An American in Paris

Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York
Died: July 11, 1937, New York
Work composed: early 1928–November 18, 1928
Premiere: December 28, 1928, New York Philharmonic, Walter Damrosch conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 saxophones doubling on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sax, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, crash cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, ratchet, suspended cymbals, tenor drum, wood block, bass drum, 2 tom-toms, 4 taxi horns of different pitches, celeste, strings
CSO notable performances: These performances are the world premiere of the critical edition of the unabridged work. The CSO previously performed the 2017 Clague critical edition in March 2017, Louis Langrée conducting | Also under Louis Langrée, the CSO performed the 2017 critical edition on its 2017 Asian (China) and European (Belgium and France) tours. In previous editions, CSO performances date back to 1929.
Duration: approx. 20 minutes

Like André Previn but more than half a century earlier, George Gershwin was equally attracted to and accomplished in popular and classical music. Despite his enormous success as a creator of popular songs and musical comedies, and the popularity of the symphonic works Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F, Gershwin was unsure of his abilities as a classical composer. His music had received some criticism for looseness of form, and he was sufficiently insecure at orchestration that he often sought outside advice. He felt what he truly needed was a teacher.

He thought he found the perfect instructor when he met Maurice Ravel, who was in New York at the beginning of a four-month concert tour of the U.S. Ravel had been impressed by Gershwin’s musical Funny Face and wanted to meet the talented American. The two men became acquainted in 1928 at a party in honor of Ravel’s 53rd birthday [see photo on page 51]. Gershwin entertained the party guests by playing his own piano pieces. Ravel was astonished at Gershwin’s technical prowess, artistry and ability to project complex jazz-inspired rhythms with ease.

The two composers became friends. Gershwin took Ravel to Harlem nightclubs to hear authentic jazz, which made a considerable impact on the Frenchman. Gershwin finally screwed up his courage and asked Ravel to give him some composition lessons. Ravel refused, saying that he would just end up writing “bad Ravel” instead of his own spontaneously melodious music. The French composer did, however, offer a letter of introduction to Nadia Boulanger, the great French pedagogue who taught many of America’s most promising composers, including Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond and Walter Piston.

As Gershwin was planning a trip to Paris, he looked forward to meeting Boulanger. In March he set sail first for England, where his show Oh, Kay! was playing in London, and then to Paris. This was the third and, as it turned out, last time Gershwin visited France. He had two specific goals: he wanted to compose an orchestral work called An American in Paris, inspired during his first trip to France, and he wanted to find a composition teacher—preferably Boulanger. As soon as he arrived in Paris, Gershwin had a piano moved into his hotel suite, so that he could compose. Then he set off to see Boulanger, armed with the letter from Ravel.

He played some of his piano compositions for the master teacher, whose reaction was similar to Ravel’s. Not easy to impress, Boulanger was overwhelmed by Gershwin’s natural lyricism. She felt that her academic approach to composition instruction might hamper his effusive talents. She too declined to teach him.

Gershwin next hoped to find a teacher in Stravinsky. When he met the Russian composer at a party, he asked him directly. Stravinsky replied, “How much money do you make in a year, Mr. Gershwin?” Taken aback, the American replied that the sum ran to six figures. “In that case,” Stravinsky replied, “I should study with you!” Stravinsky’s witty refusal marked the end of Gershwin’s search for a teacher in Paris, although he did later try to work with Arnold Schoenberg, who also refused to teach him.

In the meantime, Gershwin was making progress on An American in Paris. One day, he asked his friend Mabel Schirmer where he could purchase some taxi horns like those heard throughout Paris. She took him to some automobile parts shops, where he listened carefully to every available horn. He bought several and brought them back to his hotel room. He planned to use them in his new work, in order to invoke the sounds of Paris in a literal way.

