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Trumpet quote from An American in Paris, by George Gershwin

This is the start one of the famous trumpet tunes from An American in Paris by George Gershwin. Gershwin famously borrowed jazz styling and harmony within his compositions. But I wanted to ask about rhythm. If I were handed this line in a big band situation, the expectation would be to swing the quavers.

My question is—given the jazzy nature of the piece, even though it's orchestral, would it OK to play this with swung quavers? Can any of the Gershwin scholars on here say definitively that playing it swung is a no go, or is there justification for swinging it? I'm wondering how much artistic licence is too much…

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If Gershwin had wanted this swung he would have written dotted rhythms, as was usual at that time. Gershwin's original piano roll version has no swing, neither for this passage nor the other 'bluesy' trumpet solo. A lot of orchestras want to swing this, Leonard Bernstein's version with the New York Philharmonic does so (it's a light swing, not a heavy big-band style).

Here's Gershwin's piano roll recording of this passage:

and Bernstein's version:

It probably doesn't really matter how Gershwin intended it, it works either way.

Another piece that is often mistakenly played as swing is Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto. Even though it was written for Benny Goodman, the rhythms, particularly in the cadenza, are intended to be more South American.

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  • If it would have been notated dotted this would be still as far from swing as the equal eight notes. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 16 at 9:52
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    @AlbrechtHügli In those days swing was always notated with dotted eighths. – PiedPiper Feb 16 at 10:04
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    @PiedPiper Thank you for this answer. I had no idea that piano-roll performances by Gershwin himself even existed. So the best answer is: it works either way. Even though Gershwin imagined it with straight quavers, I'm not going to argue if Bernstein says it's OK to swing it. – Brian THOMAS Feb 16 at 16:55
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Bernstein was notoriously a terrible interpreter of Gershwin. Gershwin is NOT jazz, & he always stressed that his concerted works be played as notated, straight. To do otherwise would be in direct & flagrant disregard of the composer's intention.

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    Thanks for these. Can you provide links that support what you say? I'd like to read a bit more background… – Brian THOMAS Feb 18 at 9:21
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You can say historical it isn’t correct to play this piece with a swing, it is probably closer to the ragtime era than the swing.

This is rather staccato than swing:

But I don’t care about it. I prefer Porgy and Bess performed with a light swing as I prefer to hear it sung by natural voices than classical trained opera voices.

Btw. Most Piano music by Bach has an inherent swing in my ears.

Edit: I know this quote isn’t answering your question but I like to cite it anyway:

In the Rhapsody and its successors, linking material can indeed be weak, but the relationship between melodies and context is subtler than critics have suggested. And even when our heads might agree with their comments, our hearts don’t. We keep on listening, keep finding sustenance, keep humming the tunes.

http://www.classical-music.com/article/george-gershwin-he-had-rhythm-he-had-music

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    I agree with you on the Bach, though I think the more classical way of putting it is saying it has a "lilt." One of the many reasons I like Bach so much. – Heather S. Feb 16 at 9:39
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As has been mentioned, Gershwin had a well established method of notating swing, when he wanted to.

This section strikes me more as in the 'bustle of the big city' than 'the city swings!' genre.

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You ask for a link. Here is a fine study of Gershwin's music and performance style:

I've been looking in Pollack's authoritative study of the composer, George Gershwin, His Life and Work (https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520248649/george-gershwin) for that quote. I haven't found it yet, but I do distinctly remember reading of the composer's frustration with performers intent upon jazzing up his concert works. He wanted his carefully-written notations to be taken literally.

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