Gershwin: Cuban Overture

Cuban Overture

GEORGE GERSHWIN
BORN: September 26, 1898. Brooklyn, NY
DIED: July 11, 1937. Hollywood, CA

COMPOSED: 1932 

WORLD PREMIERE: August 16, 1932. Albert Coates conducted at New York's Lewisohn Stadium

SFS PERFORMANCESFIRST—April 1956. AndrĂ© Kostelanetz led the SFS at a pops concert. MOST RECENT—July 2010. Donato Cabrera conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, bongo drums, claves, cymbals, guiro, maracas, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, and strings 

DURATION: About 11 mins

THE BACKSTORY: George Gershwin straddled the worlds of popular song, Broadway, Hollywood, and the concert hall more successfully than any composer before his time or since. His songs mixed urban savvy and sentiment like no one else, and no one expressed better the inner life of a rapidly urbanizing America, so full of strivers and self-improvers just like himself. Highbrow pundits never quite knew what to do about Gershwin. That a more or less self-taught Broadway tunesmith presumed to write ambitious concert works such as An American in Paris or Rhapsody in Blue was annoying enough. That he was often boisterously successful with those same works was even more irritating.

In 1932, when Cuba was still a playground for wealthy Easterners, George Gershwin traveled to Havana and applied himself to its sports, beaches, and gaming tables with the legendary gusto that colored the whole of his existence. During his visit—and not least of all in the course of wild serenades played in his honor at all hours of the morning—he developed a fascination for Cuban music and the percussion instruments that gave it its distinctive flavor: maracas, bongos, claves (hardwood sticks struck together) and the guiro (a serrated gourd scraped with a wooden stick). When he returned to New York he brought with him an assortment of these instruments (just as he had taken taxi horns back from France for his American in Paris) and the inspiration for his third orchestral work, an evocation of the Cuban dance entitled Rumba. (Before its second performance, it was renamed Cuban Overture, lest it be thought of simply as a piece for dance band.) At New York's Lewisohn Stadium on August 16, 1932, the fact of its premiere was overshadowed by the sheer phenomenon of the event itself—the first all-Gershwin concert—and the immense tribute paid its composer by the monumental attendance. Gershwin himself called it “the most exciting night I have ever had, first, because the Philharmonic Orchestra played an entire program of my music, and second, because the all-time record for the Stadium concerts was broken. I have just gotten the figures: 17,845 people paid to get in and just about 5,000 were at the closed gate trying to fight their way in—unsuccessfully.” “Musical history is replete,” noted one critic, “with examples of composers who, if they did not suffer complete neglect at the hands of their contemporaries, could hope for little more than the encouragement and understanding of an enlightened few. George Gershwin, surveying the throngs who came to hear him, had much for which to be grateful.”

In notes for the premiere, Gershwin commented: “In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my  own thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.” Gershwin went on at length about the work’s structural elements, and he could hardly contain his excitement over his incorporation of technical practices from the so-called “serious” modern music. His analysis ignored the orchestral color and rhythmic verve that impart life and movement to his work. “The scoring is remarkably transparent for Gershwin,” writes Charles Schwartz. “The rather wide spectrum of instrumental colors in this composition, enhanced by the underlying sounds and rhythmic momentum of ‘Cuban’ percussion instruments, come through with considerable clarity and effectiveness, making [this] a fine display piece for orchestra.”

—Howard Hersh

(September 2018)