Gershwin’s "ABC’s" might not be what they seem.
Gershwin's "An American in Paris" is one of the most famous pieces of music — but for a few years orchestras may have been playing one of its best-known effects, the Paris taxi horn, wrong.
Gershwin’s jaunty, jazzy symphonic poem features an effect that involves a set of instruments that are decidedly not standard equipment.
French taxi horns honk in several places, as Gershwin's piece evokes the urban "soundscape" of the City of Light.
The musicological question is what notes should those taxi horns play.
In something of a musicological bombshell, a critical edition of the works of Gershwin at the University of Michigan argues that the now-standard horn pitches, as heard in the film version with Gene Kelly, are NOT what Gershwin intended.
The finding promises to divide musicians, and could require instrument-makers, sellers and renters — who now offer sets of tuned taxi horns specifically for “An American in Paris” — to consider investing in new sets tuned to the new notes.
The change would give a subtle, but distinctly different, cast to a classic score that was influenced by some of the leading composers of its day, and which followed in the footsteps of other works that employed so-called “found” instruments, including Satie’s 1917 ballet “Parade,” which uses a typewriter and gunshots, and Frederick Converse’s 1927 “Flivver Ten Million,” an ode to the Ford automobile, which uses car horns.
"I have a feeling that percussionists are going to be somewhat put out by this whole conclusion," says M. Clague, the editor in chief of the critical edition, who attended some test performances of the revised score by the Reno Philharmonic.
The ambiguity stems from how the taxi horn parts are notated in Gershwin’s original handwritten score.
To put it in Gershwin's 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.
But Clague's edition argues that Gershwin’s circled letters were merely labels specifying which horns to play, not which notes.
Clague notes that Gershwin handpicked taxi horns to buy during his trip to Paris, and that friends and colleagues recalled that he had been particular about which notes they played.
Clague also points to the evidence of a Victor recording of "An American in Paris" that was made under Gershwin’s supervision and presumably using his horns.
The taxi horns on that recording sound a more atmospheric, more dissonant set of notes:
-- A flat
-- B flat
-- a much higher D, and
-- lower A.
Gershwin’s original instruments seem to have been lost.
M. Strunsky, a nephew of I. Gershwin and trustee of his estate, says that his father, W. Strunsky, did play the taxi horns when Gershwin first gave an informal recital of the piece for the familyafter sailing back from Paris.
"I went looking for those taxi horns once," Strunsky says.
"And somewhere in the moves back and forth, and this and that and the other thing, they disappeared."
R. Knutson, the owner of Chicago Percussion Rental in Illinois, who rents out tuned horns for "An American in Paris" and has played them on occasion, says that he thought that the currently accepted A, B, C and D pitches "fit exactly in the score."
"The whole world have been oriented to doing it with those four pitches," he says.
"All of the recordings you’ve heard are with those four pitches."
But Trey Wyatt, a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony who estimated that he had played the horn parts 40 or 50 times, and who rents out several sets through his company, California Percussion Rental, says that he is intrigued by the finding.
"If this new tuning takes off, I may have to buy another five sets of these horns," he says.
Rob Fisher, the musical score adapter and supervisor of the staging of "An American in Paris" on Broadway, says that he agreed that the A, B, C and D labels were names and not pitches, but that the show had ended up using the standard horns.
But he questions whether the pitches used in the Victor recording should be taken as gospel.
"I don’t ever want to say what was in somebody’s mind," he says.
"Were those the four horns that made him the happiest that day, when he was picking horns?"
"I just feel like if he’d wanted exact pitches for his horns, he was really good about writing down intentions."
Clague notes that between the recording that Gershwin supervised and the Toscanini recording, which seemed to help establish a new performance tradition, there was great variation in how the taxi horns were played.
But Clague notes that his musical analysis gives weight to the idea that the pitches used in the Victor recording work best.
"Gershwin was thinking harmonically and melodically with the taxi horns," he says.
"It’s not just a sound effect."
But Clague adds that there would have been an easy way of avoiding the ambiguity entirely.
"I think Gershwin would have saved everybody a lot of trouble," he says, "if he had just numbered them ‘1,’ ‘2,’ ‘3,’ and ‘4’ rather than ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D.’”