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Cuban Overture is a symphonic overture or tone poem for orchestra composed by American composer George Gershwin. Originally titled 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".
Other songs referenced by the piece's themes and phrases include the traditional folk song La Paloma.
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."
The overture is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English Horn, two clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four French horns, three B-flat trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
A composer's note in the score instructs specific placement of the Latin American percussion instruments including bongo, claves, gourd, and maracas "right in front of the conductor's stand", with pictures.
F. Campbell Watson, who was in charge of Gershwin's scores after his death, had the score tweaked and changed somewhat. This may account for a rhythm piano that appears in some audio recordings.
On September 22, 2013, it was announced that a musicological critical edition of the full orchestral score will be eventually released. The Gershwin family, working in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the University of Michigan, are working to make scores available to the public that represent Gershwin's true intent. It is unknown if the critical edition will include the rhythm piano in the score, or if the score will document changes in the orchestration during Gershwin's composition process. It is likely the score will include repeating the second to the last measure of the work three times.
The score to Cuban Overture is currently scheduled to be issued first in a series of scores to be released. The project may take 30 to 40 years to complete. The first edition will probably be published by 2023.