Porgy and Bess- A Fantasy to Racial Equality

Cover to a sheet music from Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess is as much of a serious, classical work as it is a political work. Porgy and Bess was created in collaboration with composer George Gershwin, and lyricists Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. This cultural opera has been a prime example of the struggle of black and white relations and racial equality in art and performance. In his letter to Gershwin regarding Act II, Heyward writes to Gershwin explaining his ideas regarding a dance in the scene and the overall authenticity of it.

Letter from Hayward to Gershwin found in “George Gershwin: His Journey Towards Greatness”

Why is Porgy and Bess a popular topic when it comes to talking about the racial history of America? Firstly, it was composed, written, produced, directed, and critiqued by white people; yet it is about the behavior, beliefs and expressions of black people. This does not have to be problematic. However, as soon as people start making claims to authenticity, then it is problematic because people outside of a culture are adapting another culture without having experienced it or having fully understood it.

Many of the reviews that circulated when Porgy and Bess premiered praised the authentic of portrayals of black culture. The opera itself does not represent black culture and does not inform us of what was authentic (because that is always a moving target), but it informs us about the white perceptions of authentic black culture. Because most reviews addressed authenticity, this is a prime example of the fantasy that the journey to racial equality was “easy” and quick.

The making and remaking of Porgy and Bess is a case study in the ways that white Americans in the twentieth century craved stories about African Americans featuring earthy authenticity and frictionless progress toward racial equality. ~Ellen Noonan 

In DuBose’s letter to Gershwin, it is interesting that he used language like “primitive” yet the work was a prestigious and accepted genre: the opera. This seeming juxtaposition highlights the idea that people were willing to ignore the fact that this opera says more about white perceptions than authenticity of black culture. This omission mollified guilt and does not challenge any fantasized perceptions, making it the idealized path to racial equality.

Many of these critiques of Gershwin’s opera are also relevant today. It is important when performing works from other cultures to be conscious and well informed of personal perceptions and what is authentic.

Works Cited

Ewen, David. “A Giant Stride Towards Greatness.” George Gershwin His Journey Towards Greatness, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1970, pp. 220–222.

Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Accessed November 5, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Richard Crawford. “Porgy and Bess.” The New Grove Dictionary of OperaGrove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press accessed November 5, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O004106.

Chorus,Glyndebourne. “”Porgy & Bess “Summertime”. [July 1993]. 2:54. [July 2009]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7-Qa92Rzbk

Oversimplification of Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin is credited with creating a truly American sound, through the fusion of jazz elements and concert elements. Too often, his works are taken for granted and placed on a pedestal by later listeners who seek to find what is “good” and what is “American”, or are simply repeating the mantra previously espoused. A simple example of this is a quote from the Manitou Messenger from 1950. In describing the music for a St. Olaf Band concert, the author states that “Concluding the program are some familiar selections from “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin who is credited with having best expressed the modern American idiom.”

This statement seems to be thrown out lightly, in order to draw in audiences to the concert. While not inherently wrong, this simple statement fails to capture the turmoil of American identity represented by Porgy and Bess. The Manitou Messenger is far from alone in ascribing blanket claims to music. As seen in the history of blues, jazz, and folk music, we have yet (if ever) to define categorical sounds for each of those topics. Gershwin has entered the vernacular as a truly American composer, but historical context is necessary to frame this claim.

Ellen Noonan presents a holistic take on the history of performances of Porgy and Bess, and the politics involved with them. Because the Manitou Messenger  article was written in the 1950, I will look at Noonan’s commentary on the state of Porgy and Bess in the 1950s. Noonan takes a strong stance on the political motives of Porgy and Bess.

“This Cold War Porgy and Bess was not just any opera; it engendered debate on a range of issues about race, representation, and politics. With the State Department briefing cast members to “keep in mind what you’d like your folks at home to read in the press about what you say” and U.S. newspapers covering the tour’s every move, Porgy and Bess was as much an intervention in the domestic politics of race as it was an exercise in creative foreign policy” (187)

Musical elements aside, Porgy and Bess became a driving force in pushing what it meant to be American. As such, the music became accepted into the realm and began to define American music. Noonan goes on to argue that Porgy and Bess mirrors the struggles of black people in the growing era of the Civil Rights movements. The U.S. government’s “propaganda efforts (like the Porgy and Bess tour) intended to convince the world that incidents of racial discrimination and violence were exceptional rather than typical” (189). If this is true, then perhaps Porgy and Bess does represent American music–that which is filled with rich history and suffers from a constant watering down and manipulation to fulfill a national identity.

