You are on page 1of 19

Fusing Art Music and Jazz in the 1920s.

A Comparison of George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue and

Darius Milhauds La Creation du Monde

Topic: Music from 1900 1945

Student No.: 15210311

Centre No.: 103

Fusing Art Music and Jazz in the 1920s.

A Comparison of George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue and
Darius Milhauds La Creation du Monde
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, European composers such as
Debussy and Stravinsky had briefly experimented with jazz elements in their
compositions.1 It was not until the 1920's, however, that jazz characteristics were
more extensively utilised by both American and European composers of the Western
Art Music tradition. Two representative composers, George Gershwin and Darius
Milhaud, felt the need to incorporate jazz styles and techniques into their works.
Although Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue (1924), and Milhaud's La Creation du Monde
(1923) demonstrate that both composers intentionally made use of jazz melodies,
scales, harmonies and rhythms as part of their compositional strategy, it is evident
they did so in different ways. This paper investigates how each composer uses
elements of pitch, duration, texture and tone colour to incorporate jazz elements into
these concert pieces and suggests that compositional differences were attributable to
their artistic influences and compositional concerns.

Both Milhaud and Gershwin utilised pitch and harmony in a jazz influenced manner
in their orchestral works of the 1920s. Milhauds decision to use jazz-inspired pitch
material and harmonic patterns as a compositional tool is exemplified in many ways
in La Creation du Monde, particularly in the use of a fresh jazzy chromatism and a
complex of blues notes to exploit tonal ambiguity in an innovative 20 th century

Igor Stravinsky, for example in his work A Soldiers Tale (1918) included a Ragtime section,
complex rhythms and chromaticisms characteristic of jazz at the time. Likewise, Claude Debussy
incorporated jazz elements into pieces such as Golliwogs Cakewalk (1908) and Minstrels (19101913)

style2. Chromatic encirclements of key notes for example, are pertinent in the
contrabass and trombones material in Bars 35-36 (See example 1). The use of blues
notes, jazz scales and dissonances, in Bars 66-76 (See example 2) and Bars 15-17
(See example 3), suggest Milhaud, like other 20th century composers, was pushing the
limitations of tonality, and using jazz harmony as a framework for his compositional

Deborah Mawer, Darius Milhaud: Modality and structure in the music of the 1920s, (Chicago:
Ashgate, 1997), 98-103

Like Milhaud, Gershwin has used chromatic runs (See example 4), blues pitch
material (See example 5) and dissonances derived from jazz chords frequently (See
example 6) in Rhapsody in Blue. Chromatic melodic sequences have been used in the
saxophones chromatic ascending runs of Bars 138-140 (See example 7), and in other
scalic passages throughout the piece. The jazz influence in the opening clarinet
melody is of particular interest as it suggests that Gershwin immediately wants the
listener to identify with the sound of jazz.

The contrast in tone colour and texture between the two pieces, emphasises the point
that both Milhaud and Gershwin, although incorporating jazz into their work, create
very distinguishable tones and are thus unique in their compositional strategy. In
Milhauds piece, the orchestra is set out like those of Harlem, with seventeen solo

(See example 8). This layout gives the piece a jazz configuration and

influences the way the composer treats texture and explores tone colour throughout
the piece. New, jazz-like tone colours and textures are created for example, through
his polyphonic section at Bars 138-150 (See example 9), when eleven melodic
instruments plus two percussion instruments play their own melodies and rhythms in
what could be described as a collective improvisation style, common in Harlem in the
1920s. This allows not only a jazz feel but specific tonal colours to be achieved in the

The use of numerous percussive instruments in new and unconventional manners in

La Creation Du Monde creates one such specific tone colour. Percussion was a large
aspect of jazz at the time in places such as Harlem, where musicians not only used
more complex and syncopated rhythms, but also added more percussion, providing a
wider range of sounds such as wood blocks, metal blocks etc. Milhaud has utilised
similar percussive techniques and fused them with his own. He has used a wide range
of percussive instruments in order to transform simple ostinati into peculiar sounding
patterns as seen in Bars 306-307 and Bars 290-296 (See examples 10 and 11). Here,
he distributes the quavers amongst the instruments creating a different sound with
each repetition of the pattern. Thus, the sound Milhaud is trying to achieve is one of

Barbara Kelly, Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912 1939, (Chicago: Ashgate
Publishing Ltd, 2003), 95

authentic Negro American Harlem Jazz, with many brass and percussive sounds, as a
feature of his twentieth century composition.


