Gershwin would later receive formal training and lessons from influential figures like Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger and Arnold Schoenberg in advanced composition, harmony andorchestration; however, in 1924 he had had no such training. Under the pressure of a deadline to complete the work in 1925, Gershwin bought books on theory, concerto form and orchestration and taught himself the skills needed. Because of contractual obligations for three different Broadway musicals, he was not able to begin sketching ideas until May 1925. He began the two-piano score on July 22 after returning from a trip to London, and the original drafts were entitled "New York Concerto". The first movement was written in July, the second in August, and the third in September, much of the work being done in a practice shack at the Chautauqua Institution. This had been arranged through the Australian composer and teacher Ernest Hutcheson, who offered seclusion for Gershwin at Chautauqua, where his quarters were declared off limits to everyone until 4 p.m. daily. Thanks to this, Gershwin was able to complete the full orchestration of the concerto on November 10, 1925. Later that month, Gershwin hired a 55-piece orchestra, at his own expense, to run through his first draft at the Globe Theatre. Damrosch attended and gave advice to Gershwin, who made a few cuts and revisions.
The concerto is in the traditional three movements:
Adagio - Andante con moto
There are strong thematic links between the three movements, all of which are heavily influenced by jazz. There exists in each movement a very subtle structural integrity that, while perhaps not immediately apparent to the listener, is rooted in the classical tradition.
The first movement begins with blasts from the timpani, introducing elements of the main thematic material. After an extended orchestral introduction, the piano enters with a solo section, introducing another melody found throughout the movement. From here, the music alternates with contrasting sections of grandiosity and delicacy. The climax is reached at the Grandioso, in which the orchestra resounds the piano's original melody, accompanied by a large triplet figure in the soloist. There is a cadenza of quick triplet ostinatos which leads to the final section: speeding octaves and chords, culminating in a large run of the triplet ostinato up the keyboard along an F Major 6 chord, bringing the movement to a close.
The second movement is reminiscent of the blues - beginning with an elegant melody in a solo trumpet accompanied by a trio of clarinets. A faster section featuring the piano follows, building gradually until near the end, at which point the piece deceptively pulls back to the original melody, now given to the flute. The movement ends in a peaceful, introspective cadence.
The final movement is pulsating and energetic with several references to ragtime, featuring both new material and melodies from the previous movements. A false climax is found in a Grandiososection identical to that of the first movement, which in turn evolves into another build to the true pinnacle of the concerto, again dominated by the F Major 6 chord, bringing the piece to a close.
The work was premiered by the New York Symphony Orchestra with Damrosch conducting (three years later the orchestra would merge with the Philharmonic Symphony Society into the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 3, 1925, and featured the composer as the soloist. The concert was sold out and the concerto was very well received by the general public. However, the reviews were mixed, with many critics unable to classify it as jazz or classical. Indeed, there was a great variety of opinion among Gershwin's contemporaries; Igor Stravinsky thought the work was one of genius, whereas Sergei Prokofiev disliked it intensely.
A performance of the 3rd movement of the concerto is featured during a humorous fantasy sequence in the film An American in Paris (1951). In one of the film's many musical numbers, Oscar Levant's character Adam Cook, a struggling pianist, daydreams that he is performing the concerto for a gala audience in a concert hall. As the scene progresses, Adam fantasizes that he is also every other member of the orchestra, as well as the conductor, and even envisions that he is applauding himself from the audience at the concerto's conclusion.
There is also a performance of an excerpt in the Gershwin biopicRhapsody in Blue (1945) where it is partially played onscreen by Robert Alda (dubbed by Oscar Levant), and then at the film's conclusion by Levant himself. It is heard at especially poignant moments, once when Gershwin stumbles over the notes because of the effects of his fatal brain tumor, and once more in the scene in which Gershwin's death is announced.
Levant's performance of the concerto in An American in Paris is noteworthy because Levant was himself an accomplished concert pianist and composer who had befriended Gershwin in 1928.
Although Gershwin never recorded the concerto, he was invited by Rudy Vallee to play the third movement from the concerto on an NBC radio broadcast in 1931, which was preserved ontranscription discs and later issued on both LPs and compact discs. Vallee used a special arrangement prepared for his studio orchestra. Gershwin also played a few of his popular songs on the broadcast.