An American in Paris

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An American in Paris is an extended symphonic tone poem by the American composer George Gershwin, written in 1928. Inspired by the time Gershwin had spent in Paris, it evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s. It is one of Gershwin's best-known compositions.

Gershwin composed the piece on commission from the New York Philharmonic. He also did the orchestration. (He did not orchestrate his musicals.) Gershwin scored An American in Paris for the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophone, and automobile horns. Gershwin brought back some Parisian taxi horns for the New York premiere of the composition which took place on December 13, 1928 in Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Gershwin collaborated on the original program notes with the critic and composer Deems Taylor, noting that: "My purpose here is to portray 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." When the tone poem moves into the blues, "our American friend ... has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness." But, "nostalgia is not a fatal disease." The American visitor "once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life" and "the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant."

Instrumentation

An American in Paris is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B flat, bass clarinet in B flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B flat, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, wood block, cymbals, low and high tom-toms, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, 4 taxi horns, alto saxophone/soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone/soprano saxophone/alto saxophone, baritone saxophone/soprano saxophone/alto saxophone, and strings.

The revised edition by F Campbell-Watson calls for three saxophones, alto, tenor and baritone. In this arrangement the soprano and alto doublings have been rewritten to avoid changing instruments.

Recordings

An American in Paris has been frequently recorded over the years. The very first recording was made for RCA Victor in 1929 with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the Victor Symphony Orchestra, drawn from members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gershwin was on hand to "supervise" the recording; however, Shilkret was reported to be in charge and eventually asked the composer to leave the recording studio. Then, a little later, Shilkret discovered there was no one to play the brief celesta solo during the slow section, so he hastily asked Gershwin if he might play the solo; Gershwin said he could and so he briefly participated in the actual recording. The radio broadcast of the September 8, 1937 Hollywood Bowl George Gershwin Memorial Concert, in which An American in Paris, also conducted by Shilkret, was second on the program, was recorded and was released in 1998 in a two-CD set. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra recorded the work for RCA Victor, including one of the first stereo recordings of the music. In 1945, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra recorded the music in Carnegie Hall, one of the few commercial recordings Toscanini made of music by an American composer. The Seattle Symphony also recorded a version in the 1980s of Gershwin's original score, before he committed to numerous edits resulting in the score as we hear it today.

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