Are French taxi horns in ‘American in Paris’ what George Gershwin wants?

One of my favorite parts of George Gershwin‘s jazzy “An American in Paris” are the French taxi horns. Except what we have heard ever since 1945 when Arturo Toscanini recorded the piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra may not be what Gershwin intended, according to an article in today’s NYTimes. It’s not the notes, it’s the pitch.

Poster from the classic 1951 movie musical.
Poster from the classic 1951 movie.

According to Michael Cooper’s story on the The Arts cover: “In something of a musicological bombshell, a coming critical edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin being prepared at the University of Michigan will argue that the now-standard horn pitches — heard in the classic 1951 movie musical with Gene Kelly, in leading concert halls around the world, and eight times a week on Broadway in Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed stage adaptation — are not what Gershwin intended.”

OK. So what’s the big deal over a few  seconds in a musical ;piece that runs between 17 and 18 minutes long? A lot apparently.

Cooper writes that not only will this divide musicians, it 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.”

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