Brooklyn’s Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, were among the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1920s and 30s, with countless popular songs and six Broadway musicals to their name.  But George (1898-1937), who wrote all of the music to Ira’s lyrics, longed for a place in the classical music pantheon.  In 1924, his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and band (later orchestra) established his credentials as a serious composer.  Its use of jazz elements within classical structures became a hallmark of Gershwin’s style.  His Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris continued in this direction, culminating in his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.  Despite his success in the classical arena, Gershwin’s requests for lessons with other major composers were repeatedly denied.  Arnold Schoenberg, for example, told him “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

Gershwin wrote Cuban Overture in 1932 after a vacation in Havana in February of that year.  He returned from that trip with Cuban rhythms in his head and Cuban percussion instruments under his arm.  The overture was premiered on August 16, 1932 under the title Rumba.  It was retitled Cuban Overture by the time of its second performance at the Metropolitan Opera on November 1, 1932.  For that occasion, Gershwin provided his own program notes:

In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic material.  The result is a symphonic overture, which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.

It has three main parts.  The first part is preceded by an introduction featuring some of the thematic material.  Then comes a three-part contrapuntal episode leading to a second theme.  The first part finishes with a recurrence of the first theme combined with fragments of the second.

A solo clarinet cadenza leads to a middle part, which is in a plaintive mood.  It is a gradual developing canon in a polytonal manner.  This part concludes witha climax based on an ostinato of the theme in the canon, after which a sudden change in tempo brings us back to the rumba dance rhythms.

The finale is a development of the preceding material in a stretto-like manner.  This leads us back once again to the main theme.

The conclusion of the work is a coda featuring the Cuban instruments of the percussion.

Cuban Overture marks a great leap forward in Gershwin’s symphonic music, both in its harmonic sophistication and its orchestration.  His program notes, with their emphasis on the form of the work, may have been an attempt to quiet his critics who faulted him with awkwardly-constructed music.  But Cuban Overture, with its roots firmly in Gershwin’s famous sound and clearly tempered by his Cuban experience, met with critical praise from its first performance.  This was among his last large-scale instrumental concert works, written when Gershwin was 33.  Had he lived beyond the age of 38, Cuban Overture might have pointed the way towards another era of sophisticated Gershwin compositions.

Further program notes and information on Cuban Overture can be found at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Redwood Symphony, and on the blog of Gershwin biographer Walter Rimler.

Before listening, I highly recommend that you watch this 1930s tourist film about Cuba.  It puts the piece wonderfully in context, and it shows what a truly different place Cuba has become now.

Here is the US Coast Guard Band playing Cuban Overture. It’s techinically all there, but a bit lacking in the groove:

Now the orchestra version, recorded with a nice professional polish, but too fast in the middle.  Also, it’s a whole step higher than the band one (although it did come first, so I guess the band version is therefore a whole step lower) so don’t let that throw your ears off:

Gershwin often wrote a short score for 2 pianists of his symphonic pieces before orchestrating them.  Cuban Overture is no exception:

Finally, a bit of a curiosity: in 1938, the year after Gershwin’s death, pianist Rose Linda got together with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra to record a jazzy version of the Overture:

About the composer:

Gershwin.com – the official Gershwin family website.

Gershwin’s death announcement and obituary from the New York Times.

George Gershwin bio at balletmet.org.

Another Gershwin bio, with portraits, at naxos.com.

The 2012 performance of this is a senior choice for CUWE treasurer and oboist Andrea Gillis.