Friday, December 13, 2013

This Day in Classical Music History (Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’ Debuts)

December 13, 1928—Featuring what its composer termed “the most modern music I've yet attempted,” An American in Paris, the product of George Gershwin’s trips abroad to deepen his knowledge of orchestration and harmony, premiered across the Atlantic, performed by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by Walter Damrosch. Still only 30 years old, Gershwin was displaying the ambition that would enable him to transcend the boundaries of his Tin Pan Alley apprenticeship. Many musicians playing the piece at the premiere, though, did not appreciate his moxie. They would be horrified by the thought that the composition they performed with such little appreciation that night would  become one of the most loved classical music pieces of the last century.

Twelve years after this event, and three years after Gershwin’s untimely death, his close friend, pianist-composer-humorist-raconteur Oscar Levant, described an overnight train journey they had taken in A Smattering of Ignorance: “A lengthy discussion of music occupied us for an hour or so, and I was actually in the midst of answering one of his questions when he calmly removed his clothes and eased himself into the lower berth.... I adjusted myself to the inconveniences of the upper berth…. At this moment my light must have disturbed George [Gershwin’s]’s doze, for he opened his eyes, looked up at me and said drowsily, ‘Upper berth—lower berth. That’s the difference between talent and genius.’”

The anecdote tells us what good company the puckish Gershwin could be, but if he thought genius would have been enough to get him by, he would never have been serious enough to change musical direction—nor crucially, over the long term, figure out how he would apply the musical immersion he underwent with Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg. 

(Not that these men could understand his direction, either: Ravel asked, when Gershwin asked about receiving orchestra lessons from him, "Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?" Even Schoenberg, who did eventually come around and instructed him, marveled, after he heard about the American's current income from Broadway show tunes, that perhaps Gershwin ought to give him lessons.)

Gershwin made his first trip to Paris in 1924, after his success with Rhapsody in Blue. Two years later, after yet another visit, he decided to write a piece about the city that would capture an American’s impressions of it. To lend his composition extra authenticity, he even bought French taxi horns whose sounds he would use. 

But it would still not be until the spring of 1928, when he and lyricist brother Ira went to the city for some rest and relaxation after their work for the frenzied opening of their musical Rosalie for Florenz Ziegfeld, that he got to work on the idea forming in his head. (Ira, normally no slouch, used this time, as he put it, "[seeing] the sights and [drinking] beer.")

Gershwin completed his piano sketch for An American in Paris by early August, then his orchestration for it on November 18, less than a month from the premiere by Damrosch, who had also conducted the premiere of Gershwin’s prior major classical work, Concerto in F.

The New York Philharmonic reflected the loathing that traditional classical musicians possessed for the interloper Gershwin, who, for his part, attended its rehearsals dressed in a derby hat and smoking a cigar.  One music critic of the time exhibited similar snobbery over Gershwin’s attempt to cross musical boundaries: “An American in Paris is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it."

Au contraire, as they say. One Gershwin phrase about the piece he was planning in the summer of 1928—that it was “really a rhapsodic ballet”—may have inspired Hollywood to think about its possibilities for dance on film. In 1951, MGM released a movie that incorporated the name of the piece into its title and a generous helping of the composer’s music, though the half-hour composition itself was reduced to last than five minutes onscreen. It was a career highlight for star Gene Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli, and even Levant, whose character imagines himself playing Concerto in F before an audience in a large concert hall, taking on the successive roles of  pianist, conductor, kettle drummer, xylophonist, violinist, concert master and, at last, an audience member who shouts "Bravo, encore!"

Whether or not you agree that the movie should have won the Best Actor Oscar that year (beating out A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun), it surely remains one of the highlights of the American musical, just as the composer it honored remains safely esconced now in the classical music canon to which he aspired.

(The accompanying Bain News Service photograph of George Gershwin is now in the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.)

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