Gershwin: An American in Paris

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, and died in Hollywood, California on July 11, 1937. He composed An American in Paris during the spring and summer of 1928, completing the orchestration on November 18 of that year. Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony gave the premiere on December 13, 1928. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in July 1931 with Artur Rodzinski conducting; the most recent subscription concert performances, in September 2004, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, three saxophones (used in various combinations, including three sopranos, three altos, or alto, tenor, and baritone), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, bells, xylophone, taxi horns, celesta, and strings. Performance time: about seventeen minutes.

In 1926 Gershwin went to England to prepare the London production of Lady, Be Good,starring Fred Astaire and Astaire’s sister Adele. A short holiday across the Channel produced a big dividend: an idea for a tone poem about Paris. He departed with a highly original notion, the saucy walking theme with which An American in Paris gets under way. "This is so complete in itself, I don't know where to go next." he confided to his hostess, Mabel Schirmer.

Two years passed before Gershwin completed the work during a return visit to Paris. The piano sketch was done by August, the orchestration by mid-November, and four weeks later Walter Damrosch conducted the premiere at Carnegie Hall. The composer explained: "This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I've yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though the themes are all original. Later Gershwin said, “I’ve not endeavored to represent any definite scenes in this music. The 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 gay 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 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 impressions 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."

Mary Ann Feldman

Mary Ann Feldman was for many years program annotator for the Minnesota Orchestra, in whose program book this note originally appeared. Reprinted by permission. Copyright © The Minnesota Orchestra.

More About the Music
Recordings— Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  Seiji Ozawa conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra (Idi) 

Reading—The Gershwins, by Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon (Atheneum)  |  Gershwin: A Biography, by Edward Jablonski (Doubleday)  |  Gershwin in his Time: A Biographical Scrapbook, 1919-1937, edited by Gregory Suriano (Gramercy)  |  Gershwin Remembered, edited by Edward Jablonski (Faber and Faber)