Gershwin and Ravel Share the Blues

Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin came face to face in New York on the evening of March 7, 1928. The occasion was a soirée hosted by the mezzo-soprano Éva Gauthier in celebration of Ravel’s fifty-third birthday. This was Ravel’s first and only trip to the United States. During a four month, twenty city tour which included an appearance at Carnegie Hall, the French composer introduced American audiences to Rapsodie espagnole, the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, and La valse. He also soaked up the vibrant new sounds of American jazz. While in New York, Ravel attended a performance of George Gershwin’s Broadway musical comedy, Funny Face. At Gauthier’s gathering, he was impressed with the 29-year-old Gershwin’s impromptu performance of Rhapsody in Blue and excerpts from The Man I Love. As Louise Burton writes,

Ravel spent several nights with Gershwin, listening to jazz at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where dancers did the Lindy Hop to hot jazz from some of the nation’s greatest bands. Ravel also visited Connie’s Inn and the nearby Cotton Club, where he heard Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

In an article published around the same time in Musical Digest, Ravel encouraged Americans to embrace jazz as a serious musical vocabulary:

Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard some of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing. 

George Gershwin, famous as a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith, but underestimated in the world of “serious” concert music, frequently asked other composers for lessons in composition. According to legend, Gershwin approached Stravinsky who asked, “How much money do you make?” When Gershwin answered, Stravinsky replied, “Then I should take lessons with you.” Similarly, Ravel declined, fearing that he would destroy the natural spirit of Gershwin’s music- that unique and improbable melding of American jazz, popular melody, and symphonic tradition. Ravel wrote the following letter to the famous Parisian composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger who declined to accept Gershwin as a student for similar reasons:

There is a musician here endowed with the most brilliant, most enchanting and perhaps the most profound talent: George Gershwin. His worldwide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the courage, which I wouldn’t dare have, to undertake this awesome responsibility?

In light of all of this, it’s interesting to compare Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, written between 1929 and 1931, with Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, written in 1925. Ravel’s music seems to pay homage to Gershwin’s Concerto. The first movement is filled with the sound of the blues, with its ambiguous shifts between major and minor. The final movements of both works share a similar rapid, driving feel. Ravel flirted with jazz in earlier compositions (the sultry Blues second movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2 from 1927, for example). And Paris had been intrigued with American jazz for a while. As far back as 1908, Debussy hinted at ragtime with Golliwog’s CakewalkBut in Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto, we hear the blues as if through Gershwin’s ears. Listen to both concertos and see if you agree.

We’ll start with Yuja Wang’s live performance of the Gershwin with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony. This is a piece filled with warmth and innocent, spirited melodies. Listen for the lonely, soulful trumpet solo in the second movement:

Now, here is Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, performed by Krystian Zimerman with Pierre Boulez leading the Cleveland Orchestra. The first movement is launched with the sound of a whip crack. In addition to the blues, we hear the Spanish Basque sounds of Ravel’s youth. The triple meter second movement enters a kind of dreamy serenity that might remind you of Erik Satie’s GymnopédiesRavel gives us one brief glimpse of pure terror at the climax of this movement (listen to the chord at 14:51) before the storm clouds melt away. It’s hard to imagine anything more magical than the sudden turn to major in this passage at the end of the movement. The final movement is a slightly deranged, exhilarating romp:


  • Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F, Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major, Hélène Grimaud pairs both concertos together on the same 1997 album with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony. Amazon
  • Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F: Jon Nakamatsu, Jeff Tyzik, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra  iTunes
  • Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major, Krystian Zimerman, Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra iTunes

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

10 thoughts on “Gershwin and Ravel Share the Blues”

  1. Thanks for this very thoughtful blog. I have been a fan of Gershwin since I was in my 20’s. I had no idea he had met Ravel. The excerpts chosen and the points you highlighted were delightful and made good listening.

  2. Thanks for the well written article. Perhaps I read too fast but why wasn’t there mention of the second section of Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra? Here Ravel gives us a stunning taste of jazz of that period with trombone glissandos and more.

  3. I was listening to the Ravel today as part of a random Spotify feed. I had heard this before and thought it was Gershwin. What a suprise when I checked what it was. I googled it and found your excellent blog. What a treat and revelation. Not related but I grew up in Rochester. I skipped high school one day to go Eastman to see Stravinsky rehearsing with the Philharmonic. Great orchestra and school. Yes, I’m that old!

      • He actually came out using a cane and sat in a high back chair while the conductor rehearsed the orchestra. I think the piece was The Flood. I also saw and met Artur Rubinstein at Eastman. I’m glad that I discovered your blog and this site. I’m sure that I will benefit more from it in the future. I live in south Florida half of the year and frequent The New World Center in Miami Beach, which was co-founded by Michael Tilson Thomas (Buffalo Philharmonic among others) and consists of an incredible venue (a little over 700 seats, stadium style) designed by Frank Gehry and young musicians just out of school who spend three to four years there. They bring in world renowned soloists to play with the orchestra. I have heard excellent music there and highly recommend it to music lovers.

  4. Hi, Timothy. Really enjoyed this piece. I found it as I was researching the composition dates of Rapsodie espagnole vs Rhapsody in Blue. The reason I was interested was because I had just listened to Rapsodie espagnole and recognized it as rather Gershwin-esque. As Rapsodie espagnole was written 14 – 15 years before Rhapsody in Blue, it suggests to me that the young American upstart may have drawn inspiration from Ravel, who was inspired by Gershwin, in turn. Either way, we are all the richer for their mutual admiration and musical cross-pollination. Thanks for the history lesson!

  5. Thank you for this wonderful post. I just listened Ravel’s G Major Concerto. In the 3rd movement, I immediately thought of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. My first reaction was that this concerto inspired Gershwin but now you are telling that Ravel already heard Rhapsody in Blue in 1928, at least a year before Ravel composed the G Major Concert. So as you write it must have been the other way around. Also being a jazz enthusiast, it is great learning that they were indeed sharing eye height.

  6. My sister and I made a short animated film using Roy Bargy’s very early Concerto in F (possibly with Gershwin himself on celeste). It’s a shorter version of the final concerto; I especially miss the development of the 2nd movement. Our film is called “Gershwin Station” on YouTube. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Ravel. I love how creative influences bounce around like mirrors reflecting mirrors.


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