Recently, and by that I mean the last month, I’ve been on a big Gershwin binge, and by that I mean hardly a day goes by when I don’t listen to something by him. Of course he is probably best known by the general world for his numerous jazz standards (Summertime, Embraceable You, and perhaps the most influential standard, I’ve Got Rhythm) but he also made some forays into the concert realm. There has been a deal of debate over wether his concert works are classical or jazz. Is Rhapsody in Blue a serious classical work or an extended jazz piece? I’ve developed my own answer: It’s concert jazz, meaning it has classical forms, developments, and ensembles, while incorporating jazz harmony, rhythms, and melodies. Problem solved.
Anyways, the work that has been the center of my Gershwin addiction is American in Paris. It is well known that Gershwin went over to Paris to study with Ravel, and Ravel said something like, “You’re already a first rate Gershwin, why be a second rate Ravel.” A second rate Ravel actually wouldn’t be too bad…Stravinsky was said to have remarked, after seeing how much money Gershwin made “You ought to give me lessons.” Gershwin started writing American in Paris while abroad, and he also acquired some taxi cab horns, which may be the coolest instrument a percussionist will ever have to play. The work premiered under a commission from the New York Phil to mixed reviews. Why is it that it seems almost every piece of standard rep was met with criticism? The piece is something of a tone poem, but in very abstract terms, no vivid Straussian tone painting, but instead general impressions. The first section is evokative of Les Six, and the bustle of Paris. The slower section, with the coolest tempo marking ever “Tempo de Blues,” is the American’s homesickness. In the end the Paris sounds are victorious.
I think that American in Paris is a greater work than Rhapsody in Blue, or any of Gershwin’s other concert works, and that has something to do with that this was the first work he orchestrated by himself. His orchestration is very unique and fits the music perfectly. Did I mention the taxi horns? The middle blues section has, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful melodies ever, played by the trumpet. You didn’t think you’d ever see the words beautiful, melody, and trumpet in the same sentence did you? I didn’t. There also is a nice tuba solo. Another word pairing you never thought you’d see: tuba solo. The whole work is simply perfect, and I dare say it may be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by an American. Disagree if you want. Gershwin is a genius, take it or leave it. Some stodgy old folks think he doesn’t belong with serious music, but they can suck it.
If you want to do this work right, go Bernstein. Sure he may have touched up Rhapsody in Blue, but as far as I can tell he left American in Paris alone.