Program Notes

George Gershwin
An American in Paris

When George Gershwin left for his last trip to Paris in March of 1928, he carried sketches and plans for his An American in Paris--sketches dating back two years to the completion of his Concerto in F. Gershwin finished the blues sections in Paris, subtitling the work, A Tone Poem for Orchestra. During this time, he carried around the scores of Debussy and Ravel, met Kurt Weill and attended a performance of Weill's Das Kleine Mahagonny as well as the premiere of Ernst Krenek's jazz-influenced opera Jonny spielt auf. He even played a few bars of the in-progress An American in Paris for Alban Berg at a dinner party! This was Gershwin's coming out to the world of "high-art" music. Striving to attain a reputation in the art world was to be Gershwin's raison d'être from the mid-twenties onward: to achieve a stature apart from the Tin Pan Alley songs for which he was known, and the Broadway musicals for which he had made his earlier reputation. Rhapsody in Blue (1924) marked the beginning of Gershwin's reputation as a composer for the concert hall; An American in Paris was the next step in this progression that would culminate with his opera, Porgy and Bess (1934 - 35).

Walter Damrosch premiered An American in Paris on December 13, 1928, with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. It opened to mixed reviews, of course; some critics went so far as to call it "pedestrian indeed!" The opening theme forever associated the Parisian landscape with taxi horns. While on an earlier trip to Paris in 1926, Gershwin had been drawn to the timbre and peculiar dissonances of Parisian taxi horns that figure so prominently in this work. He purchased two of these taxi horns and took them back to New York with him!

An American in Paris is a Gershwin stylistic compendium exhibiting musical trademarks from both his popular and so-called "serious" genres. Gershwin includes stage band orchestrations right out of the Vaudeville follies he was also writing at the time (George White's Scandals, and Broadway musicals such as Oh Kay!). There is an undeniable American flavor in his use of parallel sixths and tenths, evocative of his involvement with the twenties jazz era, and in his "oom-pah" accompaniments reminiscent of dance bands of the era, and in other mannerisms resulting from Gershwin's habit of composing quickly at the piano. The scoring for this work includes the usual orchestral forces with the addition of three saxophones. Strangely enough, however, Gershwin uses the traditional array of three orchestral percussionists rather than a single jazz drummer, which would have been more suitable for achieving the rhythmic ends of such a work. Perhaps it points once again to Gershwin's obsession during the later years of his life to be accepted as a composer of "high art" music--his concession to Carnegie Hall.

Gershwin added a programmatic note to the work: "My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor to Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere. The rhapsody [Gershwin originally titled this work An American Rhapsody] is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way, so that the individual listener can read into the music such as his imagination pictures for him. The opening 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 simple ... 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 ... impressions of Paris. Apparently, the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has disowned his spell of the blues and is once again an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant."

--Stephen Ruppenthal