Gershwin's Genius


EVERYBODY KNOWS Porgy and Bess. Its most recent revival played for seven months last year to audiences in seven cities here and in Canada, and the Metropolitan Opera Company plans to offer it next season. Nearly a half-century after its 1935 premiere, its most famous songs—“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ”—are still heard everywhere and in every conceivable form: in inflated symphonic arrangements at “pops” concerts, as opera singers’ recital encores, in hyped-up modern-jazz settings. Its principal characters—the crippled beggar Porgy, his beloved Bess, and the pusherpimp Sportin’ Life—are part of our national consciousness, as are a rough outline of their story and a general sense of their Catfish Row milieu. My twelveyear-old daughter sports a T-shirt bearing the legend “Summertime, when the livin’ is easy.”

And yet almost nobody knows Porgy and Bess in the sense that millions of people may be said to know Figaro, Tristan, Aida, Carmen, La Bohème, and many lesser operas. The original production of Gershwin’s masterpiece was heavily cut, setting a precedent that held until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera Company staged the first production that could, with reasonable accuracy, be called complete. Though there have been plenty of recordings of lengthy selections, as well as of individual songs, the first complete recording, by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (London OSA 13116), also appeared only in 1976. A year later, the Houston company’s performance, directed by John DeMain, was issued (RCA ARL3-2109). Both recordings, though serviceable and most welcome, are seriously flawed. Moreover—and this is a far more important fact than it might at first appear—the orchestral score of Porgy and Bess has never been published, and the published vocal score, which, of course, gives the orchestral part in piano reduction, is severely defective, having been prepared from an early version of Gershwin’s manuscript. Therefore, though a great deal has been written about Porgy and Bess, almost all of it has been based on evidence that is either incomplete or misleading.

It is often said, for example, that Porgy and Bess is nothing but a string of hit tunes, with no compelling dramatic impulse or unity. This was perhaps an understandable reaction to the original production, in which the work was cut to about two thirds of its length, with much of the connective material that welds the songs into drama omitted, and also to the 1941-1945 revival, which was about the same length and in which at least some of the recitative was replaced by spoken dialogue. But any critic who says this of the complete opera shows only that he has been busily reading his predecessors. For one’s first reaction to hearing Porgy and Bess in its entirety is a delighted shock at how fresh and new, how rich with unforeseen dramatic resonance, the familiar songs sound in their original context.

The joyous, big-city cynicism of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” stands out far more sharply if the song is heard as intended, immediately after the equally joyous but contrastingly primitive unison chant “I Ain’ Got No Shame,” which opens Act II, scene 2, the picnic on Kittiwah Island. Moreover, the song is seen to grow organically out of the drama once we notice that it is composed of the slithery chromatic phrases that have been associated right from the beginning with Sportin’ Life and his attempts to peddle “happy dust” to the “small-town niggers” (as he scornfully calls them) who make up the Catfish Row community. Since the plot will hinge on his success at winning Bess away from Porgy and Catfish Row, and getting her to come with him to New York, these dramatic relationships and the way in which they are embodied in the songs are central to the impact of the work as a whole.

“I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” benefits similarly from being taken in its full context. Its immediately recognizable harmonic pattern is first heard, played softly by the strings, behind Porgy’s strangely moving invocation to the dice during the crap game in Act I, scene 1. The song itself does not emerge fully formed until Act II, scene 1, as Porgy’s carefree response to Jake’s declaration that he must take his fishing boat out if he is to earn the money to give his child a college education. Hearing the song, we recall that the crap game ended in the murder of Robbins by Crown, and thus in the ironic turn of events that brought Bess to Porgy’s door. It is this stroke of luck, far more significant than any that Porgy could have foreseen when he prayed over the dice, that he is celebrating as he sings.

Finally, there is “Summertime.” A newcomer to Porgy and Bess is astonished to discover that this incomparable song, which he had imagined would be reserved until well into the action, is sung, by Jake’s wife, Clara, only a few minutes after the curtain has gone up on Act I. Why would Gershwin throw away a great tune so early? So that he could repeatedly bring it back, in varied dramatic contexts: counterpointed against the men’s chanting during the crap game, it signalizes the tensions latent within Catfish Row; sung again by Clara during the hurricane, it reminds us that it is for the sake of their child that Jake has taken his boat out; sung by Bess after Clara, leaving her baby in Bess’s care, has gone out into the storm to search for (and ultimately to die with)' Jake, it gives community sanction to the change, albeit a temporary one, that Bess has made in her way of life by turning from Crown to Porgy.

