March 10, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mitchell James Kaplan's novel Rhapsody is a fascinating portrayal of Kay Swift, one of the first female Broadway composers.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Kaplan’s sweeping novel, spanning the years 1917 to 1937, portrays the life of Kay Swift, one of Broadway’s first female composers, extracting her from the shadow of her colleague and lover, George Gershwin…Kaplan’s propulsive style imparts a momentum of its own…interesting and important."
When I was a kid, I found the idea of background music offensive. Music was meant to be listened to, not just absorbed. (Kay Swift, the protagonist of my novel Rhapsody, shares this view.)
I used to slip on a pair of headphones, lie on my bed, and close my eyes. The songs, or the symphony, became my world. This was not merely an hour of pleasure, a vacation from homework or chores. It was the center around which all else revolved. Nothing mattered as much as music, except literature.
Such moments no longer happen. I don’t know why. Perhaps it has something to do with having bills to pay. But I wonder whether the structure of my brain hasn’t changed. Today I listen to music while driving, or through noise-cancelling headphones while washing dishes. Although I still love music, the experience is not the same.
However, the memory lingers on, to quote a famous Gershwin lyric. I often think back, with a pang of nostalgia, to the time when a pair of headphones was a refuge.
The initial idea for Rhapsody came in the form of a musical recollection. I was sipping my morning coffee a few years ago, months after my father passed away. My stereo system was set to “shuffle,” with 300 CDs in the box. It selected Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and as the opening clarinet slide filled the room, I thought of my father.
He had earned his way through medical school as a jazz clarinet virtuoso, gigging Philadelphia dance and concert halls, occasionally sitting in with some of the greats. On Sunday mornings when I was a little boy, he stood in the family room blowing through Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker solos—and glissandoing all the way up to the high C that announced Gershwin’s Rhapsody.
In many ways, my novel is a thank-you letter to music for the ways it has colored my perceptions and reminiscence. Like the notes below, it is written not from the point of view of a musicologist, but from that of a fan.
As I drained my espresso cup that morning, awash in emotion, I knew nothing about Gershwin’s life—or about his girlfriend, the gifted composer Kay Swift; or her husband, the high-flying financier James Warburg. But I did know that my next novel would grow from that experience of Gershwin’s Rhapsody.
Chopin, Nocturne, Opus 9, No. 1
Kay Swift grew up during the first decades of the 20th century in an artistic family, steeped in church music and Romantic aesthetics. She loved Chopin and as a pianist, performed his works. In my novel, Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9, No. 1 is used as a leitmotif, when she thinks of her father (much as Gershwin’s Rhapsody brought back memories of my father).
There is a reason this is one of Chopin’s most famous and adored works. With its shifting rhythms and wistful melodies, it is one of those pieces (like Keats’ Odes) that remind me, to this day, that beauty still exists, despite everything.
Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe, “Lever du Jour”
George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel admired each other from afar and then friended each other in Paris and New York. Ravel’s harmonies influenced Gershwin and Swift and through them, the entire realm of jazz. In some of Ravel’s compositions he developed a pared-down aesthetic that featured simple, repeating melodic patterns, as in some of Gershwin’s songs.
I mention his Daphnis et Chloe, “Lever du Jour” here only because, like the Chopin piano piece referred-to above, it is a thing of immense beauty.
Scott Joplin, Bethena
I include Joplin because, to my ear, he was a musical forebear of Gershwin. The hallmarks of his style—so-called “ragged” rhythms, or syncopation; leaping bass lines; chromatic transitions—all later became distinctive features of early jazz. Like Gershwin, Joplin was not content to write only short-form hits; he also tried his hand at ragtime ballet and opera. The idea of applying popular musical stylings to longer, traditional forms was innovative—ahead of Joplin’s time—and a losing proposition for him.
Bethena, one of Joplin’s later works, blends sadness, remembrance of the wife he had recently lost, and sweet melodies that evoke the happy times they had shared. Listening to it, and then to the early Gershwin piano rolls, one cannot help but be struck by the profound influence of the former upon the latter.
Fats Waller, Clothesline Ballet
The sound of Clothesline Ballet is so not what people think of when they think of Fats Waller. It’s not Stride. It shows off a more contemplative side of the brilliant composer and pianist.
Indeed, the Clothesline Ballet makes me think of nothing so much as Gershwin and strengthens my sense that when we talk about this corner of the 1920s New York musical world, we are talking about a rapidly evolving, multifarious, shared culture. Or rather, a dialogue between cultures that referenced the blues, klezmer, and Sousa with a casual and mutual respect. (This despite the fact that Blacks were not allowed to play on the stages of white venues—a rule the Gershwin attempted to defy with his insistence that Porgy and Bess be performed only by Black singers.)
Gershwin and Waller respected and liked each other; indeed, George had introduced Fats to Leopold Godowsky, with whom they both studied advanced harmony and counterpoint.
George Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing
Someone should revive this hilarious, Pulitzer Prize winning political satire. With a book by geniuses George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, lyrics by Ira Gershwin that are at times downright Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque, and catchy Gershwin tunes, Of Thee I Sing is a brilliant sendup of American democracy, no less relevant today than in its time.
I could mention so many other Gershwin masterpieces, including for example his Concerto in F (or New York Concerto) or his I Got Rhythm Variations. But I hardly need add my voice to the chorus of Gershwin fans.
Kay Swift, Nobody Breaks My Heart
This is a belter from Kay Swift’s 1930 Fine and Dandy, the first produced Broadway show with a score composed by a woman. It features a melody that may recall Gershwin’s bluesy You Don’t Know the Half of it Dearie as well as his contrastingly jaunty Three Preludes.
The influence was mutual. Gershwin appreciated and benefited from Kay’s deep knowledge of music theory. In turn, he introduced her to his publisher and his many influential friends. Kay went on to write a ballet for George Balanchine’s U.S. debut, and became the principal songwriter for the Rockettes.
Rhapsody is dedicated to my father, and I feel it’s apropos to tell you a little story from his life that illustrates the ironic ways of Fortune. Following medical school, he became a cardiologist and a professor at UCLA. One day, a nurse wheeled a patient into his office for examination. My father recognized the dignified, elderly African American before him and said, “Mr. Ellington, you’ve always been one of my greatest heroes. It is an honor.”
Until Alzheimer’s took my father from us, he continued studying and playing jazz.
Mitchell James Kaplan is the award-winning author of the novels By Fire, By Water and Into the Unbounded Night. A graduate of Yale, he has lived in Paris and Los Angeles, and currently lives with his family in Roanoke, Virginia.