Classic Mornings

An American in Paris, Boston, and New York


It was just a coincidence. Two legendary works had their premiere performances weeks apart.  But don’t stop there.

Maurice Ravel made his only visit to the United States in 1928. It was part of a 4-month tour of North America.  According to French music specialist Barbara Kelly (who earned a degree in musicology at the University of Illinois back in 1988), it was a “gruelling itinerary” involving stops throughout the United States and Canada. He conducted, performed at the piano and gave numerous interviews. Ravel led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his works at Orchestra Hall on January 20 & 21,1928. According to the CSO archives, he was enthusiastically received by the audience and the orchestra.

During his visit, Ravel attended a performance of George Gershwin’s musical Funny Face. And at a birthday party in his honor, Ravel had the chance to meet Gershwin, who played Rhapsody in Blue and a number of his songs for the French composer at the piano.  Gershwin took him around to a number of the best known jazz clubs in New York including the Cotton Club. Ravel, who was quite fond of American jazz, would have the opportunity to hear the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman before he returned home. 

At one point Gershwin asked Ravel if he could study with him.  Ravel gave the famous reply that the American was better off being a first rate Gershwin than a second rate Ravel. It’s been explained that he was reluctant to spoil Gershwin’s gifts for melody and spontaneity, as well as the jazz elements that were a part of Gershwin’s music.

Gershwin visited Paris later that same year. He too was celebrated and had the chance to meet a number of French composers. He also had the chance to hear some of his works performed by French musicians. The trip is probably best known for providing some of the inspiration for Gershwin’s famous tone poem: An American in Paris. December 13th marked the 90th anniversary of the first performance, which took place in New York.

A few weeks before, on November 20, 1928, Ravel’s Bolero was performed for the first time in Paris. It’s a work that showcased Ravel’s gift for orchestration and his flair for working with Spanish rhythms.

There’s no connection between the two famous compositions. But given that the composers were working on them in the year in which they met one another and travelled to each other’s homeland, the proximity of their premieres deserves more than being characterized as simply coincidental.

It wasn’t a coincidence that a famous work that had its first performance on Beethoven’s birthday anniversary in 1893 included a reference to an equally famous work by Beethoven.  Antonín Dvořák quoted the opening of the second movement of Beethoven 9th symphony at the outset of the 3rd movement of his own Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95, which the composer called “From the New World.”

This past December 16th marked the 125th anniversary of the first performance of the Dvořák Ninth. The New York Philharmonic had the honors – and Carnegie Hall as well – for the premiere of the work that was written while the composer was in this country in the early 1890s. According to the Carnegie Hall archives, Antonín Dvořák was sitting in Box no.10. Actually, the story is told that he didn’t get to sit during the entire performance. He had to stand to take a bow in response to spirited applause after each movement was performed. Anton Seidel conducted the symphony that has come to be known as the “New World” Symphony.

It was one of 3 works by Dvořák that were performed for the first time within a month of each other. The composer’s String Quartet in F major, op. 96, written while he was visiting a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, had its premiere in Boston on New Year’s Day,1894. The quartet has acquired the nickname “American.”

Within a few days of completing the quartet, Dvořák wrote a string quintet. Supposedly he wrote it in just a matter of days while still in Spillville. Though not as famous as the string quartet, it too has sometimes come to be called the “American.”  That work also had its premiere 125 years ago on January 12, 1894  in New York.

It’s exciting that major anniversaries for all those pieces came together at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019. And it’s just as exciting to know that many WILL listeners came together to support classical music with their contributions at the end of last year and already at the outset of the new one. Thank you for your support!