George Gershwin
Born September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York
Died July 11, 1937, in Los Angeles, California
3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, keyboard, strings
Performance time
16 minutes
December 13, 1928
Last Performed by the TSO
September 25, 2016

An American in Paris is a “tone poem” or “symphonic poem”, a musical form
invented by Franz Liszt. Unlike most symphonies, tone poems have a specific subject; they tell a story or portray a place or person or idea. Even as progressive and creative a thinker as Liszt could hardly have conceived of a Brooklyn-born American of Russian-Jewish heritage composing a tone poem about an American’s stay in Paris during the roaring twenties, visiting the sites and dodging the traffic, getting homesick and missing his family and friends, and recovering his gaiety by drinking and dancing in a Montmartre night club. This is more or less the story An American in Paris tells.

A musical prodigy, Gershwin left high school at 14 to earn money as a song plugger, a piano player in music publishing houses to help sell songs. His innate musical talent and creativity moved him up quickly in the music business. By 21 he had become a Broadway sensation and written a hit song, “Swanee,” sung by one of the most popular contemporary performers, Al Jolson. It earned him a spectacular amount of money. Gershwin’s move into symphonic music came from the band master Paul Whiteman who, unlike Gershwin, had a classical training. The partnership produced Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Gershwin throughout his short life sought to gain and solidify the technique necessary to write symphonic music in longer forms. He did have several teachers, but when in Paris he asked Maurice Ravel for lessons he was turned down. “Perhaps I should take lessons from you?” quipped the famous French composer after he learned of the more famous American’s impressive annual income.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris is impressive in both content and orchestration,
the result of the composer’s genius focused by his studies with classically trained composers. His orchestration is as brilliant and colorful as Ravel’s, and his manipulation and development of musical themes shows a familiarity with both Bach and Beethoven. The amalgamation of classical music forms with jazz styles has made Gershwin’s music popular but also important in music history.

David Gilbert