Some of the opera’s best songs— Jake’s “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” Serena Robbins’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” Bess’s “What You Want wid Bess,” Sportin’ Life’s “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”—are so firmly embedded in their dramatic contexts, and so dependent for their effect on our sense of the characters who sing them, that they never could become hits. There are also some mediocre songs: Jake’s self-consciously folksy work song “It Take a Long Pull to Get There,” Crown’s banally jazzy “A Red Headed Woman,” Bess’s banally sentimental “I Loves You, Porgy.” But the general musical level is very high—higher, I would venture to say, than in any opera of Puccini or Strauss, and almost as high as in the early operas of Verdi. What Gershwin has created is not, as has so often been alleged, merely a pat alternation of songs (hit or otherwise) and something else, whether recitative or spoken dialogue, but a series of long, carefully shaped musical sequences in which the transitions from song to recitative and back again are natural and effortless, controlled by the ebb and flow of the drama.

THAT GERSHWIN, EVEN at the relatively early age of thirty-seven, was able to produce an opera of the stature of Porgy and Bess should not come as a surprise to anyone. By 1935, he had behind him fifteen years of the intense involvement with the musical theater which has played a part in the making of most great opera composers, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky. Moreover, Gershwin had been working hard to make up for the lacks in his musical education ever since 1924, when the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, at Paul Whiteman’s famous “Experiment in Modern Music” concert, held in New York’s Aeolian Hall on Lincoln’s Birthday, had suddenly brought him his first success as a serious composer. But until about the time of the Second World War, the American musical establishment was very suspicious of jazz and of all music related to jazz, as Gershwin’s certainly was.

What initially fueled the suspicions in Gershwin’s case was the fact that the orchestration of the Rhapsody was done not by Gershwin himself but by Ferde Grofé, at that time Whiteman’s chief arranger. As long as Gershwin confined himself to writing songs and musical shows, he could safely be ignored. But the unignorable splash made by the Rhapsody immediately set off rumors that the work had been not only orchestrated but also partially composed by the more experienced, and musically far more respectable, Grofé. His vanity stung, Gershwin determined that from then on he would orchestrate all his concert works himself—still, however, leaving the orchestration of his Broadway shows to others. But similar rumors were heard after the December, 1925, Carnegie Hall premiere of the Concerto in F, with Gershwin at the piano and Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony. Though Gershwin did his best to refute them, they were heard again after the December, 1928, premiere of An American in Paris, also given at Carnegie Hall by Damrosch and the New York Symphony. They came into the open a few years later, when Allan Lincoln Langley, a composer and violist who had played several performances of An American in Paris under Gershwin’s direction, published an article called “The Gershwin Myth” in the December, 1932, issue of The American Spectator.

Noting what he took to be Gershwin’s excessive dependence at rehearsals on his friend the conductor Bill Daly, Langley wrote: “The genial Daly was constantly in rehearsal attendance, both as répétiteur and adviser, and any member of the orchestra could testify that he knew far more about the score than Gershwin. The point is that no previous claimant to honors in symphonic composition ever presented so much argument and controversy as to whether his work was his own or not.” A few weeks later, in a letter to The New York Times, Daly replied that his only contribution to the work had been “a few suggestions about reinforcing the scoring here and there,” and he added: “I have never written one note of any of his compositions, or so much as orchestrated one whole bar of any of his symphonic works.”

The idea that George Gershwin—the Jewish song-plugger from the Lower East Side who had come up through the Tin Pan Alley ranks with little formal training—could actually be turning into a serious composer who wrote and orchestrated his works all by himself, just like any other serious composer, thus faced resistance, which mounted steadily. It is hardly surprising that when his most ambitious work of all, Porgy and Bess, appeared, there was no lack of people willing to state categorically, though with no hard evidence, that the opera had something phony about it. Because it was known that since 1932 Gershwin had been studying with Joseph Schillinger, a leading theorist of the time, it was Schillinger, rather than Grofé or Damrosch or Daly, who was credited with the scoring, and perhaps the partial composition, of Porgy and Bess. If Schillinger or someone else had not helped Gershwin, then the orchestration had to be found faulty, purely on a priori grounds. Reviewing the 1941 revival, Virgil Thomson wrote cattily of “our little Georgie,” who “couldn’t orchestrate for shucks,” but whose “strength was as the strength of ten because his musical heart was really pure.”

All this concern over orchestration may seem beside the point, of interest only to specialists. But the orchestration of a serious musical work is as central to its conception and realization as color is to the making of a painting or imagery to the writing of a novel. Though the accusation that Gershwin had his serious works orchestrated by someone else may seem as innocuous as an accusation that he hired an accountant to compute his income tax, it is really very grave. And to judge from all external evidence, such as the testimony of friends and associates, it is completely unfounded. Moreover, the accusation makes no psychological sense. Not only was Gershwin a musical genius, quite capable of learning orchestration if he put his mind to it; he was also fiercely ambitious, and would surely have been unwilling to risk damaging, or sharing with someone else, the reputation as a serious composer that meant so much to him and that he was working so hard to establish.

