An American in Paris
Highbrow pundits never quite knew what to do about George Gershwin (1898-1937). 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 Rodzinski (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 whipcrack 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.
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 is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.