After three months, Gershwin began his journey back to New York—loaded down with mementos of Paris, gifts, the collected piano works of Debussy, two versions of An American in Paris (neither finished), and cartons containing taxi horns. He had by this time received a commitment from conductor Walter Damrosch to premiere An American in Paris with the New York Philharmonic a few months hence. He completed the piano sketch soon after returning home, and the orchestration a few weeks later. The premiere followed at the end of 1928, with four taxi horns among the percussion instruments.

Although the work was intended as pure concert music, its Charleston-like rhythms, jazz-inspired syncopations, blues-like trumpet melody (complete with saxophone accompaniment), and occasional Gallicisms made it a natural vehicle for the dance. Several choreographies were based on Gershwin’s score, most notably in the 1929 Ziegfeld musical Show Girl and in Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Academy Award-winning film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Nina Foch.

For these performances, the CSO will be performing an unabridged version of the critical edition of An American in Paris prepared by the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan in 2017. The most significant update to this edition is the tuning of the taxi horns. The new Critical Edition proposes that the letters (A, B, C, D) on Gershwin’s original handwritten score refer to labels of the horns themselves, not their actual pitches. This edition uses A-flat, B-flat, high D and low A, as indicated in a 1929 recording supervised by Gershwin himself. Additional differences can be found in the saxophones, and in the restoration of Gershwin’s original, jazzy intentions. 104 measures of music were also recovered and included in this unabridged edition. 

KEYNOTE. After completing the sketch but before orchestrating An American in Paris, Gershwin described the work in an interview:

This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and [the group of composers known as] the Six, though the tunes are all original. My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.

The opening gay section is followed by a rich “blues” with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks, has suddenly succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the preceding pages.

This “blues” rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of this music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impressions of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has downed his spell of blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life.
At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.   

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Born: December 22, 1883, Paris
Died: November 6, 1965, New York
Work composed: 1921 (it is referred to as the 1922 version, however)
Premiere: April 9, 1926 in Philadelphia, Leopold Stokowski [former CSO Music Director] conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra; Varèse revised the work in 1927 and the premiere of the new version occurred May 30, 1929 in Paris, Gaston Poulet conducting the Orchestre des Concerts Poulet
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, 3 piccolos, alto flute, 4 oboes, English horn, heckelphone, 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 10 trumpets, 8 trombones, 3 tubas, 2 timpani, bass drum, boat whistle, castanets, crow call, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, lion’s roar, low rattle, rute, siren, siren whistle, sleigh bells, snare drum, 2 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, whip, xylophone, 2 harps, celeste, strings
CSO notable performances: These are the first CSO performances of the original 1922 version of Amériques; the CSO has performed the 1929 version on four previous subscription weekends between 1982 and 2015 | Varèse conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on March 17, 1918 (shortly after he moved to this country), in a program that included Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, Bizet’s “Pastorale” from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2, Verdi’s “Ah fors’ è lui/Sempre libera” from La Traviata, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies, Charpentier’s “Depuis le jour” from Louise, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Duration: approx. 26 minutes

We all wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could (or had to) start our lives all over. Yet few people—at least, few composers—have ever done so more completely and more uncompromisingly than Edgard Varèse.

Born in France and raised in part in Italy, Varèse studied at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and later at the Conservatoire. As a young man he mingled with such luminaries as Picasso, Max Jacob and Fernand Léger. Among composers, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie noticed his talents and became his friends. In 1908 Varèse went to Berlin where he spent the better part of the next seven years, receiving encouragement from Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni. His orchestral work Bourgogne was performed in Berlin thanks to the personal support of Strauss. Varèse later destroyed the score of Bourgogne; the rest of his works perished in a warehouse fire in Berlin. So when Varèse arrived in New York in December 1915, he quite literally had to start over both personally and professionally. (“He had $90 in his pocket and knew only two words of English,” asserts biographer Fernand Ouellette.)

