Has 'An American In Paris' Been Honking Up The Wrong Key?

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 12:10 pm

George Gershwin wrote An American in Paris after visiting Paris in 1928. The orchestral piece tells the story of an American swept up in the energy of Paris, but thinking of the jazz back home. It's still such a popular piece that old-timey taxi horns Gershwin calls for in the score are rented by orchestras all over the country.

Musicologist Mark Clague of the University of Michigan is editing a critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin's music. When Clague looked back at the original score and a very early recording of An American in Paris, he made a discovery: We've been using the wrong taxi horns for 70 years.

Clague says that the way Gershwin notated the percussion line in the composition's score may to be blame for the confusion. While he put the letters A, B, C and D over the occurrences of the horns, he never clarified what that notation meant — leading people to assume that he meant the musical pitches A, B, C and D. But after listening to a 1929 recording of the piece — billed as "with George Gershwin" — Clague realized that wasn't what Gershwin intended.

According to Clague, there's actually a good deal of ambiguity in the score; he thinks it may be tied to the fact that Gershwin wrote in several styles.

"I think it has a lot to do with sort of George's own sort of movement from the popular sphere to the classical sphere," Clague says, "And the different attitudes about what musical notation is. Is it a kind of road map, or is it sort of the gospel truth? He had to adjust to that, and I think in certain ways he just didn't need to explain it, because he was going to be there to tell people what to do."

Clague spoke to NPR about how these different horns affect the overall sound of An American in Paris. You can hear more at the audio link.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"An American In Paris" is a legendary piece of music. But as we read in The New York Times this morning, people may have been playing it wrong for 70 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CORNISH: George Gershwin wrote the piece after visiting Paris in 1928. And to evoke the feeling of Parisian streets, he bought and used real taxi horns on the orchestra stage. Nowadays, orchestras have to rent vintage horns play the piece. Musicologist Mark Clague of the University of Michigan recently went back to the original score and a very early recording of "An American In Paris," and he came to a startling conclusion - orchestras have been using the wrong taxi horns.

MARK CLAGUE: The taxi horns appear pretty much right off the bat. We start out with a sort of jaunty walking theme, and as the American in Paris is heading down the street you start to hear the traffic noise, the sort of hustle and bustle of the city, the activity. And so he illustrates that energy with the sound of the taxi horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: So we're talking, like, the 1920s. So you have to think of, like, Henry Ford and the Model T. So there's a big rubber ball, and you squeeze the ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: So in George's handwritten score, he actually writes the rhythms and the percussion line, and then he puts the letter A over the first occurrence, the letter B over the second, then C and D, and he circles them. And he never defines in the score what A, B, C and D mean. So ever since the 1940s, people have assumed that A, B, C and D are correlated with musical pitches A, B, C and D. So this is the traditional performance using the A, B, C, D taxi horns, so they gradually get higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: Here's a little higher. There's C.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: And then the high note coming is D.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: That's a typical building block that a composer might use, but it's not a typical sort of random sound you would hear on the street. It's too organized to be street noise. What we've discovered by going back to this 1929 recording - which George himself was involved in. He was there during the recording session. He coaches and interrupts the ensemble, give them tips on how he wants to do it. And it turns out that A, B, C and D are just labels. They could be numbers, they could be anything. Those original pitches were not A, B, C and D, but A flat, B flat, high D and low A, which gives a much more convincing impression of random street noise from Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: There's actually quite a bit of ambiguity in the score, and I think it has a lot to do was sort of George's own movement from popular sphere to the classical sphere and sort of different attitudes about musical notation is. Is it a kind of roadmap, or is it sort of the gospel truth?

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: George died really suddenly of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of only 38 years old. And so he had so much creativity left in him, so much more that he would've done. And I think he would've curated his legacy and made sure that all of this detail was clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CLAGUE: Once people adjust to the fact that something might change - because of course, in the orchestra a lot of it's about tradition and conserving this legacy of our composers - I actually think that percussionists are going to grow to love this because it just adds a new sort of sense of freshness and a new sense of importance to their role in bringing "An American in Paris," which is this beloved work by George Gershwin, to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")

CORNISH: That's musicologist Mark Clague of the University of Michigan. He's editing the first critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN SONG, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.