My purpose 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.
This quote from George Gershwin comes from an interview in Musical America that was published in August 1928. He was speaking, of course, of his masterpiece “An American in Paris”, which was still a work in progress. But the end goal for this particular piece was in sight. Two weeks from today marks 90 years since he completed the orchestration of his tribute to the City of Light. It premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, conducted by Walter Damrosch, who had commissioned the work. You can read more about the history of the piece here. And, if you’ve never heard the full piece, take a listen here to this performance by the Moscow City Symphony-Russian Philharmonic. It’s about 20 minutes long.
My roots with classical music run deep. I come from several generations of music lovers on both sides and my mother was a music teacher for a number of years, which meant we amassed a large collection of LPs and CDs. “Gilmour’s Albums” on the CBC on Sunday afternoons after church and random selections from the collection made up the soundtrack of my life. It was natural then that I took music classes through high school and played in the concert band and sang in the church choir.
Long before my band geek days, though, I’d discovered Gershwin. I was probably first introduced to his work via an LP, but the greatest impression was made by the movies. In particular, the 1951 MGM classic An American in Paris, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
God, I love that movie. The story is pretty typical for a musical of the time. You know the kind: boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, everything works out in the end. There’s lots of singing and dancing, especially dancing, and in glorious Technicolor to boot. Gene Kelly is Jerry Mulligan an ex-G.I. who decided to stay in Paris at the end of the Second World War and make his fortune as a painter. Jerry’s friends include Adam Cook (the acerbic Oscar Levant), an underemployed composer and concert pianist, and Henri Baurel, a French singer (a congenial Georges Guétary). Jerry encounters a rich American named Milo Roberts (a mercurial Nina Foch) who offers to become Jerry’s patroness. Jerry then meets and falls for Lise Bouvier (played by Leslie Caron in her debut), but love doesn’t come as easily as he hopes.
The film is Gene Kelly in his prime, both singing and dancing. He and Guétary and Levant make a jolly trio singing some of the best songs that George wrote with his brother Ira: “I Got Rhythm”, “S’Wonderful”, and “By Strauss”. Jerry’s courtship of Lise to “Love is Here to Stay” is magical in its simplicity. You have to wonder whether it inspired the “Dancing in the Dark” number by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in 1953’s The Band Wagon“.
An American in Paris includes three fantasy sequences, each unique and ambitious. Lise is introduced via variations set to “Embraceable You”. Adam dreams of performing the “Concerto in F” alongside an orchestra made up entirely of his clones. And, most notable of all, the climax of the film is a 17-minute ballet set to “An American in Paris” itself. The ballet is legendary for its scale and colour, bringing Paris to life through the art of the Impressionists. There’s even a sequence where Kelly and the ensemble bring the art of Toulouse-Lautrec to life. It’s a visual and musical delight, and it’s no wonder it made such an impression on me, and that the piece became a favourite.
That’s the great thing about program music. It’s designed to evoke images in the mind of the listener. Sometimes composers are very prescriptive about what they want their music to convey. Gershwin wasn’t. In the same interview quoted above, he said
As in my other orchestral compositions, I’ve not endeavored to represent any definite scenes in this music. The rhapsody is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way…
I think it’s because of that intent that “An American in Paris” is one of those pieces of music where the adjective “timeless” seems entirely appropriate without seeming trite. I listen to it and I hear a busy Paris, full of life and colour, and diverse sounds. It’s a city with tranquil moments and overruling passions, and that’s applicable no matter when you listen to the work. It was certainly the soundtrack running through my brain during the day and a bit my husband and I spent in Paris 11 years ago.
Now, the Paris of “An American in Paris” is the Paris that Gershwin knew, that of Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Hemingway, Ravel. He evokes, too, the Paris of Debussy and Monet. It is a nostalgic Paris, like a souvenir print or a postcard. Although the work was written only ten years after the end of the First World War, there’s no hint of that element of the past.
Similarly, in the movie, which is set only five or six years after the end of the Second World War, the Paris we see is an idealized one. The sets resemble Jerry’s paintings more than real-life. And there’s very little discussion of the war, mainly when discussing Henri and Lise’s relationship, and with very little mention of the privations caused by the German occupation.
And yet “An American in Paris” shows that it can be more than just a musical tour through the city. A Broadway musical based on the film has given the work new life. The production has made some significant changes by expanding on (or changing) the characters’ backstories, e.g., we learn why Lise is so beholden to Henri and his family. And the song list is very different. While it’s still Gershwin through and through, it owes more to Fred Astaire’s 1930s musicals than to the 1951 film. But the choreography is pure Gene Kelly. And the climactic ballet, again set to the eponymous piece is reset as a celebration of life and love. The idea of pairing art with music continues, with the use of abstract shapes and primary colours, a step into the future. I was lucky enough to be able to see it at the movies, and you may be able to catch it in a broadcast of “Great Performances” on PBS.
In sum, “An American in Paris” is a great piece of music, just as fresh as it was 90 years ago. Happy listening!
(The title of this post is a play on Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”, which looks at the life of Georges Seurat, and has no relation to Gershwin aside from Broadway)
Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018