George Gershwin: An American in Paris

According to Wikipedia, audio compact discs have been commercially available to consumers since 1982. Tragically, my family did not acquire this amazing technology until well into the 90's. Growing up in the era I did was a very interesting time in terms of music technology.  The primary means of sharing music with consumers was either through the newly christened "Music Television" or for those of us without cable (before it was cool to "cut the cord") it was in fact the humble cassette tape.

Know how I know you're old? You still think Comic Sans is a pretty neat font.
Now the cassette tape afforded a unique opportunity to easily and quickly record music directly from the live broadcast of radio stations.  This was illegal, but rarely raised a fuss as the challenge of waiting for the radio to play your favorite song and then have everything ready to capture it was often a difficult endeavor requiring no shortage of luck and patience.  The advent of the CD meant that higher quality music was readily available, but it wasn't as easy to capture songs in the same manner, so it until the internet (and the illegal music downloading game) kicked in people largely remained true to the magnetic storage medium.

Prior to the mp3 and the various codec progeny that ensued, music either had to be shared physically from person to person or you had to actually purchase an album.  Buying the album meant paying for all the songs on the disc or cassette even if you only really wanted to hear one or two tracks.  This is a problem that was alleviated by the "a la carte" methodology introduced by the iTunes store and other music providers as well as the aforementioned illicit music peer-to-peer sharing networks that cropped up like weeds.

As a general rule, I do not advocate the act of illicitly sharing music.  I don't really care if you do or not, but I made the decision a while back that if I really wanted a particular recording badly enough, I'd just buy the damn thing since it's now easier than ever.  The other bit of progress in this realm (and one that has made this site the tepid success that it is no less) is YouTube and it's ever-growing collection of music and recordings of art music as well as pretty much everything else you can imagine before the content scrubbers banish it to copyright hell.  In all the history of LF.com there has only been two times when I've stumped YouTube and had to send you elsewhere in search of music to listen to on a Friday.

Don't worry.  We've got it covered today.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) was an American composer who lived inside and between two worlds. In the early 20th century, Jazz had begun establishing its place in the center of American popular music.  Living in New York, Gershwin had begun performing as a "song plugger" which is essentially what predated those listening stations in the music store.

And next time I'll tell you how Grandpa was banned for life from Sbarro's!
You see, prior to the internet mucking everything up, people actually had to leave their homes to go find music that they liked to listen to.  The mall actually was a place to go and buy such music and not just an indoor walking track for septuagenarians.  Prior to the existence of malls and the like, there still existed music stores, but without adequate (read: affordable) recording equipment, it was particularly difficult to generate interest in new music.  Enter the song plugger.

Gershwin would get paid to sit in a music store and be a human jukebox, playing new music as requested by paying customers in an area of New York known as Tin Pan Alley.  Much of this music was written in the ragtime and early jazz style, as aligned with the popular music of the age. Gershwin, who had enjoyed classical training up to that point imbibed the newer styles and as he would later begin to compose and arrange for Broadway music and musicians it would be a large part of who he was as a composer.  You see, Gershwin never settled fully into the jazz scene however and tried on numerous occasions to learn more of and possibly even transition into the Western art music scene.  He petitioned both Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg to take him up as a student, but both declined citing the same reason, as Ravel said it, ""Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?"  Proving his point, Ravel's later music can be considered to have absorbed influence from Gershwin's marriage of art music and jazz.

In 1928 Gershwin traveled to Paris, France to absorb the music culture and to study under Nadia Boulanger, a French conductor and composer who Gershwin had been recommended to by Ravel. After listening to 10 minutes of Gershwin's music, she rejected him on the premise that she would have nothing to teach him, but Gershwin would remain undiscouraged as a big part of his relocation to Paris was to find inspiration for a symphonic piece to follow his very successful Rhapsody in BlueAn American in Paris is a symphonic poem that describes the experiences of an American encountering the city for the first time.  It actually employs several car horns, Gershwin himself brought a few taxi cab horns back with him for the American premier (which if you pay attention later you will see the most intense car horn player on the planet).

Following the premier performance in Carnegie Hall the audience response was very positive. However, a few critics held the opinion that the work was a bit too "light" to hold its own within a program consisting of Wagner and Franck, but Gershwin shrugged it off saying, "It's not a Beethoven Symphony, you know...  It's not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds."

Gershwin would die from a brain tumor in 1937, vastly cutting short what was expected to have been an increasingly successful career.  He had completed an opera, Porgy and Bess in 1935, which while not initially a commercial success, has become synonymous with the American musical theatre tradition and established itself firmly as a transitional piece between opera and the burgeoning musical theatre scene of its time.

I first heard George Gershwin in the mid-90's after my parents had finally acquired a CD player.  I recall being very excited, thinking that this would be a vehicle for listening to some amazing music and how disheartened was I when my dad came home with a Reader's Digest collection of Glenn Miller tunes, a Pure Prairie League album, and an album of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.  I actually don't remember what I would have preferred to listen to at the time. It might have been during my short stint as a fan of country music.

Those were dark times indeed.
Anyway, being more excited about the new technology to play with than the disappointment of getting exposed to music that would eventually expand my tastes into what they are today, I would play these CD's for hours on end.  At first fascinated that music could come out of a disc of plastic and aluminum, but eventually coming to realize that my limited musical palate was so blatantly ignorant of what the world have to offer that I vowed to continue to explore and discover as much as I could.  

Gershwin, as much as he wanted to be the American counterpart to the Debussy's and Ravel's of France, had created an entirely new genre of which he was the sole inhabitant and would perpetually grapple for his music to be considered "important" in the eyes of the classical music oligarchy.  Despite this and ironically enough, it was he who launched what I presume will be my lifelong love for Western art music as I began to listen to more and more composers and sought out more varied composers and artists to supplement what has become a voracious appetite for the musically creative.  However, I will always hold a special place in my heart for this piece.  As I sit and listen again to our American friend bounce around a busy Parisian street I can't help but feel that this poem could in fact be representative of any stranger in a strange land.  

And speaking of strangers, an interesting facet of this piece, as well as Gershwin's other works too, is the use of non-standard instruments in the orchestral setting.  For this work today, you will hear what amounts to a dance band sitting in the middle of a bunch of strings, extra woodwinds and a tuba player.  This iconic sound would lend itself to the film scores to follow, generations following Gershwin's untimely demise.  

So while Gershwin may not have ever fully realized his dream of becoming a "2nd-rate Ravel", he triumphed in being a "1st-rate Gershwin".

And that, my friends, is something special.

See you next Friday.