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Porgy and Bess, , arr. Robert Russell Bennett

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Gershwin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
NSO at Wolf Trap: Gershwin, Bernstein & Barber: "American Originals" Fri., Jun. 24, 2005, 8:15 PM
© Emil de Cou
Untitled Document

We are a young country, and yet there are certain pieces of American music that seem as if they have always been around, as if they were authentic folk melodies or ancient hymns. George M. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," George Gershwin's "Summertime," Richard Rodger's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"--it seems impossible that these are all original melodies crafted by professional songwriters.  The same is true in the "serious" genre of Americana: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has taken on a status as our national hymn of remembrance and solace. Leonard Bernstein once said that he wished he could live long enough to overhear someone walking down the street whistling one of his melodies. We hear his wish fulfilled tonight in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Gershwin was an ever-curious self-taught composer, mining and combining the sophisticated with the popular. His approach to music was pragmatic. When he started his classical phase with Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris he sought out Maurice Ravel to study so-called "serious" composition.  (Of course, everything Gershwin wrote in any idiom--jazz, Broadway, film, symphonic, popular song, romantic, whimsical--was seriously serious). And when he was asked to write his famous Concerto in F he went straight out to his local bookstore to buy a book on musical form. So it is no surprise that when he came across DuBose Heyward's novel of African-American life in the South that he immediately started his research by traveling to Folly Island off the South Carolina coast to soak up the sounds of the descendants of enslaved Americans. He attended revival meetings, befriending locals who had no idea who this inquisitive man was–even winning a "shout" competition while studying spirituals. 

I find Porgy so timeless and honest because Gershwin made sure the story rang true: a contemporary opera about African-Americans in the south with an all African-American cast, in 1935. (Thankfully Gershwin and Heyward declined Al Jolson's offer to play Porgy.)

Gershwin threw himself into this project with abandon, for he was about to create a new form of musical theater, which he called an American Folk Opera. A press release in his day promised a cross between the drama of Bizet's Carmen and the beauty of Wagner's Meistersinger. Gershwin knew this was going to be his most important musical composition to date. What he could not know was that it was also among his last. Two years later he died at the age of 38. 

L ike many great works of our American cultural heritage Porgy and Bess sprang out of the soil that created jazz, with its unique hymns, field calls, blues, revival shouts and, most importantly, the spiritual.  From "Summertime," the first tune Gershwin wrote for Porgy and Bess , to "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Oh, I Got Plenty of Nuthin," "Bess, You is my Woman Now," to Porgy's heartbreaking "Oh, Bess, Where is My Bess" you are in constant amazement that this is the work of one musician, an unlikely composer writing an opera on an unlikely subject, which one day would be recognized as one of the greatest creative works this country has yet produced.

Emil de Cou

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