Work: An American in Paris
About This Work
After the stunning successes of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the Piano Concerto in F (1925), Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, was anxious to capitalize on the young composer's growing fame. He requested a work
from Gershwin for a first performance in Carnegie Hall in mid-December of 1928. Gershwin had journeyed to Paris and was thoroughly immersed in the mood of the French capital. He brought back authentic Parisian taxi horns, which were used as an integral part of the work. The piece is a true tone poem, inspired by extra-musical considerations -- the sights, sounds, and moods of Paris. Deems Taylor, the 1920s composer and critic, furnished a blow-by-blow program for the piece from which I quote a brief excerpt: "You are to imagine an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild sunny morning in May or June....Our American's ears being open as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxicabs seem to amuse him particularly." Although he claimed not to have a program in mind when he wrote the work, Gershwin did sketch his own general scenario: "[A]n opening section, in which an American visitor strolls about Paris and 'absorbs the French atmosphere,' is followed by a rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent," representing an episode of homesickness on the visitor's part. But the American overcomes his spell of depression and once again revels in the sights and sounds of Paris. "At the conclusion," according to the composer, "the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant."
A three-part form is discernible in the composition. The slow middle section includes the famous "homesickness blues" solo by the trumpet, later interrupted by a Charleston-like, highly rhythmic figure also played by the trumpet. The harmonies in this work are spiced with stacked-third sonorities: ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords. Gershwin admitted that some influence of Debussy bore on the work, and indeed impressionistic passages can be heard in the section before the unforgettable bluesy trumpet solo. Readers interested in an in-depth analysis should consult Steven E. Gilbert's The Music of Gershwin (Yale University Press, 1995). While there are innumerable recordings of the work available, the most authentic one (although it lacks good sound) is the first one, made on February 4, 1929, with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the Victor Symphony Orchestra (Victor 39563 and 39564; RCA AVM1-1740); this recording was available (as of 1999) in the Smithsonian Institution's 4-CD album titled I Got Rhythm: The Music of George Gershwin. Gershwin played the celeste part on this recording and obviously was present for the session, presumably indicating that Shilkret's interpretation was acceptable to the composer.
-- Norbert Carnovale, All Msuic Guide
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