Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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Finding the Language of Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin had an uncanny ability to absorb varied styles into his own musical voice. He borrowed elements of Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville, urban jazz and country blues, Ravel and ragtime, to name a few major sources, but the cumulative effect was a personal and unmistakable sound. Gershwin never stopped stretching himself in his unfairly short life; he did not settle into the breezy patchwork style of Rhapsody in Blue, written at age 25, or churn out nothing but hit Broadway tunes like the many he completed by age 30, even though those talents were enough to make him rich and famous. When he set himself the challenge of writing an opera based on DuBose Heyward’s novella Porgy, he began a patient and deliberate search for the musical language that would drive the score. Here, in his own words and in the reflections of his colleagues, is a snapshot of how that language was born, and how it succeeded.

From the time Gershwin began plotting out Porgy, he knew that the “folk opera” (as he called it) would need to reflect the local style of its characters and setting. As he explained in a 1935 article in The New York Times, “Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro life in America … I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and irrepressible high spirits of the race.” But he also knew that this was a new operatic creation, not a folk mash-up, so he made a key decision: “When I first began work on the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music all to be of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs.”

To find his own approach to spirituals and folksongs, Gershwin traveled through South Carolina with Heyward, who was crafting the opera’s libretto. Heyward later recounted an episode when, “At a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started ‘shouting’ with them, and eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’” Gershwin, too, relived that story with pride, including an account he gave Anne Brown, the original Bess; he told her how the “champion” praised him, saying, “By God, you can sure beat out them rhythms, boy. I’m over seventy years old and I ain’t never seen no po’ little white man take off and fly like you. You could be my own son!”

As Gershwin told a South Carolina reporter on one of those visits, “I have tried, myself, to do something more than just a song. I’ve tried to grasp the real spirit of our people. I’ve wanted to do something that would last.” Clearly jumping into a “shouting” competition was one way to grasp “the real spirit.” Gershwin was a lively participant, but he was also a careful observer, making sense of the sounds he heard and calculating how to use them. While corresponding with Heyward about the work’s progress, he wrote, “Incidentally, I start and finish the storm scene with six different prayers sung simultaneously. This has somewhat the effect we heard in Hendersonville as we stood outside the Holy Rollers Church.”

The inherent tension of a Jewish New Yorker assimilating the musical conventions of Black South Carolina was not lost on Gershwin. He knew he was working from the outside, and nowhere is his understanding of the delicate racial divide more apparent than in stories of his interactions with the all-Black cast. Trying to explain the feeling of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” to Todd Duncan, the first Porgy, Gershwin told him, “This is a bitter song and you have to sing it with tongue-in-cheek; you have to sing it smiling all the time. Because what you’re doing is making fun of us. You’re making fun of the people who make money and to whom power and position is very important.”

Anne Brown encountered the question of race at her first audition with Gershwin in his apartment, and even in 1995 she still remembered vividly what she learned about the composer that day:

I sang a French aria by Massenet, several German lieder, Russian songs in English, even a Gershwin melody. And George Gershwin was full of praise. And then he asked me to sing a Negro spiritual. Well, unless someone is nearly as old as I am and has lived in the United States before the Second World War and understood the insidious damage racial prejudice can afflict on both victim and racist, it may be difficult to understand my reaction at that moment. I said, “Well, weren’t you satisfied with what I sang?” And he said, “Yes, of course, it was lovely—beautiful.” “But why do people always ask Negro singers to sing spirituals as if that is the only thing that they should be singing and not German lieder or French arias.” I was very much on the defensive. George Gershwin simply looked long at me and he said, “Ah huh, I understand.” And I realized that he did understand and then I wanted more than anything else to sing a spiritual for him.

Critics at the time were quick to attack Gershwin for daring to approach a folk style that was not native to him. The fellow composer and powerful critic Virgil Thomson griped, “Folk-lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935.” Duke Ellington had no patience for Gershwin’s stylized snapshot of life on Catfish Row, proclaiming, “The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.”

Even some of those unforgiving critics recognized that the true question of Porgy and Bess was not the validity of its folk material, but how authentically it conveyed Gershwin’s own sound and message. Hall Johnson, an African-American musician and critic, wrote a mostly negative review of the opera in 1936, but he got caught up in Gershwin’s original “spiritual” melodies: He described a scene in Act II when Bess “sings a few pages of such vibrant beauty, so replete with the tragedy of the minor spirituals, that most of what follows is made to sound a little more false by reason of the absolute rightness of this episode.”

Even the irascible Virgil Thomson acknowledged that, despite his misgivings, something about the opera rang true to him. His review admitted:

I don’t like fake folk-lore, nor fidgety accompaniments nor bitter-sweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor plum-pudding orchestration. I do, however, like being able to listen to a work for three hours and to be fascinated at every moment. I also like its lack of respectability, the way it can be popular and vulgar and go its way as a real professional piece does without bothering much about the taste-boys. I like to think of Gershwin as having presented his astonished and somewhat perturbed public with a real live baby, all warm and dripping and friendly.

Thomson captured exactly the core of Gershwin’s success: Porgy and Bess is a “real live baby,” not an artificial object of folk art nor anything else contrived. When he reviewed the opera again in 1941, Thomson said of his since-deceased colleague, “He didn’t know much about musical aesthetics, and he couldn’t orchestrate for shucks; but his strength was as the strength of ten because his musical heart was really pure.”