In fact, the orchestration of Porgy andBess is superb: lucid, economical, witty, straightforward, and almost totally free of the thickness and awkwardness usually attributed to it. This is why the lack of a published orchestral score, which I mentioned at the outset, is of such vital importance. To see (and study) what Gershwin actually wrote, one must either buy a photocopy of his manuscript score from the Library of Congress or rent the conductor’s score used for productions. Either way involves a good deal more effort and expense than simply buying a score from a music shop or taking one out of a library. It is therefore understandable, though most regrettable, that virtually none of the opera’s critics seems to have bothered.

Moreover, on the two complete recordings, the orchestration—and, thereby, the opera itself—is seriously misrepresented. Though jazz and related music were snubbed by the American musical establishment before the Second World War, since then they have been treated almost reverentially—an equally inappropriate response, no doubt produced in part by the paucity of interesting American composers. Louis Armstrong became a highly successful good-will ambassador for the State Department, and the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was eulogized, after his death in 1955, as a sort of beatnik saint, a hero of the counterculture. Gershwin, once scorned, has now been enshrined as a great American folk-composer, the musical equivalent of Norman Rockwell. As a result, his works are frequently performed, but the performances are usually overblown, solemn, rhythmically dead—as far in spirit as possible from his own few surviving recorded performances. The two Porgy and Bess recordings are no exceptions. Maazel apparently used the whole magnificent Cleveland string section, effectively covering Gershwin’s sharp and ingenious writing for woodwinds and brass with a sumptuous blanket of sound. While the Houston orchestra was smaller, the recording engineers worked their usual wonders, and the result is similar.

If one does bother to look at the score, one finds that in Porgy and Bess Gershwin—perhaps surprisingly, considering the work’s pretensions—wrote for a smaller complement of woodwinds and brass than in either the Concerto in F or An American in Paris. Also, he used piano throughout, as in a theater or chamber orchestra. (The piano, too, is often obscured, when it is not simply omitted, on the two complete recordings.) Plainly, he wanted a lean and transparent sound, and he probably had in mind an orchestra of no more than forty-five players.

For an accurate realization of his intentions, we must turn to the recordings of selections, the best of which is the one (RCA AGL1-3654) made, in 1963, by Skitch Henderson and an appropriately scaled studio orchestra, with William Warfield and Leontyne Price in the title roles, McHenry Boatwright as Crown, and (best of all) the great jazz dancer John W. Bubbles, whom Gershwin picked to create the role, as Sportin’ Life. Even better than any of the commercial studio recordings, though more fragmentary and harder to come by, is a superb private recording of a special rehearsal that Gershwin held at Carnegie Hall on July 19, 1935, paying the singers and instrumentalists out of his own pocket, to see how his writing sounded. The original acetate discs were discovered in Ira Gershwin’s house several years ago by Edward Jablonski, co-author with Lawrence Stewart of the excellent book The Gershwin Years; they have been reissued on Mark 56 667.

THERE IS STILL a great deal of nonsense being written about Porgy and Bess. Critics with a theoretical bent still fret about whether it is really an opera or a Broadway show or an operetta or some unholy mixture of all three genres; and even more fashionable now than in 1935 is the protest that Gershwin, as a white man, had no right to “set himself up as musical spokesman for the blacks represented” in the work (as Charles Schwartz wrote in his 1973 biography, George Gershwin: His Life and Music). One hopes that by next year, when we mark the semicentennial of Porgy and Bess, there will at least be a recording that is both complete and idiomatic, that does full justice to the opera and to its composer.

For George Gershwin deserves something better than either the uneasy dismissal of the pre-war years or the too easy adulation of the postwar ones. He deserves to be recognized for what he is: an important composer whose early death perhaps kept him from turning into a great one, the only American composer of this century—aside, perhaps, from Charles Ives—who can fairly be ranked with Elliott Carter. Certainly Carter and Gershwin could not be more different from each other. Carter’s music is difficult, Gershwin’s is easy—though, like Carter’s and like all important music, it affords ever-deepening satisfaction as one gets to know it better. As it is Carter’s triumph to have forged a path of his own through the dark and trackless wood of twentieth-century avantgarde music, so it is Gershwin’s to have explored and extended, in an equally individual way, what the late English musicologist Deryck Cooke called “the musical vernacular.” One must fight the temptation to say that this difference, prima facie, makes either composer better than the other: they simply stand together as peers, both in need of our somewhat belated appreciation.