Two Rhapsodies in Blue

This is a simple comparison – the famous opening clarinet glissando from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. You’ll see from the score below that the music notation is a run up the scale, but the clarinetist makes the decision on the style of how he gets to the top note. At a certain point you don’t hear individual notes but a langorous slide up the scale. Here are two very different performances of the opening.

An exercise: It will be clear from listening that these versions are different from one another. But be specific about those differences. And express the differences in words. How are the slides different? Does the slide up the scale begin at the same point? Does one version push forward more than the other? Does one sound “straighter” than the other? See if you can spot five specific differences.

A hint: there’s something that’s very different about these two openings that doesn’t involve how the clarinet passage is performed. Can you hear what it is?

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic

Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony



  1. Andrew Litton’s notes was milder, more rounded, started the slide later and I found them more emotionally involving because they were less aggressive and less jazzy. What am I missing?

  2. Interesting how, even though they sound different to me, it’s a challenge to identify why. For the slide, it sounds to me as if Litton starts later and takes longer to complete it. This version seems to me to be the “squarer” of the versions. Sounds like a jazz clarinetist on the Bernstein, much more note-bending going on there. While I really can’t quite make out what sounds different in the orchestral accompaniment, what I’m sensing is more, I’ll say “swing” in the Bernstein overall. In the Dallas, the chords seem to march upward, each given equivalent weight; in the Bernstein, that doesn’t appear to be so. It also seems to me that Bernstein’s orchestral accompaniment follows the tempo established by the clarinetist, whereas in the Dallas, the whole follows a steady beat throughout. The Dallas just doesn’t seem to get to the soul of the piece.

  3. Guillermo Hinojosa says:

    In Bernstein’s each note’s attack is softer; in Litton’s the attacks are stronger. In Bernstein´s each note changes to the next in a continuous way. In Litton’s, notes have begin and end. Bernstein’s acompaniment is more dramatic.

  4. Bernstein’s trills are softer than Litton’s. Litton seems to attack the trills and the first note in the trill is slightly louder than the rest.

    Bernstein starts the slide sooner than Litton. Litton spends more time on his first trill than Bernstein so his slide starts later.

    Bernstein’s accompaniment is more noticeable and more dramatic than Litton’s.

    Litton’s playing seems more lazy and slow than Bernstein.

  5. I like Bernstein’s performance it is more beautiful and richer and much better then Litton’s performance sure I like to listen for both full performances to tell which one is winner surly Bernstein’s performance is the winner for me.

  6. Layton seems smoother, more round, slower too. The start is languid.
    In Berstein, the accompaniment is more present.
    (sorry, I lack english vocabulary !! it’s easier to think of it in french, my 1st language)

  7. Kathleen James says:

    The Bernstein opening sounded darker, more alto-like than the Litton one. In addition, the upward slide seemed to have a more distinct pause on the way up, so was not as linear as the Litton. The other instruments were more intrusive and percussive in the Bernstein version. The Litton was brighter, yet silkier, with a smoother slide upward, and not as much percussiveness in the background. The biggest difference overall, was that the Bernstein version seemed more insistent, more symphonically “in your face,” while the Litton version swept over the listener like a long scarf being swept across the shoulders.

  8. Like Susan, I find this a challenge – even though I love the piece. I think that Litton starts the slide later, with a smoother, more regular journey to the destination note. In the Bernstein version, there is more of what I think of (probably mistakenly) as a swing intonation, with the clarinettist seeming to hold back and then push forward to the note. I think this gives the Bernstein version momentum and makes the Litton version seem “straighter” by comparison. The accompanying orchestras also sound different to me. I agree with Kathleen that the percussion is more to the foreground in the Bernstein, as is the brass “below” the clarinet line, whereas the Litton version seems to emphasise the brass “above” the clarinet line. This is probably completely wrong but I feel as though there is more interplay between the soloist and the orchestra in the Bernstein. It makes me wonder where the soloist is located in relation to the rest of the orchestra in each of the performances.

  9. At The End

  10. I love this piece of music. Please give me the answer to the question. I can’t put it into words….
    the other listeners were so much more eloquent. I prefer the first rendition. Why?
    I like the way some notes were slurred and slinky and forceful in the first rendition. Does that make sense? Help. I need help.

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