Gershwin’s Unexpected Inspiration Behind ‘An American in Paris’
By Mark ClagueTweet
On Sunday, November 12, the Akropolis Reed Quintet will open its debut UMS recital with George Gershwin’s An American in Paris arranged by saxophonist Raaf Hekkema. University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor Mark Clague, also director of the U-M Gershwin Initiative, shares some background on the composer’s unexpected inspiration behind this iconic work:
Paris in the 1920s served as a kind of spiritual home for American art, especially for music as New World composers required a refuge from the pervasive influence of the German masters. Yet, the essential inspiration for George Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris was not the Eiffel Tower, but New York City’s Hudson River. In January 1928, Gershwin began work on an “orchestral ballet” starting with a melody he had sketched out nearly two years earlier on a trip to Paris. Contemplating this snippet which he had labeled “Very Parisienne,” Gershwin looked out from his home on 103rd Street toward the Hudson. “I love that river,” Gershwin later reported, “and I thought of how often I had been homesick for a sight of it, and then the idea struck me—An American in Paris, homesickness, the blues.” He continued to work on the piece while visiting Europe that summer.
Overall, Gershwin’s tone poem follows a three-part ABA structure in which an intrepid American traveler revels in the dizzying soundscape of Paris, is overcome by memories of home, struggles to recover, and finally triumphs over his homesickness, enthusiastically returning to the sights. Gershwin later offered this succinct program to the work:
This piece describes an American’s visit to the gay and beautiful city of Paris. We see him sauntering down the Champs Elysées, walking stick in hand, tilted straw hat, drinking in the sights, and other things as well. We see the effect of the French wine, which makes him homesick for America. And that’s where the blue[s] begins…. He finally emerges from his stupor to realize once again that he is in the gay city of Paree, listening to the taxi-horns, the noise of the boulevards, and the music of the can-can, and thinking, “Home is swell! But after all, this is Paris—so let’s go!”
In 1928, of course, the sale of alcohol was illegal in the U.S, but not in Europe. In a letter preserved in the Library of Congress, Gershwin endorses the use of An American in Paris for an anti-prohibition concert!
The piece not only captures Gershwin’s personal experiences in France, but here the composer uncovers a new depth of artistry. His early success with Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway shows made him both hugely popular and wealthy, yet classical composers and critics remained skeptical of his aspirations to write serious music. Many dismissed works such as Rhapsody in Blue (1924) as untutored. Written just four years later, An American in Paris exhibits Gershwin’s trademark popular appeal, yet musically it is a one-movement symphony, as closely related to the economical construction of Beethoven as to the jazz stylings of Fletcher Henderson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. The musical building blocks of Gershwin’s tone poem are small motives that could only be imagined for instruments. These are repeated and passed from one voice to another in a rich tapestry of counterpoint. Gershwin’s motives represent everything from laughing passersby and taxicabs (a three-note motif featuring real car horns) to drunken tourists stumbling down the street and a brisk walking tune to accompany a stroll along Paris’s romantic Left Bank.
You may hear the colorful influence of French composers such as Claude Debussy and Les Six that Gershwin was consciously trying to evoke, as well as a bit of J. S. Bach’s famous “Air” in the bluesy “homesick” trumpet theme. The reed quintet arrangement by Raaf Hekkema of the Calefax Reed Quintet captures all the excitement, reverie, jazzy verve, and storytelling drama of Gershwin’s full orchestra original.
Listeners curious to know more might pick up Howard Pollock’s monumental study George Gershwin: His Life and Work or Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music by U-M Professor Emeritus Richard Crawford. Fans of An American in Paris, in particular, might also want to rent the MGM film of the same title. It won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture and features Gene Kelly, pianist Oscar Levant, and love interest Leslie Caron in bringing the story of Gershwin’s musical poem to life. The movie influenced a recent Broadway show.
Hear the Akropolis Reed Quintet perform An American in Paris, Sunday, November 12, 2023 in Rackham Auditorium.