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Selections from Porgy and Bess

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Gershwin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; New Ballet Ensemble / From Gershwin to Ellington May 10 - 13, 2014
© Thomas May

When Porgy and Bess was first staged in 1935, nearly a decade had elapsed since George Gershwin (1898-1937) first chanced upon the debut novel of a real estate salesman turned poet, DuBose Heyward (1885-1940). Porgy was the title of Heyward's brief but character-rich story. It had been loosely inspired by the real-life figure of a crippled beggar, Samuel Smalls, from an impoverished black tenement near the waterfront of his native Charleston. Porgy proved to be one of the year's literary sensations. Gershwin chanced on a copy soon after, which he read in a single sitting, staying up through the night.

Porgy transfixed Gershwin to the core. He remarked that it contained precisely the ingredients he was searching for in the story he needed for his American opera: "100 percent dramatic intensity in addition to humor." As to the latter quality, he elaborated, "an American opera without humor could not possibly run the gamut of American expression. In Porgy and Bess there are ample opportunities for humorous songs and dances. This humor is natural humor-not ‘gags' superimposed upon the story but humor flowing from the story itself."

But Gershwin's plate was full with Broadway shows and other projects he had taken on to gain confidence in dealing with the larger forms associated with classical tradition. The premiere in 1935 was a watershed for American culture, yet Porgy and Bess took many more decades to become appreciated for the full extent of Gershwin's achievement.

For that matter, the breaking of the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera was still two decades in the future. Not until 1955 did Marian Anderson became the first African-American soloist to appear on its stage. Porgy and Bess itself would wait until 1985 to be produced at the Met, a full half-century after its premiere at Broadway's Alvin Theatre-now the Neil Simon Theatre. (The opera's fortunes in the meantime among European companies constitute another fascinating and involved chapter in the legacy of Porgy and Bess.)

The question as to whether African-American experience was being exploited by a white composer drawing on a Southern white novelist's imagining of black life has also haunted the reception of Porgy and Bess. As Claudia Roth Pierpont observes in a profile of Gershwin for The New Yorker, it's "small wonder that a history of Gershwin criticism often reads simply like history."

The issue of identity framed Gershwin's own career: the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who exemplified "American" success began as a pop song prodigy but longed to find success as a "serious" composer. His breakthrough piece Rhapsody in Blue was introduced in the context of a concert programmed around the theme "What is American music?" Shortly after Porgy and Bess opened, Gershwin himself declared: "I believe that American music should be based on American material."

At the height of his powers-and just when he as at his maximal earning potential-Gershwin cordoned off nearly two years to devote to this labor of love. For a time he left the comforts of Manhattan behind to live in a spartan beach house on Folly Island, near Charleston, so as to immerse himself in the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands that informs the world of Porgy and Bess. Gershwin steeped himself in folk music sources to absorb their ambience rather than to "colonize" by incorporating actual spirituals or blues into his score. "I decided against the use of original folk material," Gershwin wrote, "because I wanted the music to be all of one piece."

With his newfound musical prowess, Gershwin developed his characters in all their complexity. Bess is a study in ambiguity: a fiercely strong-willed individual, she nevertheless remains dependent on the men around her, and we hear how she takes musical shape from their cues. Porgy's many facets are similarly delineated, from his acceptance of the pattern of his loneliness when we first meet him to the wry optimism of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and the transforming love of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Yet he is as capable of violence as the brutal Crown, the stevedore whose hold on Bess propels the plot. Gershwin remarked that in Sporting Life he wanted to depict more than a "sinister dope-peddler" but a villain "who is likable and believable and at the same time evil."

For his basic materials, Gershwin culled from a quintessentially American vernacular of blues, spirituals, swing, jazzy syncopations, honky-tonk, and Broadway show-biz. He also took pride in orchestrating the entire work himself, although his close associate and Hollywood collaborator Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was tasked after Gershwin's death with arranging what became the best-known of the concert suites based on the opera. (Gershwin himself created a fascinating suite, titled Catfish Row, which fell into oblivion after his premature death and is far less frequently heard.)

Bennett also arranged the briefer instrumental suite that we hear. It weaves together a medley of the opera's familiar tunes-several of which have gone on to enjoy an independent life as jazz standards and the like-though not in the dramatic order in which they appear in Gershwin's score. Starting with the opening number from the third act ("Clara, Clara") and then includes, in this order, "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and the finale number "Oh Lord, I'm on My Way."