Wether the identity is organic or fabricated, Porgy and Bess has certainly lent itself to an American musical identity, and it is clear that the message of American greatness trickled down into local college newspapers. A greater understanding of the history of any music is necessary in order to more fully inform a claim for an individual to express “the modern American idiom”.

Bibliography

Gershwin, Bennett, Shaw, Merrill, Stevens, Bennett, Robert Russell, . . . RCA Victor Orchestra, performer. (1950). Porgy and Bess.

Flaten, Anne. “Berglund Directs St. Olaf Band In Winter Concert This Evening”. The Manitou Messenger, No. 15, Vol. 063. February 17, 1950.

Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess : Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Accessed October 30, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Porgy and Bess: Controversy and Slow Progress

Controversy

First, a short history of Porgy and Bess.

The original “Highlights from Porgy and Bess” album, featuring cover art entirely at odds with the featured vocalists, white Met Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson.

In fall 1935, the galleries of Carnegie Hall rang for over four hours (including two intermissions) with the music of George Gershwin and the lyrics of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The private concert performance was of a new project, a grand experiment combining jazz, blues, spirituals, arias, and recitatives in a work that Gershwin described as a “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess, based on the novel Porgy by Heyward. The show became problematic for many reasons: though technically an opera featuring trained opera singers, it played according to Broadway’s schedule; the composer Gershwin had never written anything of such magnitude; while the production featured an all-black cast telling an African-American story, the author/librettist Heyward was white; the entire production crew from the director down to the stagehands to the violinists in the pit was white. In fact, the “official cast album” was recorded just days after the opera’s Broadway opening. It featured not the show’s original African-American leads, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, as the titular Porgy and Bess, but white Metropolitan Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, who sat in on the last few rehearsals before opening night to learn the music. Producers felt the album would be more palatable to wide audiences and therefore sell better. (Sidebar: black performers were not allowed at the Met. Duncan and Brown did finally collaborate on a Porgy and Bess album in 1940/42.)

The original Catfish Row as seen at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) in 1935. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Controversy continued to surround the show: the performers protested the racial segregation at their Washington, D.C., venue, the National Theatre. Thanks especially to the efforts of Todd Duncan (Porgy), Porgy and Bess played to the National Theatre’s first integrated audience. Many more stories could be told.

Let’s fast-forward a decade to 1943, when Warner Brothers was hard at work on their fictionalized biopic of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. Like most biopics, the storyline stretched the truth, creating two fictional romances for George, and served more as an homage to Gershwin than an accurate portrayal of his life, allowing the opportunity for full performances of Rhapsody in BlueConcerto in F, “I Got Rhythm,” “Swanee,” and many more Gershwin hits.

Slow Progress

One of those other hits was “Summertime.” Judging by producers’ earlier resistance to recording an African-American Bess, one might expect the producers to opt again for a white star. But they did not ask Helen Jepson to sing. They called in Anne Brown, the original Bess, to reprise her role.

But progress seems to be a slow journey. As Alyce Key relates in an article for the Los Angeles Tribune in 1943 (this third incarnation of the paper was an African-American paper started by Almena Lomax praised for its fearless reporting), Miss Brown’s appearance in Hollywood was “shrouded in . . . more secrecy” than the WWII meetings of FDR and Churchill in Tehran, Potsdam, and Yalta:

Alyce Key’s article from the Los Angeles Tribune, September 6, 1943.

Fun fact: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $10,000 in 1943 is equal to $135,677.46 for one song. For comparison, Jennifer Lawrence got $500,000 for starring in The Hunger Games. The whole movie. $10,000 in 1943 was–and is–a lot of money for 3:40 of screen time.

