Rhapsodic Ballet: How An American in Paris was Born

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On a chilly December night in 1927, New York's elite filed into Carnegie Hall to hear a new concerto by one of the city’s most popular men. The world had only just been introduced to the voice of Mickey Mouse; now another distinctly American voice was preparing to be heard.

George Gershwin was just a few months into his thirtieth year and, having given the world eight musical comedies, was now making the journey from the theatrical stage to the symphonic one. It wasn’t the first time he had braved this crossing, but that didn’t make it any more dangerous: in 1927, as today, critics were prone to slot artists into categories that could be easily defined.

Gershwin was third on the bill and its probable that, as the audience enjoyed both Franck and Gulliaume Lekeu, he was a carefully contained storm. The composer was known for his composure: much like his music, he had a confidant air. But Gershwin also suffered from something he called “composer’s stomach”, a name he bestowed on a grueling digestive system which caused him no end of pain - especially on any given opening night. His diet, often consisting of gruel and bread, left him tall and lean with an athletic build. Women loved him and he loved himself, but until his death he was tormented by his stomach’s chronic malcontent. It’s likely he ate very little on that December day when his new work was set to premiere; it’s equally likely that he smoked several cigars in the hours before the show – Gershwin was said to have always had one in his mouth until he quit in 1931.

When the moment came, conductor William Damrosch raised his baton, took a breath, and then signaled the orchestra to begin. At once, it exploded into a jaunty, diatonic movement of woodwinds and taxi horns meant to symbolize the exalted walk of an American skipping down the Champs-Élysées. In the approximately twenty minutes that followed, the musical narrative – Gershwin thought of it as a “rhapsodic ballet” – continued to symbolize the American’s journey from cafes to the banks of the Seine. There’s a bout of homesickness but, as the programme notes put it, “nostalgia is not a fatal disease” and the American recovers his equilibrium, allowing the piece to conclude in an exuberant celebration at an allegro tempo in two/four time.

 

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Praise for "An American in Paris" was divided from the start. The Herald-Tribune called it “engaging, ardent, and unpredictable” but the Telegram declared it to be “nauseous clap-trap”. Otto Kahn, chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Company, applauded Gershwin’s wholly American voice before going on to wish for “a driving storm” that might color Gershwin’s soul with a touch of grief. In other words, Kahn was suggesting that a happy Gershwin was good, but a miserable one would be great.[ii]

Kahn’s tongue might have been in his cheek, but every joke has a kernel of truth and this one must have struck Gershwin hard. Publicaly adored – his Rhapsody in Blue sold over a million copies in 1924 - Gershwin was in a constant battle to prove to the critics that he was a composer of note. Gershwin’s genre was jazz, a sound which many critics lumped into the same category as ragtime and denounced for its vulgarity[iii]. Most critics bestowed Gershwin with grudging admiration rather than lavish praise, something which clearly annoyed Gershwin more than his stomach ever could. Asked to write his own epitaph by Vanity Fair in 1925, Gershwin supplied this: “Here lies the body of George Gershwin, American Composer. American? Composer?”.

Total adoration would come, but Gershwin wouldn’t be around to hear it. Today, his music is part of the American songbook. Woody Allen used Gershwin to score his film Manhattan while Rhapsody in Blue was played by 84 pianos at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As for that supposedly nauseous clap-trap that premiered at Carnegie Hall, it has continued to endure, both in its original form and in other variations - a film (1951), a ballet (2005), and an award-winning musical. An American in Paris has not been forgotten: the piece that Gershwin himself called “the most modern music I’ve attempted” has continued to find an audience for more than eighty years.

 

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In the spring of 1926, George Gershwin sailed to Paris to oversee the London version of Lady Be Good, the hit musical he had written with his brother Ira and playwright Guy Bolton. Apparently confidant with the state of the show, Gershwin disappeared during previews, electing to escape to the French capital to see friends. There, the American composer in Paris decided to write his impressions of the city the only way he knew how. He composed a sketch, complete with taxi horns bought on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, and presented it to his hosts as a gift. He called it “Very Parisienne”.

The writing of the piece might have represented the first time in years that the composer wrote without a commission. His fairly meteoric rise began early when he became the youngest song plugger ever hired by Remicks Music Company (in the days of sheet music, pluggers were the pianists who played the music for customers). After a few years of contributing to musical revues, he found success in 1919 when superstar Al Jolson sang his song Swanee in the musical Sinbad. Gershwin, barely 21 years old, used this success to get himself and his brother to Broadway.

But the composer was not content with musicals. Simultaneous with his musical comedy career, Gershwin had dabbled in both opera (the dismally received Blue Monday Blues) and a smattering of orchestral works. Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered in 1924, was received much as An American in Paris - in other words, the critics divided on the its merits “I am not enamored with the themes or workmanship,” said famed critic Pitts Sanborn of Rhapsody, “but the thing certainly has zip and punch.” Sanborn’s opinion is reflective of the whole. Everyone agreed that attention must be paid to the composer. They anticipated Otto Kahn. Gershwin was good, they said. But he was not yet great.

This unique dichotomy – repeated again and again throughout his career – seemed to haunt Gershwin for much of his life. “He had everything,” said Kitty Carlisle, an actress friend. “But there was something terribly vulnerable about him…he needed approval.” Almost as soon as Rhapsody in Blue was written, Gershwin began to write articles defending jazz. He called it America’s “new national anthem” and “the voice of the American soul.”[iv]  He went on to say that “true music must repeat the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is now.” It was in this spirit that he first began writing An American in Paris, a piece whose very title reveals the patriotic spirit that Gershwin was hoping to convey. Like Rhapsody in Blue (and his 1926 work, Concerto in F), the work infused the classical with a healthy dose of jazz and a dollop of patriotic flair. It seems designed to be a quintessential American piece by man hoping to be one of the preeminent American composers of his time.

