George Gershwin's 'An American in Paris' May Have Been Played Out of Key for 70 Years

By Ian Holubiak | Mar 02, 2016 03:54 PM EST
Director Christopher Wheeldon speaks to the media at 'An American In Paris' Broadway Opening Night after party at The Pierre Hotel on April 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo : Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

George Gershwin's An American in Paris is perhaps one of the most iconic and recognizable pieces in American music. However, as it's been noted, Gershwin's classic may be the victim of faulty orchestration--meaning ensembles may have been playing the notes out of key for nearly 70 years.

In the piece, there are certain environmental noises like taxi horns that are added in as effects. But during the time, there wasn't a tuning standard imposed on these elemental sounds, meaning that they could very well have been played out of key for nearly seven decades.

These noises have been put under the microscope at the University of Michigan, which will be staging a critical edition of the measure of famous George and Ira Gershwin tunes. In combing through each piece, the University uncovered that Mr. Gershwin may not have anticipated for the sounds to resonate as they do.

The New York Times wrote of the misconception:

"The ambiguity stems from how the taxi horn parts are notated in Gershwin's original handwritten score. To put it in Gershwin terms, we got rhythm: The score shows that the horns play sets of accented eighth notes. But when it comes to pitch, things are less clear. Gershwin's score labels the four taxi horns with a circled 'A,' a circled 'B,' a circled 'C' and a circled 'D.' Those circled letters have been interpreted as indicating which note each horn should play - A, B, C and D on the scale - since at least 1945, when Arturo Toscanini used those pitches in recording the piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra."

Have we been playing Gershwin for decades in the wrong key? This question has perturbed some Gershwinians and is now requiring that we re-examine the piece and try to nail the parts as the composer intended.

See for yourself what the controversy is with video clips below.

Standard Taxi Horn Tunings of A, B, C and D

1929 Tunings of A Flat, B Flat, Higher D and Lower A


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