George Gershwin took his third and final trip to Paris in March of 1928. One afternoon, instead of visiting the Louvre with friends, Gershwin went out on a shopping excursion with a rather unusual list: French taxi horns.
These horns weren’t souvenirs; they were a crucial element for the orchestration of a new symphonic poem Gershwin was working on: An American in Paris. The composition paints the scene of an intrepid tourist exploring the French capital, walking off his homesick blues and ultimately embracing the bustling, hectic, and altogether beautiful metropolis. Quacking taxi horns lend An American in Paris its most instantly-recognizable urban noises. For Gershwin, however, they weren’t just meant to evoke the authentic sounds of the city. They were essential to making Gershwin’s tone poem truly modern music in the implementation of artifacts from the surrounding world.
All this and more are revealed in the program notes for a new critical edition of An American in Paris, which Sarasota Orchestra will perform at its Masterworks 5 concert on January 31 to February 3. Edited by Mark Clague, musicologist and director of the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan, the restored edition is a painstaking transcription of Gershwin’s handwritten manuscript currently preserved in the Library of Congress. And it’s making huge waves in the symphony world by revealing that, for more than 50 years now, audiences have been hearing the wrong honks!
The original taxi horns Gershwin purchased all those years ago have been lost; what does remain to posterity is a 1929 recording by the Victor Symphony Orchestra, supervised by Gershwin himself. And in this recording, the taxi horns sound totally different notes than what previous editions of the score prescribe!
Clague attributes the discrepancy to Gershwin’s rather misleading manuscript markings. Where honking passages appear in the score, Gershwin labeled each taxi horn with the circled letters A, B, C, and D. One can hardly blame an editor for assuming the letters identified pitches. At Masterworks 5, however, audiences will hear the pitches Gershwin intended. A-flat, B-flat, D, and a low A create less-consonant blasts and, as Clague said in an interview with NPR Music, “a much more convincing impression of random street noise in Paris."
Audiences also get to hear fully-restored saxophone instrumentation on this performance. In 1928, the saxophone was a relatively young instrument with a patent just over 80 years old. Gershwin understood that the saxophone section was something of a novelty among professional orchestras of his day, but he was determined to capture the sonic essence of jazz in his orchestral works. In his original (and optimistic) instrumentation for An American in Paris, he asked for three players to juggle eight saxophones in duets and trios, including an all-soprano sax trio that belts out the cheerful final theme in which the traveler banishes his bout of homesickness. Thanks to the restored score, it’s a moment so spirited that audiences may want to get up and dance the Charleston!
The taxi horns and saxophone instrumentation provide the most audible updates among a myriad of subtle, yet substantial, revisions to this critical edition of An American in Paris. The result renders this seminal tone poem even more immersive and evocative of Gershwin’s lived experience in the City of Lights.