Gershwin: An American in Paris
Premiered Today in 1928

Gershwin and the car horns

Gershwin and the car horns

When George Gershwin made his way to Paris in 1926 he was looking to expand his musical horizon by taking lessons with Maurice Ravel. Ravel excused himself under the pretense of not “wanting to spoil Gershwin’s musical voice,” and he referred him to Nadia Boulanger, who also refused to tutor him. Undeterred, Gershwin met up with Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Auric, and he certainly soaked up the exciting atmosphere of the Parisian capital.

Ravel, Gershwin, and Leide-Tedesco

Ravel, Gershwin, and Leide-Tedesco

Gershwin also composed a fragment of music labeled “Very Parisienne” that was inspired by the sounds of taxi horns along the Paris boulevards. In March 1928, George and Ira Gershwin returned to Europe for three months, with Ira recording in his diary, “George is spending considerable time networking, sharing his progress with composers and publishers. He is mingling with composers and artists from across Europe, including William Walton, Honegger, and Prokofiev.” And George also went shopping for car horns in the automobile shops along the Avenue de la Grande Armée!

George Gershwin: An American in Paris
An American in Paris 1951While in Paris, George worked feverishly on An American in Paris and finished the sketch soon after returning home. He described the work as “the most modern music I’ve yet attempted,” its beginning being “developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six.”

An American in Paris

An American in Paris

It premiered on 13 December 1928 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Walter Damrosch. It immediately thrilled American audiences and even gained the respect of a number of major composers. Gershwin subtitled the work “A Tone Poem for Orchestra,” and kept referring to it as a “rhapsodic ballet.” The work achieved lasting fame in the 1951 American musical film “An American in Paris.” The story of the film is interspersed with dance numbers choreographed by Gene Kelly and set to Gershwin’s music. The climax of the film in the 17-minute ballet sequence making use of the entire “An American in Paris” score.

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  1. [If I’ve made factual errors, please forgive and post corrections; how else do we learn and grow?)

    Years ago I noticed how loud ground noises were when you were a few stories up. I asked a friend (from Chicago) if street sounds amplified somehow on the 5th story walk up that she and her whole extended family grew up on. She said, “Oh yes, Jane, sounds from the streets seem even louder than when you’re down on the sidewalks—up ‘till about the 6th or 7th floors!”
    Then I moved to Los Angeles into a third story apartment and was hearing street sounds as though they were just outside my window. Jack, oldest grandson, was here and he walked to my patio where a guy was making a phone call in the middle of the street. He called back, astonished, “It’s true, I can hear every word that guy says—maybe even better than HE CAN!”

    Later I read online that on that Paris trip GERSHWIN awoke very early in his 6th floor hotel room listening to the sounds of Paris awakening.

    It is in the very first bars of ‘An American in Paris’ where Gershwin imitates those first sounds of a waking Paris street.

    (Now, I think it’s the rare note b# that ALL vehicles, ships, etc. horns are set to—just different octaves of that b#. )
    So listen to the little oboe squeak out his b# and immediately then the big old delivery truck his own deep b# four octaves lower. To me This piece is an amazing masterpiece!

  2. There is a melody I have been struggling to identify. It is played by the trombones around the 90-second mark. There is another piece by a different composer that features this same melody. Does anyone know what it is?

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