Gershwin, George – Cuban Overture for orchestra
(b. Brooklyn, New York, 26 September 1898 – d. Hollywood, California, 11 July 1937)
Gershwin was a well-known and respected composer and pianist during his lifetime, to such an extent that entire concerts were dedicated to his music, often performed in large venues. Referred to as producing the true American sound, Gershwin, the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, composed his own quasi-folk music, jazz melodies and blues inspired sounds, most notably in Porgy and Bess. He referred to this himself, noting that ‘I wrote my own spirituals’ for Porgy, because he ‘wanted the music to be all of one piece.’ (Machlis, 1979, 378).
Famous for his memorable melodies and dominant tune driven songs, Broadway musicals, popular stage works, as in Rhapsody in Blue and I’ve Got Rhythm, as well as concert music, the majority of his works incorporate his instrument, the piano, the instrument he learned as a child. This introduction to the piano led him to learn jazz, blues, and popular American songs, as well as classical repertory staples. As such he had a foundation in the characteristic sound world of his homeland, with skills apt to make an initial living as a pianist in a variety of venues. This diverse musical background and breadth of harmonic and rhythmic awareness enabled him to integrate a variety of styles into his works.
The Cuban Overture, originally referred to as the Rumba, was completed in 1932. It appropriated the rhythmic characteristics of music from Cuba which Gershwin first experienced during a lively vacation with friends to Havana. It was not simply a pastiche, or a popular arrangement of the Rumba. The rhythmic mannerisms were adopted, but the connotations of the dance were reduced, and so the change in title after the work’s premiere was appropriate. Rather, this work mixed the melodic genius of Gershwin’s orchestral concert style, with his complex harmonic, timbral, rhythmic and textural pieces. Fairly unusual, in that it did not include a piano, the orchestra is representative of his energetic, vibrant style, including trumpet dominated melodies and melodic imitation.
Significantly, sonority was vital to Gershwin’s interpretation of the Rumba. He integrated Latin-American percussion as part of the symphony orchestra, namely claves, guiro, maracas and bongos, supported with wood block, xylophone, timpani, snare drum and bass drum. To emphasise the nature of this work, the percussion were placed at the front of the ensemble for its premiere. The Cuban Overture was premiered on 16 August
1932 at the Lewisohn Stadium. It was a programme dedicated entirely to Gershwin, a sell-out stadium concert set up which was to be repeated numerous times. With thousands in the audience the timbral subtleties of these few exotic percussion would have struggled to project, as noted by commentators, which may have effected how the work was received in comparison to his other well-known works. Nonetheless, the work was performed again, conducted by him, at the Metropolitan Opera as part of a charity performance. Since then, it has been an orchestral staple.
Gershwin laid out the aims and inspiration of this work, clearly feeling the need to justify the Cuban content of the piece, as a formal programme note is rather unusual for such a large stadium, popular driven, event. “I have endeavoured to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic materials. … [It] embodies the essence of Cuban dance.” (cited in Greenberg, 1998, 151).
The work has a balanced structure, with the opening and closing sections providing the energetic, Cuban rhythm (established firmly at figure 2), with a trumpet melody, set in imitation, and the woodwind melody based on a triplet-crotchet descending sequential pattern. The vibrant trumpet melody bears affinity to many other Gershwin works, including An American in Paris and the languid introduction of the Andante con moto – Adagio from the Piano Concerto. The melodic shape of all parts is perfectly set for the instruments. The trumpet line sings in the comfortable upper register, with slurs, syncopations, octave leaps and scalic/chromatic
passages. The tonal nature of the work produces a constantly shifting direction, not settling for long on a single key. The texture is busy throughout, and the rhythmic drive pushes forward. There are many passages where a call and response can be heard, or canonic imitation is introduced, as at figure 13, when trumpets and flutes iterate the same melody offset by a bar. The rhythmic energy at figure 15, with the homo-rhythmic passages is even reminiscent of Stravinsky.
Even in the contrasting middle section, which subsides to a mellow clarinet melody leading into figure 19, there is sustained rhythmic vitality, while the moving tonal regions and rhythm ostinato continues. The reed instruments each take a turn to offer a descending then ascending melody. The sectional contrasts are rhythmically driven, as shown in the broad march style after figure 25, then the swung syncopated contrast at figure 26, ensure the energy persists throughout.
Of all Gershwin’s scores, this includes some of the most complex writing. There is use of rhythmic and melodic diminution and augmentation, though the overriding force is the rhythmic ostinato. There is a moment of canonic imitation utilising this ostinato, which eventually contrasts the original and modified ostinato set together. This textural, structural refinement demonstrates Gershwin’s developing orchestral mastery, which due to his early death was to become part of his mature style. This work is an excellent concert opener, enjoyed by audiences and players alike.
Helen Julia Minors, ©2014
– Anderson, Keith (2000), CD Booklet, in Gershwin, George, The Best of Gershwin [CD] Naxos 8.556686.
– Crawford, Richard et al (2014), ‘Gershwin, George [Gershvin, Jacob]’, Grove Music Online, http://
www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/47026 (last accessed July 2014)
– Gilbert, Steven E. (1995), The Music of Gershwin, Yale University Press.
– Greenberg, Rodney (1998), George Gershwin, Phaidon.
– Machlis, Joseph (1979), Introduction to Contemporary Music, 2 edn., W. W. Norton and Company. For performance material please contact Schott, Mainz.