George Gershwin's An American in Paris
Tone poem for orchestra.
When Gershwin first visited Paris in 1923 he was given a tour of the city by two friends: lyric writer Buddy DeSylva and Cartier's executive Jules Glaezner. As the trio was passing through the Arc de Triomphe and heading down the Champs-Élysées, Gershwin exclaimed, “Why, this is a city you could write about!"
“Don't look now, George," said DeSylva, “but it's been done."
Gershwin was not daunted. Three years later he was in Paris again, spending the week with his friends Robert and Mabel Schirmer. The former was of the Schirmer music publishing family and the latter had, like, Gershwin, studied music with Charles Hambitzer. Thus, they were sensitive to the composer's musical doings and looked on with interest as he began to consider his next orchestral composition.
"He had only… that first theme, the way An American in Paris starts," Mabel Schirmer recalled some years later. "And I know that after that first theme, he was a little stuck. He said, 'This is so complete in itself I don't know where to go next.'” Never entirely at a loss, however, Gershwin asked the Schirmers to take him to Avenue de la Grande Armée. where automobile parts were sold. There he looked for and found a set of French taxi horns. Presumably, he already decided to include them in the orchestration of the piece.
Another two years would pass, however, before he began giving the new composition his undivided attention. It was on March 25, 1928 that he returned to Paris for a third visit, taking up quarters at the Majestic Hotel, and there he worked from two separate drafts—one for solo piano and the other for two pianos. It was also during this stay in France that he met with many of Europe's most prominent composers, including Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Walton and Dukelsky. As was customary with Gershwin, everyone within earshot heard the work in progress and everyone offered his or her opinion. Dukelsky (shortly to become pop songwriter Vernon Duke—a name devised by Gershwin), thought it somewhat saccharine. Prokofiev, who had called Gershwin's previous orchestral work, the Concerto in F, a series of 32-bar choruses, saw some hope in this one. As for Ravel, he was already an avowed Gershwin fan, having gone out of his way to meet the young American during a visit to New York. From Paris, Gershwin made an excursion to Vienna, where work on An American in Paris continued, and where he met Franz Lehár and Alban Berg.
On June 6, 1928, the New York Times heralded the premiere of An American in Paris, saying that the work was scheduled for the upcoming season of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Walter Damrosch would conduct the premiere, as he had conducted the debut of the Concerto in F. On June 20, the Gershwin party (including Ira and the latter's wife, Leonore) returned to New York and the brothers began work on the musical comedy Treasure Girl. Simultaneously, George worked on the new piece. It was finished on August 1 and the orchestration (including for French taxi horns) was complete as of November 18. The first performance took place on December 13, 1928.
It was customary by now for any new Gershwin highbrow effort to be greeted by competing hoots and cheers. The primary hooters were, as usual, the established music critics, this time led by Herbert Peyser of the New York Telegram. According to Peyser, An American in Paris was "so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded, and inane that the average movie audience would be bored by it into open remonstrance."
On the other hand, there was the Musical Courier, which said that the piece was "in a class, atmospherically, with Berlioz's Roman Carnival, Svendsen's Carnival de Venise and Chabrier's España." And there was also the testimony of France's Poulenc, who declared that An American in Paris was his favorite 20th century musical composition. In any event, audiences immediately loved the piece because it was pure Gershwin and they loved Gershwin all the more for having written it. It was because of them that An American in Paris became an instant classic (the Rhapsody in Blue was Gershwin's only other highbrow work to catch on so quickly.).
The published piano solo of the piece is by William Daly, a close Gershwin friend.
Although An American in Paris depicts the experiences of a grown man in a city renowned for its sophistication, musically it has the feel of a return to childhood. This point of view is adopted right away in the initial walking theme, which does not walk so much as it skips, and it's melodic tag, which consists of a schoolyard-style "nyanny-nyah." The same spirit is present in the nose-thumbing of the taxi horns and, later, in the brief staccato calls that make up the two other walking themes. It is even present in the blues, which has a comic edge: this homesick melody co-exists with continuing jocular asides by the flutes.
The childlike spirit of the work and its irrepressible delight with wife were best caught in its first recording, made on February 4, 1929 by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Symphony Orchestra. On that record (where Gershwin himself can be heard, briefly, on celesta), the music is lean and without bombast, the tempo brisk, the humor never flags, and all the asides and comments by small gleeful instrumental groups are unfailingly revealed. Also revealed in this and other good performances are the rich polytonal total chord sequences (one of the first is a slow variation on the initial walking theme; another, wonderfully orchestrated for pizzicato strings and celesta, appears during the violin solo that introduces the blues), zesty rhythms and cross-rhythms (alternating eighth and quarter note triplets; triplets pitted against twos and fours) and the well-planned and satisfying overall structure.