ClassicsOnline Home » GERSHWIN, G.: American in Paris (An) / GROFE, F.: Grand Canyon Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
An American in Paris is one of Gershwin’s most sumptuous and best-loved works. He called it ‘a rhapsodic ballet’ but denied any specific programme except in a ‘general impressionistic way’. The American visitor strolls, soaking up the city’s exuberance, suffering a pang of homesickness, and hearing the Parisian taxi horns—which Gershwin loved so much he brought some back to America with him. Meanwhile Ferde Grofé, who had orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, evokes the glories of ravine, rock and cloudburst in his indelibly beautiful and exciting Grand Canyon Suite.
George Gershwin (1898–1937)
An American in Paris
Unquestionably one of the greatest melodists of the twentieth century, the American composer, pianist and conductor George Gershwin first made his name as the most prodigiously talented of an exceptional generation of composers writing for Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Though he would doubtless be remembered for his incomparable songs alone, Gershwin went on to write a number of concert works which have since become established in the repertory, including Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and his most outstanding work, the opera Porgy and Bess. In the apt judgement of Merle Armstrong in his 1938 biography, Gershwin’s music articulated “the excitement, the nervousness and the movement of America”. George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 September 1898, the second of four children born to Moishe (Morris) Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, both of whom had emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1890s. In 1910 the Gershwins bought an upright piano, originally intended for their eldest child Ira, although it was George who quickly displayed an unusual aptitude for the instrument. He studied with Charles Hambitzer, who introduced him to the classical piano repertoire, including Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Ravel. Gershwin was later to study intermittently with a number of other teachers, including Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and Joseph Schillinger.
In 1914, aged fifteen, Gershwin dropped out of high school to become a demonstration pianist and song-plugger for the music publishers Remick & Co. on Tin Pan Alley. Having had his first song published in 1916, he left Remick’s in March 1917 and found work as a rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917, a Broadway show by Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert. At the same time he was brought to the attention of Max Dreyfus, the head of Harms publishing company, and was subsequently engaged as a staff composer. In 1919 Gershwin wrote his first complete score for Broadway, La La Lucille, and his first worldwide hit, Swanee, was made famous by the singer Al Jolson who recorded it in 1920; from 1920 to 1924 Gershwin contributed the music for five of George White’s Scandals. Over a fourteen-year period following La La Lucille Gershwin musicals including Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933) would grace the New York stage.
Gershwin’s entry into the world of concert music came in 1924 at the invitation of the bandleader and so-called “King of Jazz”, Paul Whiteman. Rhapsody in Blue for jazz band and piano, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and first performed in New York’s Aeolian Hall on 12 February 1924, was followed by the Piano Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), the Second Rhapsody (1931), the Cuban Overture (1932) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1934–35). Tragically, other projected works including a string quartet, a symphony, a ballet score, an additional opera, and songs for a Kaufman-Hart musical never came to fruition. On 11 July 1937 George Gershwin died at the age of 38 from a brain tumour.
Gershwin began work on An American in Paris in the spring of 1928 and its première by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Damrosch took place later that year on 13 December in Carnegie Hall (three years earlier in the same venue Damrosch had conducted the first performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F). In this hugely popular one-movement symphonic poem, whose colourful orchestration includes four saxophones and several taxi horns, the composer intended “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 melancholic blues theme announced by the solo trumpet, suggesting a sudden bout of homesickness on the part of the protagonist, is one of the finest Gershwin wrote.
Ferde Grofé (1892–1972)
Grand Canyon Suite
Ferde Grofé was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, to Emil and Elsa von Grofé, in New York City on 27 March 1892. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Los Angeles. Both of Ferde’s parents were of French Hugnenot extraction and his grandfather, Dr Rudolph von Grofé, was professor of chemistry at Heidelberg University. Ferde Grofé came by his instinct for music quite naturally. His father was a baritone and actor, while his mother was a cellist and music teacher of some note.
There were other musicians in the family: Bernhardt Bierlich, Grofé’s maternal grandfather, was an associate of Victor Herbert at the New York Metropolitan and for twenty-five years was first cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Grofé’s uncle, Julius Bierlich, was for many years concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Grofé himself studied the piano, violin and harmony with his mother and the viola with his grandfather. He attended Los Angeles city schools and later St. Vincent’s College, the present Loyola Marymount University. When his father died in 1899, he joined his mother in Germany, where she studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Madame Grofé opened a music studio. It was at this time that Grofé wrote his earliest compositions, three piano rags, Harem, Rattlesnake and Persimmon.
In 1906 Grofé left home to work variously as a bookbinder, truck-driver, usher, newsboy, elevator-operator, lithographer, typesetter and steelworker, studying the violin and piano in his spare time. By 1908 he began to take casual musical engagements at lodge dances, parades and picnics and in 1909 met Albert Jerome, a dancing teacher, with whom he toured Californian mining-camps. By day the pair operated a cleaning and pressing establishment, at night Grofé played for Jerome’s pupils. It was also in 1909 that Grofé wrote his first commissioned work, The Grand Reunion March, for an Elks Clubs convention in Los Angeles. He joined the American Federation of Musicians that year and began a ten-year association with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, playing the viola.
In 1915 Grofé was playing at the Portola Louvre in San Francisco where musicians would drop in after hours to hear his original arrangements and jazz improvisations. One of the musicians in the audience was Paul Whiteman, whose orchestra Grofé joined in 1917 as pianist, permanently employed from 1920 for the next twelve years as pianist, assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian. He toured Europe with the orchestra in 1923 and in 1924 had his first real break when he orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a collaboration that brought immediate notice.
Grofé now undertook the composition of original works and among his earliest hits was the tone-poem, Broadway at Night. His subsequent Metropolis, Blue Fantasy in E Flat, Mississippi Suite and Three Shades of Blue, reveal an astonishing development in his handling of the symphonic jazz idiom. Challenged by a friend’s suggestion that he could even write music about a bicycle pump, he wrote two unusual works: Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage (1926) and Free Air (1929). All the varied experiences of his life became inspiration for his music, as he himself observed, grateful for the background that made possible such compositions as Symphony in Steel, Tabloid Suite, Broadway at Night, Mississippi Suite, Metropolis, Henry Ford Knute Rockne and Death Valley Suite.
Grofé’s popular Grand Canyon Suite, derived from his early period roaming the desert and mountain country as an itinerant pianist, is in five sections, each inspired by the imposing beauty of America’s mighty natural wonder. It was first performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in Chicago’s Studebaker Theater on 22 November 1931, to considerable critical acclaim.
Victor and Marina A. Ledin