Cuban Overture

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            George Gershwin was arguably the most successful and talented of America’s composers of popular music.  However, the importance of so-called “serious” or “classical” musical interests and training in his life is quite unprecedented for someone who enjoyed Gershwin’s kind of success.  He certainly was not some sort of untutored musical genius who later sought “legitimacy” after having proven himself in the popular world.   Rather, early on, as a young boy, he studied and performed under traditional piano teachers the music of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. He had begun the study of music theory, orchestration and musical form with a teacher at the age of seventeen, and youthful compositions from that time include a string quartet and a modest opera.  Before the Rhapsody in Blue première he accompanied a classical singer at a major recital of standard concert vocal repertoire, and did so again a few years later.  In 1928 he journeyed to Paris, visited with the famed teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger, as well as Maurice Ravel. However, both rejected him as a student, more or less afraid to compromise the genius evident in his burgeoning success.  While in Paris he met and admired the music of eminent composers such as Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Milhaud. Long after he had achieved the kind of success that any popular composer would have envied, he assiduously studied formal composition with established teachers, including Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell.  In 1932, after his smashing successes with Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the Concerto in F, he began composition lessons with Joseph Schillinger, whose esoteric, mathematically based system of musical composition was somewhat the rage at the time.

            It is at that time, after a vacation in Cuba, that Gershwin wrote the orchestral piece, Rumba, a reflection, not only of his encounter with the traditional musical styles of the country, but also of the burgeoning popularity of Hispanic music in the U.S. in general—think of Aaron Copland’s works in this context, as well.  Rumba was a big hit at one of his outdoor concerts in New York City’s Lewisohn Stadium.  While carefully written, its popularity may have surprised him, so he re-titled it as the somewhat more sophisticated “Cuban Overture.”  It’s crafted in a straight-forward fashion:  fast section, slow interlude, and return to the beginning, with the chief melody in the fast section making a strong reference to a very popular Cuban song.  There’s also a somewhat truncated allusion to the immortal La Paloma.  The slower, meditative middle part will remind many of similar materials in An American in Paris, rather than a visit to Havana, but it’s of no matter—it’s all pure Gershwin with a southern lilt.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan