Gershwin: An American in Paris

An American in Paris

GEORGE GERSHWIN
BORN: September 26, 1898. Brooklyn, New York
DIED: July 11, 1937. Hollywood, California

COMPOSED: Begun in spring and summer of 1928. The orchestration was completed on November 18 of that year

WORLD PREMIERE: December 13, 1928. Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—July 1931. Artur Rodziński conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 saxophones (used in various combinations, including 3 sopranos, 3 altos, or alto, tenor, and baritone), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, bells, xylophone, taxi horns, celesta, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Highbrow pundits never quite knew what to do about George Gershwin. That a more or less self-taught Broadway tunesmith presumed to write ambitious concert works was annoying enough. That he was often boisterously successful with those same works was even more irritating. Some critics vented their umbrage via potshots at Gershwin’s perceived technical shortcomings. Others dismissed his works as mere passing fancies, such as the New York Evening Post’s Oscar Thompson, who allowed that while An American in Paris might be all the rage circa 1928, “to conceive of a symphony audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.”

Raised patrician pinkies notwithstanding, conductors knew a good thing when they heard it and snapped the piece up. The work’s December 1928 premiere by Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony was followed by performances by such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Artur Rodziński (who led the SFS premiere in 1931), Alfredo Casella, and erstwhile San Francisco Symphony maestro Henry Hadley. Even Arturo Toscanini—nobody’s choice as an advocate for American music—turned in a whip crack rendition with the NBC Symphony. The first studio recording, with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the Victor Symphony and featuring an uncredited George Gershwin Himself on celesta, took place on February 4, 1929, less than two months after the New York premiere. Umpteen performances and recordings later, An American in Paris dances blithely towards its centennial, bedrock repertory, familiar and loved the world over. Far more than a mere Jazz Age travelogue, this quintessentially American symphonic poem unfolds with radiant vitality and intoxicating energy.

THE MUSIC  An American in Paris eschews formal symphonic development in favor of a loose episodic structure charting the adventures of an American tourist sampling the glories of Paris and succumbing to fits of homesickness along the way. The work’s most compelling features are its marvelous melodies—who isn’t enchanted by the central “blues” section with its wailing trumpet solo?—and its glittering orchestration, featuring that quacking quartet of Parisian taxi horns. “It’s not a Beethoven symphony, you know,” commented Gershwin, perhaps in reaction to elitist reservations about the work’s overriding joie de vivre. “If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”

—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

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)  

(November 2017)