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Taxi horn controversy in An American in Paris

By Morgan Wynne

Composer George Gershwin (left) and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra percussionist James Rosenberg holding four taxi horns used in the orchestra's Feb. 1929 performance of An American in Paris. Photo courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Composer George Gershwin wrote the symphonic poem An American in Paris for premiere by the New York Philharmonic after returning from Paris in 1928. Gershwin’s purpose was “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.”  

He wrote the piece for standard orchestra, while also including instruments that were not common in orchestras in 1928: saxophones, celestas and taxi horns.

Mark Clague, musicologist at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is currently editing a critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin’s music through The Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.  The Gershwin Initiative, a partnership with the Gershwin family, is an ongoing examination of the Gershwin’s music initiated by Todd Gershwin, a U-M alumnus, the grandnephew of George and Ira Gershwin, and the son of Marc George Gershwin.  

Due in part to George Gershwin’s early death at the age of 38, his music had not received scholarly editing before the Initiative. University of Michigan scholars are collaborating with experts around the nation and globe to analyze works featuring music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother, Ira Gershwin, as well as the instrumental works by George Gershwin.

Clague, who serves as editor-in-chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, recently made a discovery regarding one of the atypical instruments played in An American in Paris upon looking at the original score. After listening to an early recording of the work, he discovered that orchestras have been playing the wrong taxi horns for 70 years.

Gershwin's handwritten notation for the first appearance of a taxi horn in measure 30 of An American in Paris. Courtesy George Gershwin Family Trusts.

Gershwin’s handwritten notation for the first appearance of a taxi horn in measure 30 of An American in Paris. Courtesy George Gershwin Family Trusts.

Clague explains that the issue is Gershwin’s ambiguous notation, likely caused by his own movement from popular music to the classical sphere of music, in which a single-line of music notation instructs percussionists to sound each taxi horn blast.

Since 1945, when Arturo Toscanini recorded the piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the four circled letters over the taxi horn parts, ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ have been thought to indicate pitch. “While clearly indicating rhythm, the notation does not use a full 5-line staff that indicates pitch. Instead a circled letter identifies which of the four taxi horns George purchased in Paris is to be used,” says Clague.

Gershwin handpicked taxi horns to buy during his 1928 trip to Paris that he brought back to the U.S. for the New York premiere. His friends and colleagues recalled that he chose these horns specifically for the notes they played.

When listening to the February 4, 1929 Victor Recording supervised by the composer, it is clear that the circled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ letters are not the pitches Gershwin intended.  The taxi horns on this recording sound more dissonant. After further investigation, Clague argues that the correct pitches should be Ab and Bb (above middle C), high D (a third above that) and low A (a third below middle C).

George Gershwin's beloved An American In Paris features the sounds of taxi horns — but evidence shows we've been using the wrong ones.

George Gershwin’s beloved An American In Paris features the sounds of taxi horns — but evidence shows we’ve been using the wrong ones.

The new critical edition will argue that Gershwin’s circled letters were just labels specifying which horns to play, not which notes.

How does this affect the classical music world? According to this New York Times piece, percussion rental company owners have mixed feelings.  

Russ Knutson, owner of Chicago Percussion Rental, believes that the accepted A, B, C, and D pitches “fit exactly in the score.”

Trey Wyatt, percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and owner of California Percussion Rental, said he was intrigued by the finding and may even “have to buy another five sets of these horns” if the new tuning takes off.

Rob Fisher, musical score adapter and staging supervisor of Broadway’s “An American in Paris” agrees with Clague that the A, B, C, and D labels were simply names, not pitches. However, Fisher questioned whether those four horns just made Gershwin “happiest that day.”  Fisher believes that if the composer wanted exact pitches for the taxi horns, he would have indicated such, because “he was really good about writing down intentions.” The Broadway show ended up using the standard horns regardless.

Gershwin probably could have saved everybody a lot of trouble, says Clague, “if he had just numbered [the horns] ‘1,’ ‘2,’ ‘3,’ and ‘4’ rather than ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D.’”

After Gershwin’s untimely death in 1937, the taxi horn pitches began to vary.  While the 1945 Toscanini recording established a new performance standard, Clague believes his musical analysis shows that the pitches used in the 1929 recording sound best. “George was thinking harmonically and melodically with the taxi horns,” he said. “It’s not just a sound effect.”

Read more about Clague’s discovery at CBC, NPRNew York Times.

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