George Gershwin: Cuban Overture


The genesis of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture lies in a two week trip the composer took to Havana in 1932. Known for its nightlife and music, Havana made a big impression on Gershwin. He basked in exciting irregular rhythmic patterns and exotic harmonies which he absorbed and even bought his own set of native percussion instruments whilst out there. Gershwin experimented with maracas, bongos, claves and a gourd to recreate some of the staple beats in Cuban music. 

Once back in New York, Gershwin worked towards capturing the sounds and atmospheres he heard in Havana in his own composition. Originally entitled Rumba the work was premiered in the first all-Gershwin concert in August 1932 in front of 17,000 people. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra premiered this work alongside some of his other published works. This concert was also ground-breaking because this was the first ever that the NYP had devoted a complete programme of music to a living programme. Gershwin described the evening as “The most exciting night I have ever had.”

Although originally entitled Rumba, Gershwin altered the name of the work three months later for its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. The work then became known as Cuban Overture, which the composer commended gave “a more just idea of the character and intent of the music.” 

The Music 

In the programme notes for the premiere Gershwin writes:


“In my composition [Cuban Overture] I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of Cuban dance.”


Cuban Overture can be easily dissected into three parts as it is in ternary form (A-B-A sections). The outer sections are faster, featuring exotic dance rhythms, shadows of popular Latin tunes and a keen use of a range of native percussion instruments. According to Gershwin’s score, the percussion should be displayed for all to see on stage. The slower middle section offers a striking contrast to the outer movement, with the central haunting melody initially played on the oboe causing a melancholy mood across the orchestra.

The overture is rightfully dominated by Caribbean rhythms, which shine through from all sections of the orchestra at one point during the work. The percussion act as a central support system throughout to drive rhythms and add to the exoticism of the piece. Gershwin’s choices of instrumentation for Cuban Overture creates a wide spectrum of colourful timbres in the music, which adds to the sheer richness of the orchestration. 

Gershwin biographer Charles Schwartz described this work as “a fine display piece for orchestra” due to its sophistication, complexity and influence of Cuban music and dance. Gershwin’s utilisation of all aspects of the orchestra is what adds much of the excitement to Cuban Overture. With the opening brass proclamation to the effervescent string runs, this work is buzzing with iconic Gershwin twists and turns. 

Final Thoughts

Celebrated for its vibrancy and melodic genius, George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture has become one of his most popular orchestral works. Performed around the world regularly, the work is particularly popular in its native home of America. The rousing conclusion to the overture became a hallmark in Gershwin’s style, as well as his ability to write for an eclectic mix of instruments. 

Fun fact: The main theme in Cuban Overture was based by Ignacio Piñeiro’s hit song Échale Salsita. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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