As Alyce Key points out, people care. Gershwin cared enough to spend almost a decade working on Porgy and Bess. Todd Duncan cared enough to protest segregation at the National Theatre. The producers of Rhapsody in Blue cared enough to give Anne Brown a generous salary, but not enough to announce her involvement.

Progress, but slow progress. Maybe we just don’t care enough.

Hop on over to YouTube to check out Anne Brown’s reenacted performance of “Summertime”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxGMWfC7tm8.


“Key Notes by Alyce Key.” Los Angeles Tribune, Sep 6, 1943. America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12A55C9DAF0E8A10.

Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin: His Life and Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.

The ‘Practical Idealism’ of “Porgy and Bess”

The day after the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Colonial Theatre in New York City, a review of the performance appeared in the New York Times that would both articulate the positive aspects of the opera while also aptly summarizing its importance to American music. A portion of the opening paragraph reads:

“An audience which assembled, uncertain whether they should find a heavy operatic work or something more resembling musical comedy, discovered a form of entertainment which stands midway between the two. The immediate response was one of enthusiasm that grew rather than diminished as the evening progressed.” [1]

In other words, Porgy and Bess was an immediate hit because it successfully bridged the gap between the styles of European grand opera and American musical theater in the style of tin-pan alley. By extension, Gershwin was cementing his reputation as the quintessential American composer: a perfect combination of elite artist and regular American. While this synthesis may appear to be a contradiction, there are a number of descriptions in this and other contemporaneous reviews that support this statement.

A scene from the original Broadway projection of “Porgy and Bess”.

 

From the New York Amsterdam News:

“The first act represents George Gershwin’s most serious writing. It is Gershwin struggling for a greater expression, endeavoring to transcend into the world of great music. Contrapuntally speaking, he does. This is evident in the crap game fugue.” [2]

The author (Allen Gilbert) goes on to compare Gershwin to “Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven” for his clarity of theme in symphonic writing, effectively lifting him into a pantheon of greatness. Yet, Gilbert goes on to call the second act a “let down”, describing it as a musical side-show that more resembles a smorgasbord of primitive American music (hot jazz, broadway ballads, negro spirituals) than it does the work of a grand master. He attributes to Gershwin a false quote suggesting that opera is for the “masses” but that they cannot understand it if it’s not dumbed down for them.

But it is the third act that truly shows Gershwin’s greatness, a “gathering together of the parts” that utilizes both ends of the spectrum without compromising on beauty and emotional power. It is with this in mind that the author crowns Gershwin as the “practical idealist”.

While this is a deserving title for the young composer, we can see quite clearly how mind-numbingly kitschy this is, yet another example of American determinism seeking out the next great musical representative for the U.S. of A. This is especially frustrating when we consider the most problematic yet simultaneously inspiring aspect of the work and its initial performances: its nearly all-Black cast. While the New York Times review emphasizes this historic achievement (even including it in the subtitle), the New York Amsterdam review doesn’t even mention it. The first lauds each cast member and the “characterizing detail” given to a normally inhuman and primitive setting; the latter lauds only Gershwin and his ability to humanize to black music without mention of the African Americans involved.

I don’t mean to suggest that Gershwin is responsible for this discrepancy, but it is worth remembering that in the evolving world of American art music in the early 1900s, Porgy and Bess may have been more akin to minstrelsy than to grand opera for many white audiences. Though an article in the Chicago Defender less than a month later claims that “race music is dignified” by Porgy and Bess, this primarily African-American viewpoint doesn’t necessarily reflect a popular perspective of the work. [3] While Gershwin’s “idealistic” genius and his roster of memorable songs is undoubtedly responsible for the works success, it is fascinating to see how the “practical” matters of the performances may have been ignored.


[1] Special to The New York Times. “Gershwin’s Opera Makes Boston Hit.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 01, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/101340968?accountid=351.

[2] Allen, Gilbert. “George Gershwin, Practical Idealist.” The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938), Nov 16, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/226210087?accountid=351.

[3] McMillan, Alan. “‘Porgy and Bess’ Scores on Broadway.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 19, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492522466?accountid=351.