Pianist Rosa Linda with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra
Recorded in 1938
George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 -- July 11, 1937)
Cuban Overture is a symphonic overture or tone poem for orchestra composed by American composer George Gershwin. Originally entitled Rumba, it was a result of a two-week holiday which Gershwin took in Havana, Cuba in February 1932. Gershwin composed the piece in July and August 1932.
The overture is dominated by Caribbean rhythms and Cuban native percussion, with a wide spectrum of instrumental color and technique. It is a rich and exciting work with complexity and sophistication, illustrating the influence of Cuban music and dance. Its main theme was influenced by a then current hit by Ignacio Piñeiro, "Échale Salsita".
The overture is in ternary form.
The work under the title Rumba received its première at New York's now-demolished Lewisohn Stadium in 16 August 1932, as part of an all-Gershwin programme held by New York Philharmonic. The concert was a huge success. As Gershwin 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."
The work was greeted favorably by critics. It was renamed Cuban Overture three months later at a benefit concert conducted by Gershwin at the Metropolitan Opera to avoid giving audience the idea that it was simply a novelty item. The new title provided, as the composer stated, "a more just idea of the character and intent of the music."
A composer's note in the score instructs specific placement of the Latin American percussion instruments including bongo, claves, guiro, and maracas "right in front of the conductor's stand", with pictures.
From Greg Brian:
With Gershwin's seldom-played "Cuban Overture", we have one of the deepest impressions of a whole other bustling world: Pre-Castro Cuba.
While he was staying there in the late winter of '32, the Cuban Rumba captured Gershwin's imagination the minute he heard it in the myriad clubs lining the Paseo del Prado and other boulevards.
Other than unknown Cuban classical composers before Gershwin's time, there hadn't been a quasi classical work composed in America that utilized the Rumba rhythms in a way that Americans could relate to. The true greatness of Gershwin's music was in his ability to blend different cultural rhythms into a melting pot of pure musical liquid gold
Most casual fans of Gershwin probably have no idea that the premiere of his "Cuban Overture" was one of his biggest successes. It's no exaggeration to say that Gershwin was the equivalent of a rock superstar back then when you consider thousands of people were turned away while trying to get in to hear the premiere of this latest work in August of 1932. Probably because he had other projects on the agenda first, Gershwin didn't write the "Cuban Overture" right away after his Havana vacation. The reason being is because the Rumba rhythms he was going to incorporate took time to study--especially because he eventually concocted a new blend of rhythm pattern with the piece that would stand alone.
Despite the wait, the piece was still written during a one month interval later that summer and was initially going to be called "Rumba" before realizing the banality of the title.
This opening theme is arguably the most representative of any when musically defining exuberance for life along with an engaging and recurring Cuban clave that will draw you in immediately. The melodic structure of the opening themes and its variations takes you right into the heart of Gershwin's attempts at consolidating everything he knew musically at that point, which had, by then, gone to a golden crest.
The age of Castro 27 years after the debut of Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" took down any notion of an American composer bringing the boisterous life, hopes and dreams of the Cuban people into a piece of classical music. That's perhaps why it's been forgotten how popular this Gershwin work was or why it hasn't been performed much in the last five decades. It's only been in more recent years when you've been hearing it performed on recordings or in the concert hall a little more often as people get worn out hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" or "American in Paris" for the umpteenth time on concert programs.