This piece for orchestra was introduced by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City on August 16, 1932, Albert Coates conductor.
In the spring of 1932, Gershwin began studying with musical theorist Joseph Schillinger, who gave him lessons with such titles as “Rhythmic Grouping Resulting from the Interference of Several Synchronized Periodicities,” and who had him plotting music mathematically on graph paper. Gershwin was particularly anxious, in these studies, to gain expertise in the use of counterpoint, and it was in the Cuban Overture that he first put to use what he'd learned from Schillinger.
The new piece was written in July of 1932, after the composer returned from a visit to Havana. While there, a sixteen-piece rumba band had serenaded him late one night outside the window of his room at the Almendares Hotel. Intrigued by the sound and instrumentation of their music, he conceived of an orchestral piece that would incorporate both.
Originally called Rumba, it was written quickly so it could be included in the first all-Gershwin concert, which was to take place on August 16 at Lewisohn Stadium. Gershwin's initial draft was for one piano-four hands (that version has been published). Then came the orchestral manuscript, whose first page sports the composer's sketch of the four Cuban instruments included in the instrumentation (Cuban sticks, bongo, gourd and maracas) as well as a note to the conductor directing that they be placed in front of the orchestra. Gershwin was anxious that the audience be able to see as well as hear them.
The premiere was conducted by Albert Coates, who also conducted An American in Paris and Second Rhapsody. Gershwin's good friend William Daly was the second conductor at this concert, and led the orchestra for the Of Thee I Sing Overture, Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue, “Wintergreen For President,” and a medley of Gershwin tunes. Oscar Levant played the concerto while Gershwin was soloist in his two rhapsodies as well as the song medley.
After the concert, having decided that the title Rumba would give peope the false impression that the piece was a dance arrangement, Gershwin gave it the more symphonic title of Cuban Overture.
Gershwin's analysis of the piece appeared in the program notes. This is what he wrote:
“In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance. It has three main parts.
“The first part (moderato e molto ritmato) is preceded by a (forte) introduction featuring some of the thematic material. Then comes a three-part contrapuntal episode leading to a second theme. This first part finishes with a recurrence of the first theme combined with fragments of the second.
“A solo clarinet cadenza leads to a middle part, which is in a plaintive mood. It is a gradually developing canon in a polytonal manner. This part concludes with a climax based on an ostinato of the theme in the canon, after which a sudden change in tempo brings us back to the rumba dance rhythms.
“The finale is a development of the preceding material in a stretto-like manner. This leads us back once again to the main theme.
“The conclusion of the work is a coda featuring the Cuban instruments of percussion.”