The personal and the professional aspects, of course, were merely reflections of one another. Varèse’s move to the United States during World War I was but the outward manifestation of the important intellectual development that had begun during the last European years. In general, Varèse felt that Western music was too restricted by constraints imposed by traditional patterns of form and metric rhythm, as well as the tempered system of twelve chromatic notes. As he put it in a lecture given during the last years of his life, “my aim has always been the liberation of sound—to throw open the whole world of sound to music.” His innovations, far more radical than those of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives or Bartók, were aimed at discovering sounds that had not been used in musical works before. He heard these sounds clearly in his head, and strove to realize them with the technical means at his disposal. Many of Varèse’s ideas could only materialize after the advent of electronic music. He was in his seventies when he was finally able to write a Poème électronique (1958) for Le Corbusier’s Philips pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels.

Amériques, the first composition Varèse wrote in the United States, and thus his earliest surviving work, embodies the composer’s vision with uncommon imaginative power. The orchestral forces are among the largest ever assembled; they allowed Varèse to achieve the variety of timbres as well as the sheer “critical mass” required for a true “liberation of sound.” Percussion writing has never been this complex: the polyrhythms are perceived as an intricate tapestry of sound color. Of particular importance is the siren, which Varèse included in several of his scores, not because of any emotional associations but because it provided a continuum of pitch (a glissando of sorts) going beyond the twelve-tone system. The instruments playing regular pitches, dominated by the 21 brass players, project what Varèse called a “pure sound” that “does to harmonies what a crystal prism does to pure light. It scatters it into a thousand varied and unexpected vibrations.”

The title Amériques has given rise to many speculations about a possible program behind the piece. Varèse did say that his first impressions of New York were not visual but aural ones:

For the first time with my physical ears I heard a sound that kept returning in my dreams as a boy—a high whistling C-sharp. It came to me as I worked in my West Side apartment where I could hear all the river sounds—the lonely foghorns, the shrill peremptory whistles—the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before....

Yet Amériques is not a programmatic piece in the narrow sense. Varèse pointed out that the title, emphatically in plural, had to be understood as “symbolic of discoveries—new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.”

KEYNOTE. Varèse’s music makes as few references to music from the past as possible. There is, perhaps, only one work by another composer to which Amériques owes a tangible debt: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. (Varèse was present at the famous scandal during the ballet’s 1913 premiere.) The Rite had just begun to make the transition from icon of barbarism to established modern classic when Varèse appropriated certin melodic and rhythmic elements from it and took them to a considerably higher level of abstraction and complexity. The folk melodies that are readily discernible in The Rite are gone in Amériques, but are occasionally alluded to in some melodic fragments and ostinatos (pattern repetitions). Yet Varèse was not writing ballet music and thus could afford to divest himself of the last remnants of any “constraints imposed by the traditional patterns,” which are still present in Stravinsky.

Amériques negates the very concept of musical form based on a gradual unfolding of events, in which each section builds upon the previous one either by continuation or by contrast. It is not a “linear” piece but rather one proceeding in complicated zigzags and surprising fits and starts. Yet the work does not lack its internal logic and coherence: the sinuous alto flute solo at the beginning and the violent eruptions at the end make for a compelling structural arc. The framework is not unlike, once more, The Rite of Spring, with its opening bassoon solo and concluding wild “Sacral Dance,” but it is filled in quite differently. There are numerous changes of texture and tempo, but one never knows what the next change will be or when it will occur.

Despite all this unpredictability, there are a few constants in the piece. A number of recurrent melodic fragments, heard in different instrumental guises and rhythmic shapes, are always recognizable by a certain succession of intervals. Toward the end of the piece, in a fast and rhythmic section that is the equivalent of the “Sacral Dance,” the three piccolos and two flutes play a long theme consisting of repeated notes, scalar segments, and a characteristic formula where a rise of a perfect fifth is immediately followed by a return to the original pitch (D-A-D).

All of these elements, heard separately at different moments earlier, are finally brought together in a configuration that, although lacking the symmetrical shape of a classical melody, is a melody nonetheless. It ushers in a climactic ending that is just about the only traditional feature of the piece.

