About this Recording
8.559859 - BERNSTEIN, L.: Songfest / GERSHWIN, G.: An American in Paris (Wolf Trap Opera, National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, Judd)

Leonard Bernstein: Songfest • George Gershwin: An American in Paris • Aaron Copland: An Outdoor Overture


George Gershwin: An American in Paris (ed. M. Clague, b. 1966)

Gershwin’s Aesthetic Fusion in An American in Paris

Paris in the 1920s served as the spiritual home away from home for American art, especially in music, as composers sought not only aesthetic refuge from the German masters, but a distinctive, independent, and modern sonic language. Yet, despite its title, an 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 this “orchestral ballet,” starting with a melody he had sketched out nearly two years earlier on a trip to Paris. Contemplating the snippet he had labeled “Very Parisienne,” Gershwin looked 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.”

Overall, Gershwin’s tone poem follows a three-part A-B-A structure in which an intrepid American traveler revels in the dizzying soundscape of Paris, is overcome by melancholy visions of home, and then recovers and embraces the magic of the city. Gershwin later offered this succinct program for the work:

“This piece describes an American’s visit to the gay and beautiful city of Paris. We see him sauntering down the Champs-Élysées, 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 … blues begin … 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!’”

On the title page of his handwritten manuscript score, the composer proudly inscribed “Composed and Orchestrated by George Gershwin.” Yet, until the work’s new 2019 critical edition—used for the recording here—Gershwin’s original orchestration had not been heard in concert for more than 75 years. The original is leaner, more angular, and more transparent. It better evokes Gershwin’s signature sound world by mixing classical with jazz. A trio of soprano saxophones, for example, wails at the climax of the Charleston section. This unique instrumental color was removed by well-intentioned editing in the early 1940s in the attempt to adapt Gershwin’s imagination to the conventions of the professional orchestra. The eight different saxophones originally called for were reduced to three and these were labeled as optional.

An unexpected discovery of the new edition is that its iconic taxi horns have long been performed incorrectly. Gershwin searched the automobile shops of the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris to purchase some 20 taxi horns, selecting four that sounded specific pitches to include in the composition. Their addition to the score necessitated inventing a notation to tell percussionists how to use the novelty instruments. Gershwin wrote the rhythms on a single-line staff (just like an unpitched snare drum or triangle) and then identified the specific horn to be played with a letter system. He labeled the horns “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D.” After his death, his editor mistranslated these labels as pitch names. Preserved on a 1929 recording, however, the intended notes are clearly audible as A flat and B flat above Middle C, D natural a ninth above, and A natural a minor third below. These original pitches are more dissonant, dangerous, and modern. They better depict the cacophonous swirl of taxis along the Champs-Élysées. Further, the high D and low A are delightfully surprising and reintroduce another instance of Gershwin’s characteristic humor to the work.

Restoring Gershwin’s original musical conception of An American in Paris invites its reassessment, not as a pops concert bonbon, but as Gershwin’s first serious and original composition for orchestra alone (that is, without himself as soloist). Hearing the work as only a tone poem is an error. It is both a tone poem and a symphony, a synthesis of tune and story with motive and counterpoint. The work’s A-B-A structure tells the tale of a homesick American, yet it also maps precisely onto the sonata allegro form of a classic symphonic movement—exposition, development, and recapitulation.

When taken seriously as a classical composition, An American in Paris comes to the fore as a synthesis of Gershwin’s fundamental aesthetic insight—to compose great music that appeals not to the few, but to the many.

Mark Clague
Editor-in-chief, George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition


Aaron Copland: An Outdoor Overture

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Aaron Copland turned from the modernism of his early compositions to develop a specifically American style better suited to a wider audience. To that end, in 1937 he composed The Second Hurricane, a one-act opera for student performers, and premiered it in New York City on April 21. In the audience for that performance was Alexander Richter, head of the music department of the High School of Music and Art, and he approached Copland about writing a piece for his school orchestra. “I liked the idea of the High School of Music and Art,” Copland explained, “where gifted students could prepare for their careers in the arts without sacrificing a general education. Richter won me over when he explained that my work would be the opening gun in a campaign the school planned with the slogan: ‘American Music for American Youth.’” When Copland played the piano sketch for him, Richter remarked that it had an open-air quality, and together they settled on the title An Outdoor Overture. Richter conducted the premiere on December 16, 1938 and the work immediately joined the ballet Billy the Kid, introduced two months before in Chicago, in establishing Copland’s “Americana” idiom, which became a profound influence on this country’s music.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda


Leonard Bernstein: Songfest

Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest, written in 1976–77 to celebrate the American Bicentennial Year, was intended as a modern composer’s view of three centuries of this country’s history and artistic heritage as recorded in the verses of 13 of its poets. The composer’s associate Jack Gottlieb wrote, “The subject matter of the poetry is the American artist’s experience as it relates to his or her creativity, loves, marriages or minority problems (blacks, women, homosexuals, expatriates) within a fundamentally Puritan society.” Songfest was premiered under the composer’s direction by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 1977.

To the Poem (Frank O’Hara, 1926–1966) begins as a ceremonial fanfare but becomes a hymnal anthem as it responds to the text’s call for “something small and important.”

The Pennycandystore Beyond the El (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, b. 1919) is the memory of a first love set as a jazzy scherzo.

The confident, aggressive music of A Julia de Burgos (Julia de Burgos, 1914–1953) suggests the conflict of the conventional and liberated aspects of the poet’s own personality.

For the setting of To What You Said … (Walt Whitman, 1819–1892), Bernstein borrowed the music from his 1976 musical about the American Presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whitman’s haunting verses about his homosexual secret were not published during his lifetime, and were discovered only shortly before Bernstein rendered them into music.

I, Too, Sing America (Langston Hughes, 1902–1967) conflates its bold expression of the African-American character with the scat singing of Okay “Negroes” (June Jordan, 1936–2002).

To My Dear and Loving Husband (Anne Bradstreet, c. 1612–1672) is a tender setting of a remarkably intimate poem by America’s first published writer.

The initials in the title of Storyette H.M. (Gertrude Stein, 1874–1946) refer to the poet’s friend painter Henri Matisse, but the words tell of an improperly functioning marriage.

if you can’t eat you got to (e.e. cummings, 1894–1962) is a swing setting of the bohemian poet’s recollection of his early poverty and lifestyle.

Music I Heard With You (Conrad Aiken, 1889–1973) is a poignant song of bereaved love.

Zizi’s Lament (Gregory Corso, 1930–2001) captures the North African character of the poem’s exotic namesake.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892–1950) is a heartbroken song about forgotten loves.

Israfel (Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849) is a dramatic and virtuosic evocation of the Islamic archangel, “who despisest an unimpassioned song” and who will sound the trumpet to announce the Day of Resurrection.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Close the window