The Kennedy Center

Cuban Overture

About the Work

George Gershwin Composer: George Gershwin
© Thomas May

In February 1932, the always-busy George Gershwin had recently finished preparing a big new Broadway show (Of Thee I Sing, which had opened in December 1931) and his first film score. He headed to Cuba for a vacation that, as he wrote, involved "two hysterical weeks in Havana, where no sleep was to be had, but the quality and quantity of fun made up for that." Along with enjoying the sights and parties hosted by the likes of Howard Hughes, Gershwin eagerly soaked up what he could of the island's indigenous music. "Cuba was most interesting to me," he wrote, "especially for its small dance orchestras, who play [the] most intricate rhythms most naturally."

Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack observes that "Americans had become enamored with Cuban music and the rumba in particular, a vogue abetted by Spanish-born bandleader Xavier Cugat" among others. By this time, adds Pollack, the rumba-"a relatively tame adaptation of the Afro-Cuban son" and "tailored to American fashion"- had become the most popular of Cuba's dance forms, with a characteristic rhythm "enhanced by a tendency toward alternating harmonies that rocked back and forth."

In fact Rumba was the name Gershwin originally gave to the concert overture he sketched out back home that summer. He was especially intrigued by Cuban percussion instruments and had returned to New York armed with a collection of these as well his memories of authentic music-making from the streets and clubs of Havana. Along with snare and bass drum, cymbals, bells, and xylophone, the percussion section calls for bongos, güiro (gourd), maracas, and claves.

On its first-ever all-Gershwin concert, held at (the no-longer-extant) Lewisohn Stadium in August, the New York Philharmonic premiered the new work, which he later retitled Cuban Overture. The more "classical" title suggests Gershwin's ongoing concern with acquiring the symphonic technique (in compositional processes and orchestration) that he believed he needed to complement his natural musical gifts. These traits are also apparent in the complex layering of voices and rhythms of Cuban Overture.

The piece unfolds in three sections, with an introduction and "vamp" preparing the way for the pair of themes that compares the first section. A cadenza for solo clarinet bridges the music into the slower middle section, which includes three canons that lead to a climax. The final section remixes material heard earlier, and Gershwin caps the piece with a short coda.