Download My analysis and thoughts on Gershwin – An American in Paris

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Gershwin – An American in Paris My analysis/interpretation up to Circle 5 in full score.
The program and music work very well together. Gershwin is very effective at using the art of musical
composition/orchestration to create a scene that can be either a vague suggestion or a very distinct
programmatic effect (ex. - taxi horns). The influence of French composers on him at the time is
evident, as well as standard composition techniques from the common practice period that he is said
to have studied on his own, to harmonic and rhythmic developments of the 20th century that were a
result of his learning about Broadway, Ragtime and Jazz music. His ability to combine all these
features into this composition is simply genius, as we are truly swept into the experience of emotion
that an American may have felt while in Paris. As with any art of the impressionistic period, we are
allowed to bring our own experience into the medium, and from having been to Paris my personal
view is that the program and the music are in strong agreement, and collaborate effectively.
The following are musical elements that came to my attention through listening/score study/notes
provided by Sergio.
Although the magic of Gershwin’s melodies and infectious rhythms can’t be missed, overall, what
captured my attention when listening intently and looking closely was Gershwin’s use of counterpoint
as arguably the main thread throughout the composition; the most obvious way in which he creates
unity, contrast, variety, etc. His continual manipulation of motifs using the classical devices such as
fragmentation, augmentation, imitation, sequence, ostinato, layering of countermelodies above or
below the melody, rhythmic displacement, etc . is dominant throughout.
In terms of structure or hierarchy of the texture, Gershwin use of counterpoint makes it clear as to
what role an instrument(s) is playing: 1) melody 2) countermelody 3) rhythmic accompaniment 4)
sustained accompaniment . The role an instrument plays is clear within the structure, due to the
clarity of the rhythms assigned. Gershwin makes sure that a distinct rhythm is apparent in each role
as they speak together.
At circle 3, the 16th note +8th note motive is rhythmically displaced (occurring at different places
within the bar) and descends by 4th or 5th. There are harmonic punctuations in the upper ww’s and
brass, as well as the snare, to emphasize the displacement as it works its way lower.
One interesting use of counterpoint was at circle 4, where there is a diminution of the 8th note line in
the bassoon and lower strings, in the bells and flutes (16th notes). There is a 2 to 1 ratio and this
creates the 3/8 feel in 2/4 time with the triangle accenting or punctuating beat of 1 of the 3/8 feel.
Another interesting use of counterpoint was at circle 5 where the flts/clts play a 2 measure sequenced
motive based on the earlier motive of the bells/flts with intervals that are now stepwise/conjunct,
rather than the disjunct/wider intervals of the earlier motive. This happens while the taxi theme is
fragmented and sequenced among the other instruments.
At the beginning, the texture of the orchestra is very light, soft, transparent, very impressionist –like
orchestration (as opposed or in reaction to large, heavy orchestration such as Wagner). And though
he is using a V – I progression to establish key as common practice composers often did, he involves
major 7ths and dominant 9ths to create a harmonic atmosphere that sounds very contemporary. I
thought it was interesting that each of the roles (melody, countermelody, accompaniment) included
some kind of elaboration or decoration (French influence?) such as grace notes, appoggiaturas,
enclosure, 32nd notes that sweep into structural tones. The complexity of the motives layered and
building gradually, as well as the unexpected off-beat punctuations/accents give the ‘big city’ feel to
the music.
At times the harmony does not progress in a functional manner, but rather is providing colors that
move in parallel fashion. The term I learned for this after studying some of Debussy was ‘planing.’
At circle 2 the bassoons/English Horn and the cellos are ‘planing’ parallel major chords.
The tonal ambiguity is often created through the use of chromaticism in a countermelody line.
Gershwin’s themes are memorable, and their statement and transformations give this work its overall
form. Gershwin is able to combine his themes with distinctive countermelodies in very sophisticated
ways through his use of counterpoint, and this gives the composition structure and form. Character is
strong in his themes, and for me the element that brings out that character is Gershwin’s use of
articulation, that is abundant, contrasting, varied, and woven into the infectious rhythms or lyrical
flow. It is most apparent when on occasion Gershwin restates a short countermelody with the same
notes and rhythms but with a different articulation, changing the character. (ex. – mm. 12-15 flutes tranquillo)
The Taxi horn theme (m.28 beat 2) is certainly easily memorable as three legato long notes followed
by three short bursts, (I think of the 3 staccato 8th notes as “hey, look out!”)- good balance (3 x3) and
contrast (legato vs. staccato), and Gershwin manipulates it wonderfully.
For Rhythmic Effect:
 Walking feel – pizzicatos in the lower strings
 Triangle emphasizes beat 1 of divisive rhythms
 Snare drum to accent cross rhythms (3/8 inside of 2/4)
 Rhythmic ostinato in the clarinets at circle 2
For Color Effect:
 Splashes of color at times, such as piccolo and xylophone punctuations
 Bowings indicated, or ‘near the frog’,
 Glissando
 Sul ‘G’ – playing a theme on one string only
 Stopped Horns (+) or muted trumpets
 English Horn, saxophones, taxi horns (4 different pitches a,b,c,d)
 Celeste
 Snare drum and cymbal hit with stick together create drum set sound
 Passing a motive through different registers, either on a single instrument, or passing it
through the registers of several in the orchestra, often working from top to bottom.
(ex. – mm. 18 – 27 violins/flts/muted trumpets down through the strings and bass
 Harmonic extensions (7ths, 9ths)
 Syncopations over 2 beat accompaniment (Ragtime/stride piano)
 Articulations constantly indicated, much as in a jazz composition or arrangement.
 Use of the augmented 4th in taxi horn melody – this interval is at the heart of jazz being the
interval that is between the 3rd and 7th of the dominant chord, and the two notes that are so
coloristic of jazz harmonies.