Honk if you love taxi horns! How the CSO is linked to a Gershwin totem

Composer George Gershwin (from left), percussionist James Rosenberg and tenor Richard Crooks pose with the original taxi horns used in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performances of “An American in Paris” in 1929.

Courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs the Gershwins’ score for An American in Paris (1951), patrons will hear a familiar sound repeated throughout: old-fashioned taxi horns.

Thanks to some recent scholarly sleuthing, we now know more about the history of Gershwin’s hand-picked honkers than ever before. There’s even a CSO connection. First, though, some background.

Nine decades ago, in late February of 1929, Gershwin visited Cincinnati, shortly before two early March performances of An American in Paris by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It was the piece’s first foray outside New York, where it had premiered at Carnegie Hall the previous December and on national radio in late January.

During his Ohio jaunt, Gershwin posed for photos with several other men, including Cincinnati’s principal conductor Fritz Reiner (who later became the CSO’s music director) and percussionist James Rosenberg. In one shot, provided to the University of Michigan from the digital collection of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts of San Francisco, Gershwin and Rosenberg each hold one end of an odd-looking contraption consisting of four different-sized French taxi horns (the squeezable kind with a rubber bulb) fastened to a wooden board.

Gershwin, who purchased the horns in Paris, incorporated them into his score to evoke the hustle and bustle of Paris street life. Making their first appearance in measure 30, they are played as a series of accented eighth notes. So as to indicate which horn to honk when, Gershwin labeled their entrances with circled letters: A, B, C and D. Since at least 1945, on countless sets of horns, those letters have been interpreted as notes — and as gospel. But are they really?

A few months after the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of An American in Paris at Carnegie Hall and a few weeks before Gershwin arrived in Cincinnati, he had supervised a Victor Recording of the piece in which the horns sound distinctly different than those to which audiences and listeners worldwide have long become accustomed. They sound, in fact, much more like they look in that 1929 photo. Instead of A, B, C and D natural, their pitches — A-flat, B-flat (above middle C), high D and low A (a third below middle C) — are more dissonant and whimsical-sounding — even a bit comical. Perhaps, as some now surmise, orchestras have played the parts incorrectly all this time.

Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and editor-in-chief of the school’s Gershwin Critical Edition, certainly thinks so. It was his research on the topic that prompted stories in the New York Times, on National Public Radio and elsewhere.

But unconvinced is veteran CSO percussionist Jim Ross, the son of late Cincinnati percussionist James Rosenberg, who eventually moved his family to Chicago to begin a CSO residency of his own that lasted 13 years. Ross has played Gershwin’s masterpiece (and its deceptively difficult-to-operate taxi horns) more times than he can remember. While he’s intrigued by the discussion of alternate pitches and even finds the pitches themselves somewhat enjoyable, he remains skeptical that the composer intended musicians to play something other than what they’ve always played.

“The pitches that we’ve used all these years around the world fit into the harmony and the orchestration and the trumpet parts, and they sound right,” he said. Could they be wrong? Sure. “The question is: Are you open to it?”