Gershwins use of tonal colour and texture is different in that he focuses on using the
orchestra in a more overt jazz band manner. It also appears that he writes this piece
with the purpose of taking jazz into new dimensions that is, making it more complex
via using a full orchestra, extensive piano solos and improvisational techniques,
There had been so much talk about the limitations of jazz I resolved if possible, to
kill that misconception with one sturdy blow 4. The use of conventional jazz texture
is seen in the four bar call and response passage from Bars 123-126 (See example 12).
This shows the flutes and oboes with the call, and the Clarinets, bassoons, horns,
piano, banjo and strings with the response. This is only a short passage, so is used as a
small feature of jazz tone colour, and yet is important as Gershwin makes use of the
jazz influences of the time, but as shown, also creates new and unconventional uses of

George Gershwin, sited in David Ewen, George Gershwin, His Journey to Greatness, (New York:
Greenwood Press Publishers, 1970), 295



Gershwins piece is structured in a manner that shows the influence of jazz band
music, different to Milhauds Harlem-like structures and sounds. Gershwins
numerous piano solos being accompanied by the rest of the orchestra are evidence of
this. Gershwin, however, takes it one step further into the authentic jazz tone as he
uses improvisation extensively. The final version for the solo piano part wasnt
actually ready at concert time and there were whole blank pages of piano music,
which Gershwin improvised on the spot. The final score contained whole blank pages
that bore the notation wait for nod.5 Gershwin was one of the first composers of his
time to attempt such a composition; however it is one of the major aspects of the work
that gives it the jazz tone desired by Gershwin. Even though both composers included
improvisation in their pieces, Gershwin has explored new ground with his blank
pages, showing his influences for developing and utilising new techniques of jazz and
fitting them into his piece.

Syncopation and complex jazz rhythms are incorporated by both composers

frequently in these pieces in order to emphasise the jazz in different sections of their
works. For Milhaud, he wishes to increase the complexity of his collective
improvisation section by using difficult and syncopated note values. The complex
rhythms of jazz for example, are introduced by Milhaud in the polyphonic section of
bars 138-152 (see example 13)

David Ewen, George Gershwin, His Journey to Greatness, (New York: Greenwood Press Publishers,
1970), 295



This section uses triplets, glissandi, slurs, ties, accents, grace notes and syncopation to
give this section a complex rhythmic tone and also to portray, or imitate, the large use
of collective improvisation of jazz and blues in the 1920s. This only imitates
improvisation, unlike Gershwins piece, which actually includes improvisation (Wait
for nod). Throughout this section, though, the beat remains constant, as in jazz.

The use of syncopation is extensive in Gershwins piece also, as he incorporates the

complexity of jazz rhythms into his concert work. This can be seen from bars 165-169
(see example 14). Bar 155 (example 15) shows Gershwins use of rubato, a feature of
jazz music, to create expression as he uses small accelerandos and ritardandos while
the beat remains the same, in order to steal part of the value of one note and pay it
back on the next note or phrase.




Hence, George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud were both influenced by jazz, yet in
very different ways. Both composers manipulated concepts of jazz such as pitch,
texture, tone colour and duration in order to create the desired fusion of jazz into their
pieces. Darius Milhaud concentrated on using the authentic black jazz he was
influenced by as a feature and major incorporation into his twentieth century style. In
order to achieve this, he made use of collective improvisation, syncopation and even
made use of a unique percussive technique. This is a different motive to George
Gershwin who wished to stretch the limits of jazz, and use its features to enhance the
incorporation of jazz into modern pieces, and even create new jazz techniques, never
attempted in modern music at the time, such as his extensive use of his piano
improvisations. He also made use of syncopation and chromaticism, and used call and
response, jazz 7th and 9th chords and on the spot improvisation. Both Rhapsody in
Blue and La Creation Du Monde are classic examples of the incorporation of jazz into
modern, concert music and are representative of how two composers created a unique
20th century compositional style for themselves.


Gershwin, George. Rhapsody in Blue. [CD] USA: Masterworks Portrait. (1991) Track
1 Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin.
Milhaud, Darius. Composers in Person: Darius Milhaud, A Milhaud Ses Conlitoyens
Ses Amis. [CD] France: EMI Classics. (1993) Track 1 La Creation du Monde by
Darius Milhaud.
Gershwin, George. Rhapsody in Blue [Music Score] USA: Warner Brothers (1942)
Milhaud, Darius. La Creation du Monde [Music Score] Paris: Editions Max Eschig

Ewen, David, (1970) George Gershwin, His Journey to Greatness. USA: Greenwood
Press Publishers
Kelly, Barbara, (2003) Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud 1912
1939. USA: Ashgate Publishing Limited
Hall, Michael, (1996) Leaving Home: A Conducted Tour of Twentieth Century Music
With Simon Rattle London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Rossi, Nick, Choate, Robert, (1969) Music Of Our Time Boston: Crescendo
Publishing Company
Mawer, Deborah (1997) Darius Milhaud: Modality and Structure in Music of the
1920s USA: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Morgan, Robert (1991) Twentieth Century Music: A Norton Introduction to Music
History London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc
Boynick, Matt (1996) Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Internet WWW page, at URL