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All That Jazz: Jazz’s Influence on Classical Music

Here's Ether Game's playlist for classical music fans who also like snapping their fingers on beats 2 and 4...

Jazz Austin

Photo: Wally Gobetz (Flickr)

Ether Game explores that fascinatin' rhythm and its influence on classical music!

2017 marks 100 years since jazz made its first appearance in a recording. And over the last 100 years, jazz has seeped into every part of our culture, including symphony hall! Here’s Ether Game’s list of classical works influenced by jazz. And remember, you snap on beats TWO and FOUR…

  • George Gershwin, Rhapsody In Blue: Rhapsody in Blue was one of the first pieces, and arguably the best piece, to incorporate the rhythm and life of jazz into the concert hall. The work had its premiere in 1924 in Aeolian Hall in New York City at a concert strangely titled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” It was a big event, and such luminaries as John Philip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff were in attendance. Gershwin himself played the piano (and improvised most of the piano part), accompanied by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra with arrangements by Ferde Grofé. While today, Rhapsody in Blue is adored, at the time, reviewers weren’t so sure. The New York Post offered a scathing review after the premiere, calling it “trite,” “conventional,” “feeble,” and “vapid,” adding, quote “Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony. So derivative! So stale! So inexpressive!”

  • Darius Milhaud, La Création Du MondeIn 1922, French composer Darius Milhaud embarked on an American tour. While in America, he was enraptured by the jazz clubs in Harlem, which later inspired the music for his ballet La Création du Monde. Based on the book by Blaise Cendrars, Milhaud’s title refers to the compilation of five African creation stories that comprise the work. The music is scored for an unusual cross between chamber orchestra and jazz band in which the saxophone plays a very prominent part, replacing the viola as part of the string section. The ballet wasn’t very well received upon its premiere in October of 1923. However, it has since become one of Milhaud’s most popular works, for its (at-the-time) unique incorporation of jazz elements. Although often compared to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Milhaud’s work predates the Gershwin classic by a year.

  • Dmitri Shostakovich, Jazz Suite No. 2, Waltz No. 2: Fans of Stanley Kubrick might recognize this waltz as the theme to his film Eyes Wide Shut. But fans of jazz probably won’t recognize this as anything resembling “jazz.” Sure, it has a saxophone, but it also has a glockenspiel—it feels much more like light classical music. There are two reasons for its “un-jazzy” sound. First, authorities in the former Soviet Union looked down on Western “bourgeois” imports like jazz. So, it seems that Shostakovich was trying to keep a tight balance between experimenting with jazz and keeping a more “traditional” approach, to satisfy the strict Soviet censors. But also, it turns out that his Jazz Suite No. 2, despite its similarities with his first Jazz Suite, was mislabeled. Shostakovich scholars realized recently that this was actually a work called Suite For Variety Orchestra. The original Jazz Suite No. 2 was lost during World War II.

  • Igor Stravinsky, Ebony ConcertoIgor Stravinsky had already incorporated bits of jazz and ragtime into his music when he began work on his Ebony Concerto in 1945. The work was written for clarinetist Woody Herman and Herman’s famous jazz band “The Thundering Herd.” Evidently, Stravinsky was a big fan of Herman’s work. However, the truth was, Stravinsky probably never heard of Herman when he was commissioned to write the work—that story was just a rumor started by a member of the Herd. Nevertheless, Stravinsky wrote the work, doing his best to incorporate jazz idioms into a concerto grosso for jazz band. Herman was a bit disappointed with the result, because to him, it sounded more like Stravinsky, and not enough like jazz. But Herman was probably also scared and embarrassed. During rehearsals with Stravinsky, Herman realized that neither him nor his band had the sight-reading ability to keep up with the music.

  • Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto In GIn the early 20th century, French composers were fascinated by American jazz and incorporated elements of this new music in their own compositions. Maurice Ravel was one of many composers who found inspiration in jazz, especially the music of George Gershwin. Although the initial idea for his Piano Concerto in G major came to him while riding a train in England, much of the concerto is influenced by the American jazz music that Ravel heard while on a piano tour of the United States in 1928. Blues figures and the standard jazz practice of quickly shifting between major and minor modes appear throughout the concerto, but Ravel later wrote that for all of its unusual elements, “the most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm.” The concerto received it’s premiere in 1932 in Paris with Ravel conducting. Audiences in that city, who already loved jazz, were instantly thrilled.

  • Aaron Copland, Music For The Theatre, “Burlesque”: Copland’s name is now synonymous with “the American sound” in classical music, but it took years of experimentation for him to earn that association, and his music was not always so well received. Early in his career, Copland caused a scandal when he brought the jazz idioms of the Roaring Twenties into the classical concert hall with his work Music for the Theater. With its catchy melodies and energetic rhythms, the second to last movement called Burlesque is particularly evocative of a raunchy brand of swing music that was wildly popular in nightclubs of the time. Copland did not have a particular show in mind when he wrote the piece however, stating that “the music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere, so after developing the idea into five short movements, I chose the title.”

  • Astor Piazzolla, Histoire Du Tango, III. Night Club, 1960: There’s apparently an old Argentinian saying that goes “Everything In Argentina may change—except the tango!” Well, composer Astor Piazzolla proved that, in fact, this is not true. Piazzolla was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, growing up on the music of the tango. When he showed promise as a composer, he studied with Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, and later with French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was Boulanger who convinced him to compose what he knew best: the tango. Piazzolla helped create the style known as “el nuevo tango” (“new tango”), which combined the traditional Argentine tango with classical music and jazz. In this work originally for flute and guitar called The History of the Tango, Piazzolla proves that the tango was always in transition. This movement highlights how jazz performed in the nightclubs of Buenos Aires in the 1960s began to seep into the traditional tango.

  • Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Souvenir de la Havane: 19th-century composer and touring pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk never knew the term “jazz.” But he and early jazz musicians were drawing from the same source of inspiration. Gottschalk was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, which a generation later would become the birthplace of jazz. Gottschalk frequently used the Caribbean rhythms from his ancestors in New Orleans and the local folk music within his virtuosic piano compositions. This kind of musical borrowing would later become the basis for jazz in the early 20th century. But in the 19th century, Gottschalk toured almost constantly (he one time gave 84 recitals in the space of four-and-a-half months), bringing the syncopated rhythms of New Orleans music all around the world.

  • Gunther Schuller, TriplumIn the 1950s and 60s, Gunther Schuller advocated a school of composition he referred to as “Third Stream.” This school freely drew from both jazz and classical vocabularies with neither subsuming the other—an idea we can readily hear in his piece Triplum, which combines elements of Second Viennese School atonality with figures from jazz music. Schuller also had an impressive résumé as a horn player, performing with the American Ballet, Metropolitan Orchestra, and Miles Davis. It was while performing the horn part to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the 1960s that Schuller met another great American composer who often borrowed harmonies and rhythms from jazz: Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein had conducted that performance of Rite of Spring and was impressed with Schuller’s horn playing. He offered to premiere one of Schuller’s compositions, and in 1967, Triplum received its first performance in Philharmonic Hall in New York City with Bernstein at the podium.

  • Edvard Grieg and Duke Ellington, Peer Gynt Suites, Nos. 1 and 2In 1960, Duke Ellington proved that jazz’s influence on classical music didn’t just apply to new classical music. That year, he released an album called Swinging Suites by Edward E. and Edward G., the “Edward E.” being himself (Edward “Duke” Ellington) and the “Edward G.” being Edvard Grieg. On the album, Ellington rearranged the music of Grieg’s famous Peer Gynt suite, including “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” into two swinging suites for jazz orchestra. Later that year, he applied the same jazz treatment to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The album was well received, but not by the Scandinavians. The Royal Swedish Academy of Music reprimanded Ellington in a statement, saying his jazz version of Grieg’s work was “offending to the nordic music culture.”

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