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An American in Paris (1928)

With the success of "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) and the "Concerto in F" (1925), George Gershwin was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a new orchestral work, a welcome respite from the piano-centric demands of the previous years. During a trip overseas, he began to conceive of a rhapsodic work, using the symphonic tone poem to freely capture an American perspective of the bustling Parisian streets of taxi horns, strolling through parks, people watching, shopping sprees, and dalliances through the Champs-Élysées.


On December 13, 1928, the work premiered with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. In addition to a large percussion arsenal including three taxi horns, the 17-minute score calls for three flutes (piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, three saxophones, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and timpani. 


For the first performance, American music critic, Deems Taylor prepared an unusual style of program note, an extensive listening guide of poetic prose to read while listening. The commentary aligned so vividly to conjure exacting musical imagery that the publisher included it in the forward of the score. Its perspective of an American embracing the Laissez-faire existence is the authoritative program for the work in its own right. So it is quoted in its entirety as follows:


"You are to imagine an American, visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Élysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts with preliminaries, and is off at full speed at once, to the tune of the First Walking Theme, a straightforward, diatonic air, designed to convey an impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety.


Our American's ears being open, as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxi cabs seem to amuse him particularly, a fact that the orchestra points out in a brief episode introducing four Parisian taxi horns. These have a special theme allotted to them (the driver, possibly?) which is announced by the strings whenever they appear in the score.


Having safely eluded the taxis, our American apparently passes the open door of a café, where, if one is to believe the trombones, “La Sorella” is still popular. Exhilarated by this reminder of the gay nineteen-hundreds, he resumes his stroll through the medium of the Second Walking Theme, which is announced by the clarinet in French with a strong American accent.


Both themes are now discussed at some length by the instruments, until our tourist happens to pass something. The composer thought it might be a church, while the commentator held out for the Grand Palais-where the Salon holds fourth. At all events, our hero does not go in. Instead, as revealed by the English horn, he respectfully slackens his pace until he is safely past.


At this point, the American's itinerary becomes somewhat obscured. It may be that he continues on down the Champs-Élysées; it may be that he has turned off–the composer retains an open mind on the subject. However, since what immediately ensues is technically known as a bridge-passage, one is reasonably justified in assuming that the Gershwin pen, guided by an unseen hand, has perpetrated a musical pun, and that when the Third Walking Theme makes its eventual appearance, our American has crossed the Seine, and is somewhere on the Left Bank. Certainly, it is distinctly less Gallic than its predecessors, speaking American with a French intonation, as befits that region of the city where so many Americans foregather. "Walking" may be a misnomer, for despite its vitality, the theme is slightly sedentary in character, and becomes progressively more so. Indeed, the end of this section of the work is couched in terms so unmistakably, albeit pleasantly, blurred, as to suggest that the American is on the terrasse of a café, exploring the mysteries of an Anise de Lozo.


And now the orchestra introduces an unhallowed episode. Suffice it to say that a solo violin approaches our hero (in soprano register) and addresses him in the most charming broken English; and, his response being inaudible – or at least unintelligible – repeats the remark. The one-sided conversation continues for some little time.


Of course, one hastens to add, it is possible that a grave injustice is being done to both author and protagonist, and that the whole episode is simply musical transition. The latter interpretation may well be true, for otherwise it is difficult to believe what ensues; our hero becomes homesick. He has the blues; and if the behavior of the orchestra be any criterion, he has them very thoroughly. He realizes suddenly, overwhelmingly, that he does not belong to this place, that he is the most wretched creature in all the world, a foreigner. The cool, blue Paris sky, the distant upward sweep of the Eiffel Tower, the bookstalls on the quay, the pattern of horse-chestnuts leaves on the white, sun-flecked street–what avails all this alien beauty? He is no Baudelaire, longing to be "anywhere out of the world." The world is just what he longs for, the world that he knows best; a world less lovely–sentimental and a little vulgar perhaps–but for all that, home.


However, nostalgia is not a fatal disease–nor, in this instance, of overlong duration. Just in the nick of time, the compassionate orchestra rushes another theme to the rescue, two trumpets performing the ceremony of introduction. It is apparent that our hero must have met a compatriot; for this last theme is a noisy, cheerful, self-confident Charleston, without a drop of Gallic blood in its veins.


For the moment, Paris is no more; and a voluble, gusty, wise-cracking orchestra proceeds to demonstrate at some length, it's always fair weather when two Americans get together, no matter where. Walking Theme number two enters soon thereafter, enthusiastically abetted by number three. Paris isnʻt such a bad place, after all: as a matter of fact, it's a grand place! Nice weather, nothing to do till tomorrow. The blues return, but mitigated by the Second Walking Theme–a happy reminisce rather than a homesick yearning–and the orchestra, in a riotous finale, decides to make a night of it. It will be great to get home; but meanwhile, this is Paris!"

George Gershwin was born on September 22, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York, and died on July 11, 1937, in Hollywood, California.© MTF

(Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai)


American masters take center stage to celebrate an American experience, fearless women, impossible virtuosity, and unforgettable journeys. Violinist Joshua Bell and Soprano Larisa Martinez join your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in a program of the unshakable American spirit with Barber’s sweeping Violin Concerto, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Gershwin’s tour de force An American in Paris, and more! © MTF

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