Our lovely receptionist Felicia is a fan of Classic movies – one being An American in Paris, the title piece composed by George Gershwin. We’re performing jazz influenced classical music that originated from Paris in our An American in Paris concert (part of the CPO’s J’aime Paris Festival) on November 28 with renowned pianist Louis Lortie. Felicia takes us through Gershwin’s inspiration for creating An American in Paris.

I love classic movies, especially musicals Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) churned out in the 1940s and 50s. When CBC aired Gigi (1958) on television, I was captivated. The costumes were beautiful, the Paris location was lovely, colours in the film were stunning, the singing was enchanting, and the music was magical and swept me away. I was hooked and I wanted more.

I watched as many classic movie musicals I could find on television (this was before the Turner Classic Movies channel was available). One of those movies was An American in Paris (1951).

Before I knew the name George Gershwin I was familiar with Gene Kelly, who played the title character in An American in Paris. He played Jerry, an ex-GIwho after World War II stays in Paris to fulfill his dream of becoming a famous painter. He and his friend Adam, (Oscar Levant) a concert pianist, were trying to make it big as artists, with little success. Complications start when an influential heiress named Milo (Nina Foch) takes an interest in Jerry professionally and personally, while he falls for Lise (Leslie Caron), a local French girl who is engaged to another of Jerry’s pals Henri (Georges Guetary).

The movie blew me away as I watched it. There was charm, endearment, and a sense of drive to express what was seen, felt, and heard in and around Paris. The movie and music is definitely a must-see and hear experience.

Gershwin envisioned an orchestral ballet titled An American in Paris, which he conceived in 1928 based on his visit to Paris in 1926. He was having trouble musically capturing the essence of “Parisienne spirit”, as he described it. Inspiration came as Gershwin looked at the Hudson River near his home in New York City and how he felt pangs of homesickness when he was away and unable to gaze at the river for comfort. Here he developed the story of an American in Paris who is taking in all the sights, sounds, and life of the city. Then, a sudden wash of homesickness and the blues overcomes him as he thinks of home. Eventually, after further exploring Paris, while still longing for home, the American rediscovers the magical place he is in, thinking “Home is swell!  But after all, this is Paris –so let’s go!”

Some interesting facts about both the movie and music:

  • Gershwin incorporated taxi horns into the opening section of An American in Paris to capture the feeling, movement, and atmosphere of rush hour traffic in Paris.
  • MGM paid approximately $300,000 to the Gershwin Estate to use the musical piece and other songs (such as I Got Rhythm) as needed.  The studio also paid $50,000 to Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin’s brother and writing partner, for his assistance in song selection and revision of lyrics.
  • Similar to a structure of a story, the piece is comprised of five sections with its own theme(s):
    1. The first section features two themes. Sauntering, represented by taxi horns and humour represented by clarinets.  Also known as the first and second walking themes.
    2. The second section is referred to as the third walking theme. Introduced by violins and trombone depicting noisier and livelier street activities.
    3. The third section is the blues and feelings of homesickness represented by a trumpet solo.
    4. The fourth section is a continuation of feeling homesick.
    5. The fifth section is a return to a sauntering theme which the protagonist once again embraces the joys of being in Paris.

Check out this clip from the movie, featuring one of the sections of music: