An American in Paris
BORN: September 26, 1898. Brooklyn, NY
DIED: July 11, 1937. Hollywood, CA
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 Far more than a mere Jazz Age travelogue, Gershwin’s quintessentially American symphonic poem An American in Paris unfolds with radiant vitality and intoxicating energy. The work’s spry longevity (ninety years and counting) would have come as a surprise to those critics who dismissed Gershwin’s works as mere passing fancies. The New York Evening Post’s Oscar Thompson 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.
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.
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