Conducted by Nejc Bečan, the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra performs George Gershwin‘s jazz-influenced symphonic poem (or tone poem) An American in Paris. Concertmaster (lead violinist): Nejc Avbelj. This performance was recorded during the Gimnazija Kranj Christmas Concert 2016.

George Gershwin’s An American in Paris

George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” is a vibrant and evocative piece of music that captures the essence of the American experience in the French capital during the “Années folles” or “Crazy Years,” a period of artistic flourishing in Paris during the 1920s. The work premiered on December 13, 1928, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, under the baton of Walter Damrosch, leading the New York Philharmonic. Notably, it was the first of Gershwin’s compositions intended purely for the orchestral format, excluding any role for the piano, yet it is imbued with jazz harmonies and the spirited essence for which Gershwin is renowned.

The piece is a symphonic poem, a form of program music that aims to evoke a scene or tell a story without the need for vocals, dance, or narration. Gershwin’s journey to Paris in 1926, where he sought to study with notable composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky, significantly influenced “An American in Paris.” Despite not taking formal lessons, the encouragement and environment he found in Paris sparked the inspiration for this composition, which he described as a “rhapsodic ballet,” indicating its suitability for dance and its free-flowing, rhapsodic nature.

Gershwin’s experience in Paris, combined with his encounter with Ravel and the vibrant expatriate community, contributed to the development of what he considered his most advanced orchestral score at the time. The composition features the standard instruments of a symphony orchestra, augmented by celesta, saxophones, and famously, four Parisian taxi horns, which Gershwin specifically included to capture the authentic sounds of the Parisian streets. These taxi horns, intended to play specific pitches, contribute to the work’s atmospheric and programmatic qualities, transporting the listener to the bustling streets of Paris.

“An American in Paris” is structured into five sections, following a loose A-B-A format. It begins with themes that reflect the light-hearted and whimsical nature of Paris, followed by a middle section that introduces the blues, representing the American’s feelings of homesickness and contemplation. The piece concludes with a return to the initial themes, overlaid with the slow blues motif from the middle section, culminating in a grandiose finale. This structure allows Gershwin to explore a range of emotions and themes, from the joy and excitement of exploring a new city to the introspective moments of longing for home.

The premiere of “An American in Paris” was met with enthusiasm, though Gershwin himself expressed dissatisfaction with Damrosch’s interpretation, particularly the tempo, which he found too slow. Despite this, the piece was better received than some of Gershwin’s earlier works, appreciated for its craftsmanship and the innovative way it blended classical music with jazz elements. Critics and audiences recognized it as a light and humorous piece, fulfilling Gershwin’s intention to portray his impressions of an American visitor in Paris.

“An American in Paris” has since become one of Gershwin’s most beloved compositions, celebrated for its vivid portrayal of Paris and its successful fusion of classical and jazz elements. The piece’s enduring popularity was further cemented by the 1951 MGM musical film of the same name, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and featured an elaborate dance sequence set to Gershwin’s music. This cinematic interpretation, while different from the original concert work, helped to introduce Gershwin’s music to a broader audience and solidified “An American in Paris” as a quintessential piece of American music that captures the spirit of Paris in the 1920s.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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