Gershwin – An American in Paris

by Max Derrickson

George Gershwin   (b in Brooklyn, NY, 1898; d in Hollywood, CA, 1937)

An American inParis(1928)

Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Gershwin grew up in a crowded, small home with three siblings and one piano.  Having flourished precociously at the piano, the young Gershwin dropped out of school at 15 to work on Tin Pan Alley, where he was one of dozens of pianists selling songs for music publishers.  While he was “plugging” songs for performers at the Alley, he continued his musical studies and composing, dreaming of making it big.  By his early 20’s he had found some success with his own works on Broadway, and in 1920, his first hit song, Swanee  was being sung by Al Jolson and netted him $10,000 in its first year alone (roughly $126,000 in today’s dollars) .  Then came success with shows in London, and at the age of 24, that once poor kid from Brooklyn had made it about as big as he might have ever dreamed.  But the truly amazing part of the story was just beginning.  [. . .]


Almost 10 years before his untimely death, and four years after Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin was at his titanic strengths as a composer, yet he remained the consummate life long student of composition, and was still coming up with innovative masterpieces.  Such is An American in Paris of 1928.   As a tone poem, it was an ambitious 20 minute work for Gershwin.  In addition, this was his first major attempt at orchestrating entirely on his own; Whiteman’s staff arranger, Ferde Grofé, had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue.  But there are no slips in his craft – An American in Paris is certainly not shy on those jazzy and infectious tunes, but the orchestration is brilliant.  [. . .]

George Gershwin intended his tone poem, or rhapsodic ballet, to be only impressionistic glimpses ofParis. He did offer, though, a few hints of a program:

“An American is strolling through (Paris) (the introductory Allegretto grazioso),  [. . .]