I would like to have been present at Aeolian Hall, February 12, 1924. That was the evening when Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was first performed.
I like Gershwin, but I also know that Rhapsody in Blue (the very title is a maudlin one, with the touch of a cliché) is not the best of his compositions: it is a period piece. But what a period! That night in 1924 represented the coming of age of American genius. In one polyphonic and saxophonic swoop the creative talent of America swept ahead of Europe, of all the modernisms of Europe. That odd young man, the son of uneducated Jewish immigrants, brought up in the nearslums of New York, created something that was, and remained, quintessentially American, strident at times but suffused with a melancholy elegance of harmonies beyond the imagination and sensitivity of almost anything that the Old World could have produced at that time. It was modern, in a way in which no other achievement had been modern: not Whitman’s poetry, not Berlin’s ragtime, not the Brooklyn Bridge, not the Woolworth Building, all of which still bore traces of the sentiments of an American Victorianism.
I would have wanted to sense the reactions of that audience: the quality of the applause, and perhaps a moment of silence before the nervous chatter began in the steamheated foyer, outside of which the high-wheeled large cars were hooting and the electricity glittered in the winter evening of New York. The sour vulgarities of the reign of Coolidge notwithstanding, it was then that America sparkled at the top of the world.