joseph takes a page out of Gershwin’s book by improvising the various solos throughout the piece.

If you’ve made it this far. Congratulations. You’re a real Rhapsody in Blue expert. We hope this listening guide will help you deepen your appreciation for this gem of American music. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing? Watch the London Philharmonic’s concert, Julian Joseph Plays Gershwin,  featuring renowned jazz pianist Julian Joseph anytime on Marquee TV.


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