Cuban Overture (arr. Milburn)

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George Gershwin

George Gershwin (arr. Dwayne S Milburn)

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General Info

Year: 1932
Duration: c. 10:00
Difficulty: VI (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Orchestra
Publisher: Manuscript (U.S. Army Band)
Cost: Score and Parts - Unknown


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None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

In mid-1932. George Gershwin left New York with several friends to take a vacation in Havana, Cuba. He had just presented a successful show on Broadway – Of Thee I sing –- and the premiere of his Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. While there, he became fascinated with the native music of Cuba and returned to New York armed with Cuban percussion instruments and musical ideas.

These ideas culminated in a symphonic work entitled Rumba; its first performance was presented in an all-Gershwin concert in Levisohn Stadium on August 16, 1932, conducted by Albert Coates. Later, on November first of the same year, it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera under the title Cuban Overture. Gershwin provided these program thoughts:

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, Moderator e Molto Ritmato, is preceded by a [forte] introduction featuring some of the thematic material. Then comes a three-part contrapunctual 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 the middle part, which is in a plaintive mood. It is a gradual 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 final 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.

As is the case with Second Rhapsody, Cuban Overture portrays a composer in transition –- trying out new ideas in harmony and counterpoint and streamlining his orchestration. Doubtless a major source of this change –- and historians will argue how much or how little –- was due to Gershwin's studies with Joseph Schillinger, which started in 1932.

Certainly, Gershwin's musical interests were widening at this point since his music library now included Bach's The Art of the Fugue, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms and the then-avant-garde works of Berg and Schoenberg. For many years he had been an irregular student of music, and now he surprised his friends with this knowledge of the inner workings of the classics. While linear aspects of his music revealed a growing influence, Gershwin's orchestral technique was making even greater strides. It may very well be that this is the area in which Schillinger influenced Gershwin the most. Cuban Overture has the fewest examples of the excessive instrumental doublings that Gershwin overused in his orchestration of the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Second Rhapsody. However, Gershwin, remaining true to his own spirit, continued his orchestral palette and sound in addition to his bad habits in orchestration.

Gershwin also highlighted the formal aspects of his music since he was obviously aware that even critics praising his work were not happy with the sometimes awkward construction of some of his orchestral music. This was an aspect of his creative effort that he constantly sought to improve. This, Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture were opportunities to experiment in form, imitative counterpoint and more effective transitions.

In Cuban Overture, Gershwin was thus able to demonstrate a great leap forward in musical maturity as well as to show how his interest in new and different musical cultures could affect his own creativity.

- Program Note by Mark Rogers

Rumba was premièred by the New York Philharmonic in the now-demolished Lewisohn Stadium on August 16, 1932, during an all-Gershwin concert of epic proportions. After the performance, an elated composer wrote: “It was, I really believe, the most exciting night I have ever had . . . 17,845 people paid to get in and just about 5,000 were at the closed gates trying to fight their way in unsuccessfully.”

Cuban Overture was Gershwin’s last effort at composing a significant concert work before his untimely death in 1937 at the age thirty-eight.

- Program Note from U.S. Marine Band concert program, 24 August 2016


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