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Gershwin: “An American in Paris”

The idea for a “rhapsodic ballet” on an American tourist’s impressions of the French capital came to Gershwin during a visit to Paris in 1926. His American supporters, who wanted him to win over the Eurpoean musical circles, were delighted.Two years later, he established himself with his sister and brother-in-law in the Hotel Majestic to bask in the cosmopolitan artistic climate of Paris—in the company of Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Walton,  and Strokowski—and to compose An American in Paris.This he managed to do despite the inducements of Parisian society in a little over three months.

The compositional plan of An American in Paris, which he intended to be “in the manner of Debussy and The Six,” is not so different from that of Rhapsody in Blue: it consists of a free stringing together of episodes based on a handful of memorable tunes. In this case, they are the “walking theme” with which the work opens (you’ll probably think of Gene Kelly here) and its transformations, the famous “homesickness blues,” and the bits of dance music one hears as the tourist wanders from place to place. (Among these are quotations of the hotblooded song “La Sorella” in the trombones.) It’s a work of atmosphere and panorama, with the street noise—note the four taxi horns (pitched on A, B, C, and D), which I understand the composer to have brought home with him—always prevailing.

Gershwin was happy for his listeners to read into the music whatever episodes they might care to imagine. The intricate program note written bu Deems Taylor for the first performance, quoted in the score, goes on and on in its attempt to outline a dairy of the American’s activites, “swinging down the Champs-Elysees on a mild, sunny morining in May or June,” later (at the bridge passage) crossing the Seine to the Left Bank, encountering a romantic interest, and so on. Taylor writes, purply, of one section “so unmistakably, albeit pleasantly, slurred, as to suggest that the American is on the terrasse of a cafe, explorng the mysteries of an Anise de Lozo.” In an interview at the time, however, Gershwin spoke more simply of the opening “gay seciton,” the “rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent,” and the American’s “spasm of homesickness” after having one too many in the cafe. This is followed by a coda where the “vivacity and bubbling exuberance” of Paris return as the tourist goes out into the open air and regains his equilibrium.

An American in Paris is wonderfully scored, by Gershwin himself, for mega-orchestra complete with saxophones in three sizes, xylophone, celesta, the taxi horns, and a raft of extra woodwind. Surpisingly for a composer of Gershwin’s leanings, there is no piano part.

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