An American in Paris

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An American in Paris is a jazz-influenced symphonic poem by the American composer George Gershwin, written in 1928. Inspired by the time Gershwin had spent in Paris, it evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s and is one of his best-known compositions.

Gershwin composed An American in Paris on commission from the conductor Walter Damrosch. He scored the piece for the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophones, and automobile horns. He brought back some Parisian taxi horns for the New York premiere of the composition, which took place on December 13, 1928, in Carnegie Hall, with Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic. Gershwin completed the orchestration on November 18, less than four weeks before the work’s premiere.

Gershwin collaborated on the original program notes with the critic and composer Deems Taylor, noting that: “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” When the tone poem moves into the blues, “our American friend … has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness.” But, “nostalgia is not a fatal disease.” The American visitor “once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life” and “the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”

American World War II veteran Jerry Mulligan is now an exuberant expatriate in Paris trying to make a reputation as a painter. His friend and neighbor, Adam Cook, is a struggling concert pianist who is a longtime associate of a French singer, Henri Baurel. At the ground-floor bar, Henri tells Adam about his cultured girlfriend. Jerry joins them later, before going out to sell his art.

A lonely society woman and heiress, Milo Roberts, finds Jerry displaying his art on the street and takes an interest in him and his art. She brings him to her apartment to pay for his works, and invites him to a dinner party she is throwing later that night. After singing with French children on the way home, Jerry shows up to Milo’s apartment. He quickly finds out that the “party” is actually a one-on-one date, and tells Milo he has no interest in being a paid escort. When he attempts to leave after giving her money back, she insists that she is only interested in his art.

They go to a crowded bar, and she offers to sponsor an art show for Jerry as a friendly gesture. Some of Milo’s friends arrive, and while sitting with them, he sees Lise Bouvier, a French girl seated at the next table. Jerry ignores Milo and her acquaintances, and instead pretends to know Lise already and dances with her. She is standoffish and gives Jerry a wrong phone number, but she is innocently corrected by someone at her table. Heading home, Milo tells Jerry he was very rude cavorting with a girl he does not know while in her presence, but he gets out of the car and bids her farewell.

The next day, Jerry calls Lise at her work, but she tells him to never call her again. Jerry and Milo meet at a cafe, and she informs him that a collector is interested in his paintings and she arranged a showing later that day. Before going to the showing, he goes to the parfumerie where Lise works and she consents to dinner with him. She does not want to be seen eating with him in public, but they share a romantic song and dance on the banks of the Seine River in the shadows of Notre Dame.

Later, Adam humorously daydreams that he is performing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra for a gala audience in a concert hall. As the scene progresses, Adam is also revealed to be the conductor, other members of the orchestra, and even an enthusiastic audience member applauding himself at the end.

Milo gets Jerry an art studio and tells him she has planned an exhibition of his work in three months. He initially refuses the studio because he does not have the money for it, but eventually accepts it under the condition that he pay Milo back when his art proceeds allow him. Roughly a month later and after much courting, Lise abruptly runs off when she and Jerry arrive by taxi at his apartment. When Jerry complains to Adam, he is shocked to realize that both Henri and Jerry are involved with the same woman. Henri and Jerry discuss the woman they each love, unaware she is the same woman.

That night, Jerry and Lise reunite in the same place on the banks of the Seine close to Notre Dame. She informs him that she is marrying Henri the next day and going to America. Lise feels a sense of duty to Henri, to whom she feels indebted for keeping her safe during World War II. She and Jerry proclaim their love for each other.

Feeling slighted, Jerry invites Milo to the art students‘ masked ball and kisses her. At the raucous party, with everyone in black-and-white costumes, Milo learns from Adam that Jerry is not interested in her, and Henri overhears Jerry and Lise saying goodbye to each other. When Henri and Lise drive away, Jerry daydreams about being with Lise all over Paris to the tune of the George Gershwin composition ’An American in Paris’. His reverie is broken by a car horn, the sound of Henri bringing Lise back to him. They embrace as the Gershwin composition ends.

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