A Big Honking Mess: The Taxi Horns in ‘An American in Paris’

Dec 4, 2019

It’s jarring to hear a honking car horn. But on the streets of Paris, honking horns – like good wine, café au lait and the Gallic shrug – are just a part of life.

So much so that when George Gershwin decided to compose an orchestral piece inspired by the City of Light, he gave the honking horns of the Parisian taxicabs practically top billing. And not long ago those taxi horns claimed the spotlight for a different reason.

The famous honking taxi horns appear in the first minute of An American in Paris. Listen for them – on the notes A, B, C then D – in this performance by the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting:

Compare the sounds of those taxi horns with the ones on this 1929 performance by the Victor Symphony Orchestra:

The horns in the two recordings sound at different pitch levels – in other words, the horns in the two recordings are honking different notes. That may seem trivial, but when, as a composer, you specialize in telling stories through notes, then every note counts.

So why the difference?

That’s one of the questions that musicologist Mark Clague, associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Michigan and editor-in-chief of the Gershwin Critical Edition, set out to answer while preparing the critical edition of An American in Paris.

In his handwritten score of An American in Paris, Gershwin notated the rhythms of the cab horn entrances very precisely, but did not notate the specific pitches of those entrances on the musical staff. Gershwin also wrote an A, B, C or D inside a circle at the beginning of each entrance.

Generations of musicians have considered those circled letters to be indications of the pitches the taxi horns are supposed to sound, and so have honked the notes A, B, C and D in countless performances of An American in Paris.

But those are not the pitches heard in the 1929 Victor Symphony Orchestra recording of An American in Paris. Since that recording was supervised by Gershwin himself, Clague assumes that the percussionist on that recording played the actual taxi horns that Gershwin brought back from Paris, expressly for the purpose of using them in performances of An American in Paris.

Photographic evidence gives Clague’s theory a boost. A photo taken in March of 1929 – the same year of the Victor Symphony Orchestra recording – shows Gershwin and percussionist James Rosenberg holding Gershwin’s set of four cab horns Rosenberg played in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s March 1929 performances of An American in Paris.

“The taxi horns shown,” Clague wrote in a March 2016 post on the blog of the University of Michigan’s website for the Gershwin Initiative, “especially the small and large horns, are fully consistent with the pitches heard on the 1929 recording and contradict the traditional A, B, C, D sequence.”

So what was up with the circled A, B, C and D in Gershwin's autograph score? Clague suggests that those letters are simply shorthand, and that Gershwin assigned each of the horns a letter, both in his score and on the horns themselves, as a way to make it clear to the performers which horn to honk at which time.

In this video, you can get up close and personal with the sounds of the four taxi horns that the University of Michigan commissioned for a performance of the new critical edition of An American in Paris:

And here is the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with a performance of Clague’s 2018 critical edition of An American in Paris. The taxi horns still sound a bit different from those in the 1929 Victor Symphony Orchestra recording, but they’re closer to what Clague surmises Gershwin wanted them to sound like:

And that’s honking good news!

Catch Gershwin's An American in Paris on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.