An American in Paris

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            After the rousing success of Rhapsody in Blue Gershwin’s financial security was assured; he moved his family to a spacious apartment in a fashionable section of the Upper West Side, and began to not only collect art, but began to paint, himself.  He established his place in the smart set of New York society—no party was complete without George at the piano surrounded by his admirers, as well as the usual social butterflies.  Oh, to have been a “fly on the wall” for those affairs!  He continued to compose for the musical theatre, but began in earnest serious composition lessons, as well—and with some distinguished composers, including Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell.

            In the early Spring of 1928 through the month of June, he and his family traveled to Europe, where he met many of the most distinguished composers of the time:  Ravel, Berg, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Poulenc, and others.   By then he had composed his Concerto in F, which he heard, along with the Rhapsody in Blue, at a concert given in his honor.  He evidently was anticipating details of the composition of a tone poem about Paris, for he dug around in Parisian garages and brought home with him used taxi horns that were used in the première performance.  That took place on 13 December 1928, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic.  The eminent music critic and composer, Deems Taylor, and Gershwin had been in Paris at the same time, and had met at several parties in the city.  Later, in the fall, they went over the completed score and collaborated to create a detailed program or story for Gershwin’s inspiration.  The program is too long to repeat here in its entirety, but it may be paraphrased somewhat like this:


"In early summer an American is walking down the Champs-Elysées, enjoying the sounds of the city, including taxi horns, passing by a café and hearing a tune from the old century in the trombones.  He continues walking with a new theme in the clarinet.   Yet a new walking theme takes him across the Seine to the Left Bank, where perhaps a whiff of anise muddles him a bit (accompanied by the little cadenza in the solo violin—the attentive listener here may think of Debussy, and the composer more or less acknowledged it.).  Our hero becomes a bit homesick, and we hear the blues, but as he sinks lower he is rescued by the Charleston, announced by a pair of trumpets.  Various previous tunes are recapped, as the American obviously decides to enjoy Paris, and the “orchestra, in a riotous finale decides to make a night of it.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan