Gershwin (1898-1937) - An American in Paris
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
Gershwin never did acquire an influential teacher, but perhaps it's just
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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,
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