 

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Clearly pleased with the work, Gershwin eventually promised it to Walter Damrosch and returned to Paris in 1928, where he bought more taxi horns and went to work.  The piece was finished in New York and a facsimile from November 18 has the composer calling it a “tone poem for orchestra.” The date suggests that Gershwin finished the work during the unhappy aftermath of his latest show Treasure Girl. Opening on Broadway in early November, the show was a failure in every respect, running for just under 70 performances, A month later, Otto Kahn would suggest that Gershwin hadn’t suffered; clearly, he hadn’t taken into account the critical and popular indifference his latest musical had just received.

The year that followed An American in Paris’s premiere saw the opening of two Gershwin musicals, as well as his conducting debut (it’s notable that he chose AIP for this occasion – perhaps he hoped to give his critics a second chance.) Nor was that the end of his efforts; another ten years of music in all forms awaited America’s ears. We should almost be grateful the Tribune declared An American in Paris to be “clap-trap”: if it had been a critical darling, Gershwin might have stopped writing then and there. His response to his critics was always the same. The more they doubted him, the more determined he became to prove them wrong.

 

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There is no piano solo in An American in Paris, a rarity for Gershwin, and this characteristic forced the composer to concentrate solely on orchestration. A relative novice in 1928, he no doubt sought advice from other sources, a fact which led to controversy some years after AIP premiered.

In December, 1932, a violinist named Allan Langley published an article in American Spectator which attributed Gershwin’s success to “symphony budgets and critic-box-office liaisons”. Amazingly, even though Gershwin had never been universally loved, Langley believed his popular acclaim had been “playing havoc with critics’ reputations for consistency and penetration”. Further, Landley suggested that An American in Paris had been created as part of a plan to bolster the failing fortunes of New York’s various symphonies and that a media conspiracy treated the premiere with “unprecedented seriousness.”

Entitled “the Gershwin Myth”, the article concluded with the theory that Gershwin’s fame was undeserved. Langley attributed An American in Paris to conductor William Daly, who was in attendance throughout rehearsals and “clearly knew far more about the score than Gershwin.”[v] The article raised enough of a furor that Daly took to the New York Times in protest.

The effect on Gershwin, so sensitive to critique, might have been acute: the article appeared at the end of a string of complicated years. His brother had lost a great deal of money in the Crash of 1929 and their first film score appeared in a largely forgettable film.[vi] Gershwin’s next two orchestral pieces, the Second Rhapsody and the Cuban Overture, were received with the usual mixture of praise and indifference. His father died mere months before The Gershwin Myth was published and although his satirical musical Of Thee I Sing had become the first to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, Gershwin himself didn’t receive the award because, at the time, the committee didn’t recognize composers. Now, after all this, “the Gershwin Myth” was hitting him with questions about his craftsmanship.

 Gershwin didn’t respond publicly, but he did, as always, go back to work. It was around this time that he began to talk seriously about creating another opera: his source material was the bestselling novel Porgy and Bess. Now considered his masterpiece, Porgy and Bess originally only ran for 124 performances with the work’s true notoriety not coming until after his death. Sadly, this wasn’t too far away. Gershwin went to Hollywood in 1936 but he wouldn't last; it was there that he finally encountered Otto Kahn’s driving storm.

Gripped by terrible headaches, Gershwin was unable to work, a fact which led producer Samuel Goldwyn to take him off the payroll until his return. Gershwin, seemingly humiliated by this perceived failure, gave Goldwyn the rights to An American in Paris for free – something which Goldwyn did not exploit until 1961, when the famed film starring Gene Kelly was finally made. But Gershwin was long gone by then. In July of 1937, he collapsed because of an immense tumor pushing against his brain. He fell into a coma and died four days later. It rained at his funeral; over five thousand people got wet.

 

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Four years after his death, Hollywood made a film of his life and this was only the first of many ways in which his life and music have been celebrated over the past eighty years. What can account for this unique legacy? His contemporaries – Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter – have left their own individual mark, but only Gershwin’s songbook has been mined again and again to create musicals, film scores, and ballets.

Writing of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin once remarked his plan was to create “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” If today he is celebrated as an American composer, it may be because that was the image he himself cultivated from the first moment of his success. His music, like American society, is a vast melting pot of ideas. His orchestral work fuses classical music and jazz, just as his magnum opus, Porgy and Bess, combines opera and musical theatre.

“It is very important music,” said Gershwin’s father after An American in Paris premiered. “Doesn’t it take 20 minutes to play?” Even Gershwin’s critics, like Gershwin Senior, intuitively understood that his music demanded to be heard. Eighty years later, his music continues to be timeless: it seems to be the soundtrack of an idealized world in which we are all that jaunty American, swinging our way through Paris, looking for adventure even as we remain nostalgic for home.

 

The musical "An American in Paris", directed by Christopher Wheeldon and featuring a book by Craig Lucas, continues its North American Tour. Check here for dates.

 

 

NOTES

[i] Described in the exhaustive program notes written by Deems Taylor for the AIP premiere.

 

[ii] Kahn’s speech was reprinted shortly after the premiere of AIP in American Courier. January 22, 1929.

 

[iii] For a detailed outline of how jazz was perceived, see “An Invasion of Vulgarity” by Matthew Mooney in American Popular Culture, Spring 2004, Vol 3, Issue 1.

 

[iv] Both for essays in Theatre Magazine, August 1925 and June 1926 respectively

 

[v] “The Gershwin Myth” appeared in the December, 1932 issue of American Spectator

 

[vi] The film, starring Janet Gaynor, was called “Delicious”