“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression Part II: Electric Boogaloo

After my previous blog post, I left feeling somewhat incomplete about Virgil Thomson’s opinion of American opera not having a distinctive voice and how Thomson ignored George Gershwin’s works entirely, especially Porgy and Bess.  I wanted to investigate further if there may be a possible reason why Thomson made such an omission.  While I could not find any readily-available correspondences of Gershwin, I did manage to discover an interesting transcription of a letter by a University of Michigan undergraduate student that was discovered in the DuBose Heyward archives held by the South Carolina Historical Society.  This letter was written “about a year and a half before Porgy and Bess‘s premiere in September of 1935″ to DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy, which was the source material for Gershwin’s opera.  After discussing his early work on the music and the script, he describes seeing 4 Saints In 3 Works, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson:

I saw “4 Saints In 3 Acts”, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, with a colored cast. The libretto was entirely in Stein’s manner, which means that it has the effect of a 5-year-old child prattling on. Musically, it sounded early 19th Century, which was a happy inspiration and made the libretto bearable – in fact, quite entertaining. There may be one or two in the cast that would be useful to you. us [handwritten]. [1]

It is as though Gershwin saw Thomson’s opera as an opportunity to say “I like what you’ve done with this, but watch me do it better.”  If so, that is one hell of a flex on Virgil Thomson.  However, after reading some of the correspondence between Thomson and Gertrude Stein, I would imagine that Thomson felt that his work had not payed off to the reception that he had anticipated:

21 April [1934]

Dear Gertude

The opera is closed now for the summer and everybody has had a lovely time about it and I must say that in every way it was very, very beautiful and of course there were some who didn’t like the music and some who didn’t like the words and even some who didn’t like the decors or the choreography but there wasn’t anybody who didn’t see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful and I wish you could have seen the faces of people as they watched and listened. [2]

The letter continues with the logistics of their arrangements of the publishing rights split 50-50 between Thomson and Stein, which seemed to be an uphill battle for Thomson to demand an equal split between the composer and the librettist, but that’s a topic for another day.

Out of these correspondences from the same time-frame, I would imagine that there might have been some animosity between Thomson and Gershwin from Porgy and Bess standing the test of time as an “innovative” opera compared to Thomson’s 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which has not received the critical success that Gershwin did.  Perhaps that might explain why Thomson chose to not discuss Gershwin in the particular section of the reading from last week.  He has every reason to take personal offense to think Gershwin stole his thunder with Porgy and Bess and it certainly speaks to the idea that Gershwin frequently rode the line when it came to writing music from inspiration and straight-up stealing.


[1] Sobolak, Frances. “Making Porgy and Bess – The Letters,” The Gershwin Letters, University of Michigan, February 26, 2016, https://smtd.umich.edu/ami/gershwin/?p=689.

[2] Thomson, Virgil. “Letters to Gertrude Stein, 1926-38.” Grand Street Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1988). 50-70. DOI: 10.2307/25007076

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