Gershwin Goes to Havana: The Cuban Overture (1932)
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Gershwin Goes to Havana: The Cuban Overture (1932)

History and analysis of Gershwin's 1932 trip to Havana, and the composing of his Cuban Overture.

Cuban Overture (1932)

After the success of An American in Paris, Gershwin wrote two more concert works: the Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture. In both of these works the composer seems to have supressed his gift for melodic invention, putting the emphasis on thematic and rhythmic development and interrelation, as well as concentrating his efforts on the contrapuntal and harmonic framework and the mastering of orchestration. Both works even have clear instances of polytonality, and as with An American in Paris, the careful listener can discern the influence of the French Impressionists in the Cuban Overture, particularly that of Debussy's Iberia.

The Cuban Overture (which was originally called Rumba) was composed in 1932, after a pleasure trip to Havana that Gershwin took earlier that year in February, when the composer was fascinated by the music he heard on the streets of the Cuban capital. As such, the work is rich in the flavor, color and animation of the island of Cuba.

Children playing on the present-day streets of Havana

The work features a sophisticated form and one of Gershwin's most complex orchestrations. In order to add to the authenticity of the piece, the orchestration includes such indigenous instruments as bongo drums, maracas, güiro (a serrated gourd), and palitos or claves (short cylindrical hardwood sticks that produce a loud sound when they are struck against each other) - instruments which he brought back with him to New York, much like he had done with the French taxicab horns he brought to the States for his An American In Paris. Since these instruments were virtually unknown in symphonic circles, he sketched them on the title page of the score and labelled them for the convenience of the conductor.

Original title page to the score of the Cuban Overture

The Cuban Overture recieved its premiere performance at the first of a series of all-Gershwin programs given at Lewisohn Stadium in New York.  The date was August 16, 1932, and the concert was conducted by the composer himself. For the occasion, Gershwin provided the following analysis:

"In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms and my own thematic material. The result is a symphonic ouverture (sic) which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance. It has three main parts.

"The first part (Moderato e molto ritmato) (sic) is preceded by a (forte) 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 gradually developing canon in a polytonal manner. This part concludes with a 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 to the main theme. The conclusion of the work is a coda featuring the Cuban instruments of percussion."

Author's addendum:

*  For more background on the life and works of Gershwin, please see my other articles on his works and times:

*  The cover image is a photo of the city of Havana.

*  The embedded audio file above is one of the few live A/V performances available on YouTube.  On the one hand, it is a feisty, fast-paced interpretation that never dims from start to finish.  On the other hand, it is not a first-rate internationally lauded group and the one-view camera angle is somewhat limiting.  Overall, it's worth seening this piece played rather than merely having an audio of it.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (6)

A great read about the music king of the forties, amazing when you think of all this guy did for the music world.

First time hearing this piece. Sounds like something they used to use in old American cartoons to illustrate action or mayhem.

I played this in college and have since gotten a recording (and heard it frequently on the radio). After reading your article, Cuban Overture is playing in my ears. A pleasant earworm for a change! Thanks.

Thank you, David!

Wow, I like the overture. Here's the tip if you like, find out the pieces used in the movie V for Vendetta and I'm sure it was kind of interesting.

Thanks, Will. Gershin really enjoyed traveling and was inspired to write many works based on locations. I just dropped the "V" soundtrack history off to your mailbox. I really must see that film.