Thursday, 10 March 2016

"American in Paris" taxi horns: the end of a historical mistake.

There´s a buzz going through discussion groups and forums these last days that, far from calming down, is growing in a very noticeable way... The subject is not trivial, as it has "huge" consequences. An article in the New York Times reveals that the taxi horns we´ve been using all these years in "An American in Paris" (George Gershwin) were playing the wrong pitches.

© Jam percussion

The article, published on March, 1st (hot from the oven), has left no percussionist indifferent. HERE is a link to it. There you will find the conclusions of Mark Clague, musicologist in charge of the new critical edition of the score.You will also find a recording with the part as we play it today and the first recording of the piece (and the only one featuring the original pitches) by Toscanini and the NBC National Orchestra. Stop reading this blog, open the link and, before going on with Percusize Me!, read the New York Times article. The key is the A, B, C, D notation...
Have you already read it? If not, stop now and go for it... Done? Don´t tell me you are not petrified...

The conclusions in the article make much sense, but they gave cause to doubts, discussions and mistrust, as they could not be 100% proved due to the original set of horns being lost and because no photographs could definitely prove the A, B, C, D notation was not one related to musical pitches but to the order in which the horns were arranged for the recording. The commotion and controversy the article created about this "transcendental" issue enriched the debate, but every doubt and opinion got eclipsed when, on March 5th (only four days after the article shocking the Gershwinian foundations was published), the University of Michigan got the ace hiding up its sleeve that proved almost irrefutably its point. The link to that article is HERE. As before, stop reading Percusize Me!: open the link and devour it.

© Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts

What do you think? Incredible, isn´t it? This photo is the bombshell that proves we´ve been playing those notes wrong. It´s pretty clear looking at them that the size of the horns is not proportional to consecutive pitches (a, b, c and d), and that they are not even arranged following a size pattern, so the points made by Mark Clague are very valid.

Gershwin himself got those taxi horns during two different trips to Paris, got them arranged on a board the way we can see in the photo and named them A, B, C and D as ordinals, not as pitches. The pitches on the Toscanini recording are A flat, B flat, D (quite brilliant) and A natural (low octave).

Don´t know you, but I´m astonished about this revelation, and the points are valid. This is also the kind of curiosity mixed with academic rigour that, you should already know this, I like so much.

There are rental companies already offering this new set of pitches and percussionists willing to play them in future concerts. I would love to try this new version... What would you do?

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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