"Rhapsody in Blue" has become a rhapsody in bucks.

Fifty years after the death of George Gershwin, America's greatest composer, his best-known composition has been turned into a jingle for United Airlines. It's the first time that Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" has been licensed for use in a commercial.

Those who made the commercial say they have treated "Rhapsody in Blue" with respect, care, taste and what-have-you. Those who love "Rhapsody in Blue" may feel differently. Gershwin's rhapsody is the most-recorded American concert piece, and probably the best known. It signaled a revolution in music when it was first played, with Gershwin at the piano, in 1924.

Gershwin said later he envisioned the work as "a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America." He did not envision it helping to spruce up the tarnished image of America's commercial airlines. But Warner Bros. Music Corp., which holds the rights to the Gershwin catalogue, licensed "Rhapsody" to United for a year. The fee: a reported $300,000.

One would be justified in asking if the commercialization of "Rhapsody in Blue" were another, and unusually large, step in the ongoing commercialization of absolutely everything.

"We weren't going to turn this into a hackneyed commercial enterprise," insists Bill Alenson, director of advertising for United, which looked at "a dozen or more" submitted campaigns before deciding on the rhapsody. "Our intention was to use it in a way Gershwin, were he still alive, would be pleased with."

Whether Gershwin would indeed be pleased is highly arguable.

It's not as if the "Rhapsody" were some long-lost curio that had been lying fallow in a trunk. Several new recordings are released every year, and the work is a pop concert favorite. Michael Tilson Thomas will play and conduct it Friday night on "Celebrating Gershwin: The Jazz Age," first of two lavish PBS specials saluting and parading the generous Gershwin genius.

Is it sacrilege to use what has become almost a patriotic anthem to sell a product? "Heck, people are using Beethoven," Alenson says. A moisturizing cream called Soft Sense was once hawked on TV to the tune of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," with the "Hallelujah" refrain changed to "Sticky fingers, sticky fingers."

Various operatic arias are now being used in spoofy ads for Cheer, the detergent. And Chopin's "Polonaise" is out there moving Hondas.

The copyrights have run out on Chopin and Handel but to use Gershwin one must pay. Gershwin heirs gave permission for the "Rhapsody" to be used in the commercials. "I'm not crazy for it, but it's all right," says Leopold Godowsky III, son of Gershwin's sister Frances and himself a composer. "If it were bad, I would be upset about it. But I don't think this music could be devalued. It has such character of its own, I don't think anything could kill it."

Marc George Gershwin, another nephew, says, "In all honesty, no, I don't expect any criticism. I never thought of any negative aspects to this unless the commercial was a really tacky type of thing. I saw the commercial and felt it was tasteful."

Gershwin, a stockbroker in New York, says he and other family members use two criteria when a request is made to license a Gershwin piece: "One, what is it for? And two, how much money are we going to get paid?"

United's campaign, devised by the Leo Burnett agency, is keyed to the theme "Rededicated to Serving You." One of the first commercials using the rhapsody features its familiar, romantic, dah-dah-dahhh-dah theme over shots of business persons bustling around offices and airports. These are probably not the images that pop into most people's minds when they hear "Rhapsody in Blue."

Another of the ads is a long dreary vignette about a football team getting chewed out by its coach at halftime. A snippet of the rhapsody is used as a musical punchline at the end.

Al Kohn, director of licensing for Warner Bros. Music Corp. -- which negotiated the "Rhapsody" deal -- was a friend of George's lyricist brother Ira, who, until he died in 1983, had the final say on commercial use of Gershwin works, including the rhapsody. "Ira was not too anxious to have it used this way," Kohn says, "but later in his life he said there was no reason not to do it."

Marc Gershwin and Leopold Godowksy say the same thing. "In his later years, he heard all his friends' music in commercials," Gershwin says, so Ira began to soften. But there is disagreement about how soft he got. Ronald Blanc, Ira Gershwin's attorney, says, "I doubt that he would have approved" the sale of the rhapsody. "Obviously there were many requests to use it. He always resisted and was very firm about it. However, that's not the present thinking."

Michael Feinstein, the celebrated young cabaret artist who is considered among the foremost interpreters of Gershwin music (and is featured on Part 2 of the PBS Gershwin special), became a close friend of Ira's in the lyricist's later years. From Paris, where he is touring with singer Liza Minnelli, Feinstein says Ira was fussy about the uses to which Gershwin songs were put.

"Ira was interested in selling the songs for commercials if the song was properly represented, and if a good deal of money was involved," Feinstein says. "Then he would consider it.

"I remember a television manufacturer wanted to use 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off' once," Feinstein says. "They had written their own lyrics, something like, 'You like cartoons, I like movies; you like football, I like "Lucy." ' It was obviously terrible, and Ira said, 'This is the worst lyric I've ever seen for a commercial.' So he turned them down."

Very few Gershwin songs have been used in ads. Today's advertisers are more interested in rock tunes anyway, especially baby-boomer favorites from the '60s. The Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm" was sold to Pathmark, a regional northeastern supermarket chain. Later, Toyota licensed, from the same tune, Ira's rhetorical refrain "Who could ask for anything more?"

Feinstein was piano soloist for a performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. How does he feel about its being appropriated by an airline?

"I have mixed feelings," Feinstein says. "I grew up listening to songs in commercials that I didn't know were famous songs. Like the jingle for Figurines, which I didn't know then is really the old song 'Tangerine.' Now when someone sings 'Tangerine,' all I can hear is Figurines, and I hate it. It drives me crazy."

The advertising people say they have treated "Rhapsody in Blue" with affection as well as dignity. "It was the first piece I played on a clarinet when I was 8 years old," says United spokesman Dan Sheehy. "This is a first in advertising that we're pretty excited about."

Carla Michelotti, senior vice president with Leo Burnett and the lawyer who negotiated with Warner Music for the rights, says, "The Gershwin people were very well informed of our intent. We wanted them to approve the commercial. We wanted them to feel comfortable with it. This is a song that is a very special song for everyone, and we wanted to treat it special."

Marc Gershwin says commercial use of great music helps educate people about it. "When I was a kid, I loved music, and I learned about it from the radio. The 'William Tell' Overture I knew from 'The Lone Ranger.' "

Gershwin has another point about the sale of the rhapsody. If the family had refused permission, the advertiser could have commissioned an original composition made to sound so much like the rhapsody that many people would have thought that's what they were hearing. "We'd rather have the real theme than a lousy theme that was close, and that's often what you're up against."

Feinstein says Betty Kern, daughter of Jerome, refused permission for "Look for the Silver Lining" to be used in an ad. The result: "Look for the Union Label," a sound-alike tune trilled by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in a series of popular spots. Irving Caesar has withheld "Tea for Two" for years, Feinstein says, "but now he's mellowing."

McDonald's recently licensed "Mack the Knife" from the Kurt Weill estate and turned it into "Mac Tonight," a popular campaign designed to increase adult patronage of McDonald's.

None of this seems to have caused much public consternation. One of the rare protests over using a song in a commercial was the unlikely fuss stirred by Nike's "Revolution" ad, featuring a Beatles tune from their famous "White Album."

Apple Records and the estate of John Lennon are suing Nike over the commercial even though Nike legally purchased the rights to the song. Recently, former Beatle Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone magazine, "We were offered Disney, Coca-Cola and the hugest deals in Christendom and beyond" for rights to Beatles songs. "And we never took them, because we thought, 'Nah, kind of cheapens it.' It cheapens you to go on a commercial, I think."

The Gershwin heirs say the money to be made from licensing Gershwin songs is not to be sneezed at, and that many people depend on that income. It is not a bottomless font. In some parts of the world, the copyright on "Rhapsody in Blue" and other Gershwin works will expire this year. In the United Kingdom, among other places, "Rhapsody" will enter the public domain. That means anyone can perform it or abuse it without paying a cent.

"There are not that many years left for this," Marc Gershwin notes.

George Gershwin, of course, is not here to speak for himself, except through the music he bequeathed to the world. To the world and, unknowingly perhaps, to the highest bidders. Would he have sanctioned using "Rhapsody in Blue" to sell tickets for United Airlines, or to sell any other product in a TV commercial?

"I don't know if he would have approved," says Marc Gershwin. "I don't know if he could ever have imagined this type of thing. Chances are, if he had lived, he would have written so much music since then that he would have said yes."

He didn't live. On July 11, 1937, he died, of a brain tumor, in Los Angeles. He never saw 40. In the years since, the popularity of his music has grown, and new living monuments to it are never far off: Woody Allen's use of Gershwin music as the score for his romantic film "Manhattan"; the all-Gershwin Broadway musical "My One and Only"; the all-Gershwin ballet "Who Cares?"; the sparkling and luminous new recorded versions (on CBS Records) of George and Ira's complete scores for "Let 'Em Eat Cake" and "Of Thee I Sing."

Perhaps the transformation of "Rhapsody in Blue" into a commercial jingle is a living monument, too. And then again, one might be more inclined to react as John O'Hara did 50 years ago when he heard of Gershwin's death.

He said, "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.