George Gershwin: An American in Paris

For many, Gershwin’s An American in Paris is associated with the 1951 MGM movie starring Gene Kelly, not to mention a number of Broadway revivals. But these versions are not only larded with a number of other Gershwin pieces, they also slice and dice the original work.

The 1928 orchestral “rhapsodic ballet ” was composed during what was a miraculous decade in a tragically short life—one that saw the creation of such other perennially fresh works as  “Lady, Be Good!,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “Concerto in F,” as well as a treasure trove of songs co-written with his brother Ira.

Connected with his two stays in Paris—in April 1926 and during a more extended period from mid-March to mid-June 1928, An American in Paris is Gershwin’s most richly textured and vividly orchestrated score. For example, in the woodwinds alone, in addition to the more conventional instruments, Gershwin draws upon the seductive reedy sonorities of bass clarinet as well as soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. And the panoply of percussion instruments is equally striking: aside from timpani, there are the snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, bells, xylophone, wood block, small and large tom tom.

But the most attention-grabbing of all are the sounds of the four taxi horns. They are a vital part of the street noises as our American visitor strolls about the city. We know that Gershwin went shopping for horns among the automobile dealers along the Avenue de la Grande Armée. As one friend reported: “We went to every shop we could find to look for taxi horns. He wanted horns that could sound certain notes.” And he reportedly ended up with some twenty taxi horns lying about his hotel room.

Quite fascinating  is the  latest research about the actual pitches of those four taxi horns.  Mark Clague, musicologist at the University of Michigan, who is preparing a critical edition of Gershwin’s music,  has pointed out that performers of the piece having gotten things wrong for a long time.  They have incorrectly assumed that the letters A, B, C, and D in the score refer to pitches.  Using as proof a  1929 recording in which Gershwin himself was involved, Clague argues that the four letters simply  indicate the order in which the four horns are to be played.   Hear the difference by listening to the following interview with Clague. Rather than sound in a “logical”  ascending sequence, the taxi horn sounds come across as more random, as one would expect them to be on a busy street. 

In a sense, Gershwin was a child of his time in using these horns. The 1920’s saw composers bring aircraft propellers and other machines to the stage of Carnegie Hall. For instance, Frederick Converse used a Ford automobile horn in his 1927 piece “Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic.”

An American in Paris is organized in five large sections. Taxi horn beeps are heard first near the beginning of the work. The opening sound, however, is the “walking theme,” a “refrain” or unifying idea later heard multiple times. There is also a brief quote from one of the pop songs of the day, “La Mattchiche” (a.k.a. “La Maxixe”), parodied in the U.S. with the lyrics, “My ma gave me a nickel to buy a pickle.”

Clarinets soon pipe up, in their upper register, with a perky fresh theme. Gershwin proceeds to develop much of this material in a richly polyphonic texture. The pace then slackens as our visitor hesitates, passing what could be a church or the Grand Palais, a famous landmark.

A bridge passage –a sinuous, chromatically descending phrase in the flutes—brings us to the second section. Our visitor has presumably now arrived at the Left Bank. Much of the sound is raucous and vigorous. But calm eventually sets in as a solo violin, cushioned by lush Debussyesque chords, is heard. Some commentators suggest this represents a French girl approaching our visitor with her broken English.

Soon a similar bridge passage follows, this time played by two solo violins, bringing us to the third section. A “spasm of homesickness” has now struck our visitor, as we hear an expansive blues sound first heard on the trumpet. But, before it is picked up by the whole orchestra, there is a fleeting interlude for string quartet, attesting to the range of Gershwin’s musical antenna. This passage could have been written by Alban Berg, a composer he adored and whom he visited in Vienna in 1928.

The fourth section brings us a “second fit of blues,” energized by the rhythm of the Charleston. This section climaxes in a grand statement of the blues introduced in section three. As the excitement winds down, we hear a series of three brief bluesy solos, consequent phrases, on violin, tuba, and bass clarinet. These usher in the fifth and final section. Our American has now reached “open air” and is once again “an alert spectator of Parisian life.”

We want to share with you a  wonderfully vibrant and youthful performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

(Full disclosure: the conductor of the St. Thomas Orchestra, with which I will be performing An American in Paris in an upcoming concert,   considers this version the most outstanding he has ever heard.)

To guide your listening to the Dudamel performance, here are cues for the five sections of the piece:

Section 1:  0:00

Section 2:  4:38

Section 3:  7:43

Section 4:  13:12

Section 5: 16:51


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