Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”: A “Rhapsodic Ballet” Born in the Jazz Age

In the spring of 1928, George and Ira Gershwin traveled to Europe for a three-month sojourn. The brothers, among the most celebrated composer-lyricist teams on Broadway, had just finished work on the musical, Rosalie, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and they relished the time off. It was during this trip that George Gershwin set to work on a commission he had received from the New York Philharmonic. The result was the vividly evocative orchestral tone poem, An American in Paris. 

Gershwin described An American in Paris as “a rhapsodic ballet” which “depicts the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” The piece grew from a melodic fragment called “very Parisienne,” which Gershwin had dashed off during his first visit to the French capital in 1926, and presented as a gift to his hosts, Robert and Mabel Schirmer. Following Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the Piano Concerto in F (1925), this was the first purely orchestral work of the 30-year-old composer, whose life would be cut short, tragically, only seven years later.

In its opening bars, An American in Paris sweeps us into the tumultuous bustle of a magical metropolis. Gershwin conceived this music “in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six” (the band of French composers which included Milhaud and Poulenc), but there are also hints of the popular Brazilian tango dance, the maxixe. (Gordon Kerry) One of the work’s most delightful and memorable moments comes with the raucous honking of taxi horns. In preparation for the December 13, 1928 Carnegie Hall premiere, led by Walter Damrosch, Gershwin purchased the horns at an automobile shop along the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Recent scholarship suggests that Gershwin intended the horns to sound the pitches of A-flat, B-flat, D, and A.

Unfolding in five sections, An American in Paris is filled with bright colors, dizzying Jazz Age energy, a sense of naive optimism, and pangs of homesickness. It is a vibrant fusion of jazz, blues, ragtime, and Ravel. The Charleston meets a walking bass line reminiscent of Bach’s pristine counterpoint (9:29). It is a drama filled with instrumental “characters,” from the solo violin and bass clarinet, to the sultry voices of the saxophone and trumpet. As the adventure draws to an end, tender, nostalgic statements emerge in the solo violin and tuba, as if to lament the passage of time. Then, we are delivered, once again, to the incessant bustle of the street.

Shortly after the premiere, writing in the New York Evening Post, the critic Oscar Thompson dismissed An American in Paris as a fad. He conceded that, while it was all the rage in 1928, “to conceive of a symphony audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.”

Gershwin responded to the critics writing,

It’s not a Beethoven Symphony, you know… It’s a humorous piece, nothing solemn about it. It’s not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds

Nearly a century later, An American in Paris endures as one of the most iconic pieces of 20th century music.

In recent years, The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition project initiated a newly published, completely restored version of An American in Paris, which can be heard below. This concert performance features Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: a vintage 1920s postcard from Paris 

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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