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Composed: 1928

Length: c. 17 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, snare drum, taxi horns, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone), celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 15, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting

About this Piece

Since his early teens, Gershwin had been enamored with the music he heard uptown in Harlem, a part of Manhattan that was quickly becoming the center of the jazz universe. His first attempt at a more serious composition—the one-act opera Blue Monday—was about characters in a Harlem nightclub. Its first presentation on Broadway, with white singers performing in blackface, was a flop and received only one performance.

The undaunted Gershwin’s next try at a classical/jazz merging was for Paul Whiteman’s “An Experiment in Modern Music” concert in February 1924. That piece is now known as Rhapsody in Blue. He followed this with his Concerto in F, which some writers called “The Jazz Piano Concerto.” These two works were popular, though critics were still guarded with their praise.

A trip abroad inspired Gershwin to work in earnest on a commission he had received from the New York Philharmonic. His idea for the new work solidified as he was shopping for Parisian taxi horns to take back to the U.S.: Capture the tumult of Paris’ streets in music and create a concert work that didn’t center on the piano.

Back in New York, Gershwin finished An American in Paris, which he subtitled “A Tone Poem for Orchestra.” In an interview in the August 18, 1928, edition of Musical America, he said, “This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I have yet attempted.” He also gave a brief “program note” of the work: “The opening gay section is followed by a rich ‘blues’ with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American…perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks, has suddenly succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the preceding pages. This ‘blues’ rises to a climax followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impressions of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has downed his spell of the blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”

Though still not a critical success, An American in Paris was wildly and widely embraced by audiences—and Hollywood—and established Gershwin as an original voice in concert halls worldwide, a voice that resonates to this day. —Dave Kopplin