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Gershwin (1898-1937) - An American in Paris

George Gershwin grew up and flourished in the commercial popular music world of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, and with his brother Ira formed arguably the greatest songwriting team of that (and probably any) time. Although his musical education was scant, his talent was prodigious and he harboured an ambition to succeed as a “serious” composer. Stravinsky (or was it Ravel?) related how the already famous Gershwin asked for lessons. “How much do you make in a year?” enquired Stravinsky. Gershwin, presumably thinking this was a credit check, replied casually, “Oh, about $100,000”, to which the considered response was, “Young man, maybe you should teach me”. Gershwin never did acquire an influential teacher, but perhaps it's just as well. 

It is often said that Gershwin fused jazz and “serious” music, but what he really did was bring the style, vitality, and entertainment value of the Broadway musical, which itself borrowed from jazz, onto the concert platform. For this, he was slated from both sides: one camp saw him as an uncultured upstart, the other as a defector. His first foray into the classical field was Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which, in the best Broadway tradition, was orchestrated by an arranger. The Piano Concerto (1925) was all his own work, luckily not inhibited by casual adherence to classical forms. 

He dropped the piano, along with any overt formal straitjackets, for An American in Paris (1928), an apparently dizzying whirl of colourful, rhapsodic invention portraying the experiences of a visitor to that romantic city (then a mecca for young American composers). “Apparently”, because there is order in the chaos of Gershwin's hyperactive imagination. To signpost the broad structure of such evocative music, I must indulge my own (but not necessarily your) fancies. There are two main parts, each contrasting two aspects of the city. 

Part 1: Paris by Day alternates episodes of bustling urban activity punctuated by the stereophonic squabbling of motor horns, with brief, hazy visions of peaceful, perfumed gardens. For some reason, the enthusing visitor, drinking in all the sights and sounds, seems to look remarkably like Gene Kelly. 

Part 2: Paris by Night. The setting of the sun is signalled by a solo violin cadenza, leading into the famous trumpet “blues” passage, at once evoking the romance of the Parisian night and its American visitor's response to it (though some will immediately recall the “indisputable Top Cat”, lounging on a trash-can in a starlit alley!). Soon, though, we are drawn to the bright lights of a Jazz Club, smoky and sleazy with saxophones. 

Postlude: Memories. The “street” music of Part 1 stirs in the dawn light, but soon music from both parts bubbles up irrepressibly as the visitor reflects at length (and rather noisily) on his wonderful experiences: so much to see, so much to do, and so little time for it all! 

There is so much sheer fun that it is easy (perhaps too easy) to revel in it, then dismiss it as merely an exciting diversion. There's nothing wrong in that, but it would overlook the endless fascination of Gershwin's blending of materials diversely characteristic of Paris (representing impressions) and the USA (representing responses). There is a richness and subtlety in the interactions of these which is hard to pin down, and consequently seldom given full credit. Yet, when you really listen, you become convinced that rarely has any symphonic poem so richly deserved that classification.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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