“An American in Paris” in the age of the freedom fry

Is it possible for a piece of music to be so effective that you can no longer tell that it is a great piece of music?Sounds like a contradiction in terms? Perhaps you might remember Ravel’s comment about Bolero: “I have only written one masterpiece, and unfortunately, it contains no music.” Consider then the case of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which we performed this week with the OES. Is it a masterpiece, and does it contain music or only melody?Well, I’m a believer.We all know it is a great audience favourite, that it’s full of memorable tunes, and that it’s fun to play. How many of us really have a sense of what a great piece of classical music it is?

Classical music?

Yes- classical music. I would suggest that what makes Gershwin’s blend of jazz and classical so much better than everyone else’s (except Berstein’s) is that he ultimately writes classical music (not because classical music is better than jazz, but because classical musicians are, in general, better at playing classical music than jazz)- that is music which, regardless of its jazz style, embodies the core attributes of the classical tradition. If you’ve read my postings on other works, like Shostakovich 5, Mahler 2, Sibelius 5 and so on, you’ll already have a sense that one thing I find most compelling about all these pieces is the sense of unity and wholeness that each of them possesses. Is American in Paris as tightly constructed as Beethoven 5? No, but it is a work in which form and content are intimately linked- where the overall structure of the piece seems to grow from the character and implications of the musical material. It’s certainly more perfectly constructed and less episodic than any Liszt tone poem, and on par with most of Richard Strauss’s better orchestral works (this from a big Strauss fan)- not only in terms of being attractive and exciting, but also in terms of being formally satisfying.It’s easy to miss this quality, specifically because it is so attractive and exciting. The very catchiness of his tunes can make it hard to hear the piece as a coherent whole (Beethoven knew that a great melody can make it hard to hear “the music,” hence his avoidance of catchy tunes, which he certainly could write), but the piece does have that rare combination of beauty and brains.

In fact, Gershwin knew full well that his tunes were sufficiently catchy that he didn’t really need a form- Rhapsody in Blue works perfectly well, even though it is, in the end, just a collection of fantastic tunes. From this point of view, American in Paris has to be recognized as a huge step forward for Gershwin as a composer (not to mention the fact that he had much larger hand in its orchestration than he had in that of Rhapsody in Blue, which was mostly the work of Grofe. The official word is that Gershwin did all the orchestration for Paris himself, although I would not be surprised if there were some other hands in it).

Understanding of Gershwin’s accomplishment in American in Paris benefits from stepping back and seeing how beautifully structured the work is- basically a four movement symphony in one span (see Sibelius 7 or Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 for interesting comparisons), where the finale joins up all the thematic and musical strands of the previous three movements. However, I actually think it is a piece that you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve heard it rehearsed, and had a chance to get to know the marvellous touches and incredible subtleties (yes, subtlety in Gershwin, and tons of it), in every bar. The piece absolutely overflows with astonishing bits of harmony, color, and wit. There’s never a literal repeat of an idea, never a moment of empty rhetoric, and never a harmony that could have been more interesting.

Still, this is probably a hopeless cause- the whole work is so infectious and fun that I think it will remain impossible to convince audiences that it is a serious work of art, or musicians that it is not a pops piece. They’ll all go home humming the big trumpet tune (fantastically played in Pendleton by our principal, James Smock), never stopping to think about how much music they’ve actually heard.

That’s okay. Maybe we need a classical masterpiece that can fly under the radar of the modern culture-phobe.

 PS- I could easily write another entire post on how full of mistakes the parts are, how hard they are to read, as well as how expensive they are to rent. When copyright protections mean we have to play a standard repertoire piece from materials that you would normally never accept, that’s very sad. I can’t think of another composer (other than the odd Frenchman like Debussy or Ravel, whose works were often mangled by their original publishers, who seemed to put a low value on readability and no value on proofreading) who is less well-served by his publishers. We need a critical edition of the piece, but we’re not going to get it soon.
 c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on ““An American in Paris” in the age of the freedom fry”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Gershwin puts the hurt on the 20th and 21st centuries

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