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An American in Paris

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Gershwin
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

The impactive success of the Rhapsody in Blue catapulted Gershwin into a totally new status. He was acknowledged everywhere as a major figure in American music and in asserting an American influence in Europe. At the end of 1925 he performed with a symphony orchestra for the first time, as soloist, under Walter Damrosch, in the Concerto in F which he composed under Damrosch's commission. He orchestrated the Concerto himself, having taught himself from some orchestration manuals, but after that premiere he took lessons in harmony from Edward Kilenyi Sr. and Rubin Goldmark, and in counterpoint from Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger. He began visiting London and Paris, and in the French capital he applied to Ravel, who had given lessons in orchestration to several respected composers but who said to Gershwin, "Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?" (Gershwin did have some lessons from Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he played tennis in Hollywood, though Schoenberg suggested, in remarking on their respective incomes, that it was Gershwin who ought to be giving him lessons.)

Gershwin made his first trip to Paris just after the premiere of the Rhapsody in Blue. Two years later (1926), when he was in England for the London and Liverpool openings of his musical comedy Lady, Be Good, he took a few days to visit Paris again, and the idea came to him of composing an orchestral work describing his impressions of that city. He even bought some authentic Parisian taxi horns, after deciding to use the real thing rather than attempt an imitation with conventional instruments.

It was two years after that, though, before he got round to serious work on the piece, to which he gave the title An American in Paris, and which he promised to Damrosch for premiere in December 1928. Following another London opening in the spring of that year (this time the show was Oh, Kay! ), Gershwin went to Paris for a longer visit, during which he had stimulating meetings with Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Milhaud--and bought more taxi horns. He returned to New York on June 20, completed the piano sketch for An American in Paris on August 1, and in an interview published in the August 18, 1928, issue of Musical America made this statement on the work:

This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I've yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though all the themes are original. My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.
As in my other orchestral compositions, I've not endeavored to represent any definite scenes in this music. The rhapsody is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way . . .
The opening gay section is followed by a rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a couple of drinks, has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simpler than in the preceding pages. This blues rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impression of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has disowned his spell of the blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.

Actually, not all the themes are original. Helping to establish the atmosphere early on is a brief but emphatic citation of the tune known as La Maxixe. Among the "various street noises" are the aforementioned taxi horns, and the title page of the score pointedly identifies Gershwin as both composer and orchestrator. He completed the orchestration on November 18, less than four weeks before the work's premiere, given by Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic (which had just absorbed his New York Symphony Orchestra) on December 13, 1928. Eight months later Gershwin made his first appearance as a conductor, presiding over a performance of this work at Lewisohn Stadium.