Gershwin: An American in Paris

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
An American in Paris

“George Gershwin is the only songwriter I know who became a composer,” noted Irving Berlin in 1961. Crossover is a discredited concept now, but Gershwin stands almost alone in having achieved a genuine cross-fertilisation of different genres.

He drew rather less complimentary reactions from most of the American classical establishment. “Nauseous claptrap” was the verdict of the New York Telegram on An American in Paris at its premiere in December 1928. Hardly less dismissive was the Evening Post, whose critic declared, “For those not too deeply concerned with any apparently outmoded niceties of art, it was an amusing occasion… To conceive of a symphonic 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.”

He found a more receptive audience in Europe: when he toured his Piano Concerto there earlier the same year, Ravel, when asked what he would like as a birthday present, declared that he wanted to meet Gershwin. The ensuing meeting, where Gershwin asked Ravel for composition lessons (as he was wont to do to almost every major composer he met, so self-conscious was he about his lack of formal training), resulted in Ravel’s observation, “why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?”

It was during this European visit that Gershwin bought a number of car horns in Paris. The results of his experiments with them can be heard at the outset of An American in Paris. Described as a “Tone Poem” on the manuscript, it presents a lively sequence of events, from the opening street scene to the grand romance of the slow central section. Freed from the formal constraints imposed by traditional orchestral genres, the piece proceeds in a rhapsodical, almost stream-of-consciousness manner that perhaps, along with such touches as the car horns, puts him closer in spirit to Ives than is generally recognised. One more European who recognised his significance was Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote after Gershwin’s untimely death: “I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them.”

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