07 Mar 2013

Gershwin – An American in Paris

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, woodblock, cymbals, triangles, tom-toms, auto horns, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, strings.

Duration: 16 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937) – With the sensational popularity of Rhapsody in Blue firmly imbedded in the international consciousness, Gershwin found himself quite the celebrity when he travelled abroad in 1928. While in Europe with his family he met some fellow “serious” composers, including Prokofiev, Ravel, Walton and even Berg. Though he continued to compose for the theatre, Gershwin had spent the years immediately following the Rhapsody in greater contemplation of his concert music persona.     

THE MUSIC – Among the many rewards for a success as potent as Rhapsody in Blue was an increase in commission opportunities. Walter Damrosch and his New York Symphony Society had already struck piano gold again with Gershwin on the Concerto in F in 1925 and the conductor wasted little time providing funding and a Carnegie Hall date for another project. Gershwin’s rise to fame away from Broadway was so quick that it outpaced the opinions of many that still viewed his “serious” efforts with a patronizing skepticism. By 1928 however, this circumstance was beginning to correct itself. One entertaining story from the time tells of Stravinsky’s response to Gershwin’s request for composition lessons. Stravinsky, upon hearing of Gershwin’s six-figure income, supposedly said “then I should take lessons from you.” Stravinsky later characterized the exchange as “regrettably untrue” but the historical affection shown this legend (and a similar one involving Ravel) confirms the shifting attitudes of some among Gershwin’s new peer group. The composer fulfilled the second Damrosch commission with a light-hearted tone portrait of his time in Paris. He was determined to write something that stood on its own two orchestral feet and didn’t rely on a solo piano for its credibility. Paris, with her busy streets and cultural tumult, was the perfect muse and Gershwin used the authentic French taxi horns he brought back with him as one of the many charms that eventually win over the titular “homesick American.”                 

THE WORLD – The Summer Olympics opened in Amsterdam in 1928. Also that year, the Catholic institution Opus Dei was founded, the animated short film Steamboat Willie (featuring Mickey Mouse) was premiered and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (to outlaw war) was signed in Paris.

THE CONNECTION – An American in Paris is performed on nearly every Utah Symphony’s concert series. The most recent Masterworks concert occurred in 2007 under Keith Lockhart.