Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, snare drum, taxi horns, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone), celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 15, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting
Since his early teens George Gershwin had been enamored with the music he heard uptown in Harlem, a region that was quickly becoming the center of the jazz universe. Indeed, his first attempt at a more serious composition – a mini-opera called Blue Monday – was a story about characters in a Harlem nightclub. Its first presentation was on Broadway, however, with white singers performing in blackface; it was a flop and received only one performance.
Undisturbed, Gershwin’s next try at a classical/jazz merging was the so-called “Experiment in Modern Music” (as it was billed for its 1924 premiere): Rhapsody in Blue. He followed this with his Concerto in F, which some writers called “The Jazz Piano Concerto.” These two works were popularly successful, though critics were still guarded with their praise.
It was a trip abroad that inspired Gershwin to work in earnest on a recent commission he had received from the New York Philharmonic. His idea for the new work solidified as he was shopping for Parisian taxi-horns to take back to the US: capture the tumult of Paris’ streets in music and create a concert work that didn’t center around the piano.
Back in New York, Gershwin finished An American in Paris, which he subtitled “A Tone Poem for Orchestra.” In an interview in the August 18, 1928 edition of Musical America, he said of the work: “this new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is the most modern music I have ever attempted.” He also gave a brief “program note” of the work:
“The opening gay section is followed by a rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American… 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 simpler than in the preceding pages. 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 part with its impression of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has disowned his spell of the blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”
Though still not a critical success, An American in Paris was wildly successful with audiences – and Hollywood – and established Gershwin as an original voice in concert halls worldwide, a voice that resonates to this day.
Dr. Dave Kopplin is an Associate Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona, Director of the Cal Poly Jazz Band, and writes for performing arts organizations across the country.