MasterWorks Two: The French Connection
Saturday, December 13, 2003 - 8:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
PREMIERED: New York, NY, 1928
When Gershwin visited Paris in 1926, he asked Maurice Ravel for composition lessons. Ravel simply asked him how much he earned, then roared with laughter at the reply; Gershwin, he said, should give him lessons. Gershwin set up a 20-concert US piano-playing tour for Ravel that would earn the Frenchman $10,000 – less than Gershwin’s weekly earnings that year. Gershwin did, however, return to New York with a melody that he called “Very Parisienne;” this would be the “walking” theme that opens An American In Paris. Walter Damrosch actually asked Gershwin for a concerto in the wake of the dazzling success of the Rhapsody In Blue. That would come later; in the meantime, this “symphonic poem” would have to suffice. Gershwin had been listening to Ravel and Satie, and had something to show for it.
“Very Parisienne” did not come to the United States alone; Gershwin also brought with him four Parisian taxi horns that would be used to evoke the French capital; these form one of the quirkier features of this work, which is unique in Gershwin’s output in its attempts to square Gershwin’s instinctive rhapsodic gift with something resembling Classical structure. The piece is actually in a rough ABA form, with the famous trumpet solo – a melody evoking the American’s homesickness in the midst of the Satie – as its centerpiece. The melody is often referred to as a blues, but is nothing of the sort. It is, however, one of Gershwin’s greatest melodies – no small statement.
Although the piece was not intended to tell any particular story, Gene Kelly would choreograph it for the 1948 movie of the same name, and had problems with the structural balance of the music. So, ironically, did Gershwin, who tortured himself with doubts as to his status as a “real” composer; the original score is nearly five minutes longer. Following the first performance (which he walked out on, hating Damrosch’s tempi), he excised a few repetitions and redundancies to leave us the piece we hear tonight. He was right – but he had nothing to worry about regarding his status as a composer.