Peter Laki

Igor Stravinsky

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: April 6, 1971, New York

Symphony in C Major

  • Work composed: 1938–1940: the first movement in Paris, 1938; the second at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in the French Alps in 1939; the third in Cambridge, MA during the fall and winter 1939–40; the fourth in Hollywood in the summer of 1940
  • Premiere: November 7, 1940 in Chicago, Igor Stravinsky conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 3 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1940, Igor Stravinsky conducting | Most recent: April 1985, Bernard Rubenstein conducting
  • Duration: approx. 28 minutes

The Symphony in C marks a pivotal moment in Stravinsky’s long career as a composer. It was composed just before his third and final emigration, when—after living in Russia, Switzerland, and France, he moved to the United States in September 1939, sailing three weeks after the start of World War II. It is symbolic that he entered America with a symphony, a genre he had not cultivated since an early student work (the Symphony of Psalms is a different matter). With the choice to write the symphony “in C” (the tonality that, in its major form, has no flats or sharps and is, thus, at the beginning of every study of classical harmony), it was Stravinsky going back to basics, and reconnecting with the world of Mozart and Beethoven, during times that were particularly trying for Stravinsky: within the space of a year, he lost his daughter Lyudmila, his wife and his mother, and was himself hospitalized for tuberculosis.

But Stravinsky would not have been Stravinsky if that had been all he did. At this point, the composer had been working in a multitude of “neo-Classical” styles for almost 20 years, meaning that he was appropriating, and putting new spins on, elements from several centuries’ worth of music history, from the Baroque to Romanticism. In paying homage to Viennese classicism, he also takes a detached look at that tradition, “disrupt[ing] its classical purity,” and creating “a new means of achieving the classical values of order, clarity, balance, and formal beauty,” in the words of analyst Martha M. Hyde.

The history of the Symphony in C is inseparable from one of Stravinsky’s closest friends and musical associates, the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). As recent research by musicologist Kimberly Francis has shown, Boulanger worked indefatigably on Stravinsky’s behalf to secure funding for the symphony and later to edit the score, and even though her efforts at funding fell through and she never completed the editorial work, their countless conversations about the piece during the fateful summer of 1939, which Stravinsky spent at Boulanger’s country home in France, contributed greatly to the progress of the composition.

KEYNOTE. Much of the symphony’s thematic material is built out of the three-note motif B-C-G, heard right at the outset. In the first movement, Stravinsky follows the rough outlines of sonata form, but his approach has something “cubist” to it in that the emphasis is more frequently on fragments, considered in isolation, than in the context of the overall direction. Beethoven’s First Symphony in C major has been said to have been Stravinsky’s model, but in the place of Beethoven’s goal-oriented inevitability, we find a more episodic structure here, with the focus on being in a certain place, rather than inexorably moving toward a culmination point.

The second movement is a Larghetto concertante, in which different instruments or instrumental groups take turns as soloists. The melodic lines are generously embellished with fast sixteenth- and thirty-second notes. After a more agitated middle section with a more angular melody in which the solo trumpet emerges as a protagonist, the opening material returns, with even more ornamentation as before.

There is no pause between the Larghetto and the following Allegretto, which fulfills the role of the Scherzo in the four-movement symphony scheme. It is filled with typical Stravinskyan displaced accents and asymmetrical ostinatos. Distinguished from the main section by its slower tempo and more sparing orchestration, the “Trio” offers more mixed meters and nervously repeated short motifs. A modified return of the main section is followed by a coda featuring the horns and trumpets.

The last movement begins with a curious low-pitched duet between two bassoons in a slow tempo—a murky opening, contrasting with the bright and vigorous theme of the subsequent fast section, full of energy, yet making room for a brief lyrical melody played by the oboe. The ominous slow music returns mid-movement, as a brief respite in the middle of the dynamic activity. However, the high energy gradually dissipates toward the end, and the symphony concludes with the woodwind and brass recalling the opening three-note motif in a series of solemn, but surprisingly understated chords.

—Peter Laki