George Gershwin

Porgy and Bess, opera

    Description by Adrian Corleonis

    As the most embracing form of musical expression, opera could not fail to lure a composer of Gershwin's large ambitions. After a furiously paced apprenticeship mastering Broadway song-and-dance musical comedy formulas, from the mid-'20s -- from Rhapsody in Blue (1924) on -- Gershwin, working closely with his lyricist brother, Ira, composed to books which allowed greater scope for music. The sheer, Dionysian ├ęclat of the dance music and generous, captivating melody lavished upon Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930) enlarged the stick figures of their farcical plots into genuine characters. Strike Up the Band (1927, revised 1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933) already have operatic scope, and human dimension which only their coruscating satire holds in check. As early as 1922, in the one-act opera Blue Monday, Gershwin had shown a flair for drama with a confident mingling of pop, blues, and jazz, though it was unmatched by literary discrimination; and his scintillant score is undone by a ridiculous book. Through the late 1920s, he toyed with the notion of an opera on American Indian themes and even sketched one on a Jewish folk tale, The Dybbuk.

    A reading of Southern poet DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, in 1926, and a Theatre Guild production of Heyward's stage adaptation the following year, tantalized Gershwin, though the play's success and the composer's numerous other commitments delayed work on an operatic version until February 1934. In the course of an intense correspondence, Heyward and Gershwin, with Ira contributing lyrics, shaped the stage version into a musical conception. In June, Gershwin visited Charleston, staying for several weeks in a cottage on Ferry Island to absorb the African-American ambience from which Heyward had drawn his locale and characters. Back in New York by July 21, he continued hasty composition as he fielded new commitments and began thinking ahead to production and cast. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown were signed for the title roles, with the erratic but brilliant John W. Bubbles tapped for the central part of Sportin' Life. Composition was completed on August 23, 1935, and orchestration by September 2. The Boston tryout on September 30, 1935, garnered enthusiastic notices and a 15-minute ovation, but also frightened its producers by playing over three hours. In the upshot, some of the work's most original and dramatically revealing numbers were cut. By the time it opened on October 10 at New York's Alvin Theatre, Porgy and Bess hovered between the grand opera Gershwin had conceived and an over-elaborate musical, provoking mixed critical responses. Worse, audiences thinned drastically after the opening, and the show, though it played for 124 performances, lost money. Only in the last quarter of the twentieth century were Gershwin's intentions honored and his dramatic genius vindicated, prompting the conductor Lorin Maazel to note that "Gershwin's compassion for individuals is Verdian, his comprehension of them, Mozartean. His grasp of the folk-spirit is as firm and subtle as Mussorgsky's, his melodic inventiveness rivals Bellini's...."

    Porgy and Bess revolves around the residents of Catfish Row, where drugs, violence, and hard times form a backdrop for a story of love between the title characters: Porgy -- a poor cripple -- and Bess, who finds herself alone after her lover, Crown, kills a man while gambling and then flees. The most famous moments from the score include "Summertime," which is sung by Clara to her baby at the opening of the opera; "Bess, you is my woman now," a duet between the two lovers; "My man's gone now," sung by the widow of the murdered gambler; and "I got plenty o' nuttin," Porgy's joyful anthem to simplicity. The choral numbers are unfailingly appealing.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Summertime
    2. Seems like these bones (crap game)
    3. I been sweatin' all day...
    4. Lord, I is tired this night...
    5. A woman is a sometime thing
    6. Here come de Honey Man (street cry)
    7. Evenin' ladies (entrance of Porgy)
    8. They pass by singin'
    9. Yo mammy's gone... (crap game)
    10. Crown cockeyed drunk...
    11. Oh, little stars... (Robin's murder)
    12. Gone, gone, gone
    13. Overflow
    14. My man's gone now
    15. Leavin' fo' the Promis' Land (Train song)
    16. It take a long pull to get there
    17. I got plenty o' nuttin'
    18. I hates yo' struttin' style (eliminated in Boston)
    19. Mornin', lawyer (entrance of Frazier)
    20. Lord, Lord, listen what she say
    21. Course I sells divorce
    22. Woman to lady
    23. Buzzard song (eliminated in Boston)
    24. Bess, you is my woman now
    25. Oh, I can't sit down
    26. Allegretto barbaro (percussion)
    27. I ain't got no shame (eliminated in Boston)
    28. It ain't necessarily so
    29. Shame on all of you sinner
    30. What you want with Bess?
    31. It take a long pul to get there (reprise)
    32. De white folks put me in
    33. Oh, Doctor Jesus (time and time again)
    34. Street cries: Strawberry Woman, Honey Ma, Crab Man
    35. I loves you, Porgy
    36. Hurricane
    37. Prayers for 6 voices (eliminated in Boston)
    38. Oh de Lord shake de heavens
    39. Summertime (reprise)
    40. Oh dere's somebody knockin' at de do'
    41. A red headed woman
    42. Lawd, save us (counterpoint to: A red headed woman)
    43. Prayers (reprise)
    44. Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted
    45. Summertime (reprise by Bess)
    46. Fugue (the death of Crown)
    47. Scene with detective: Serena been very sick...
    48. We ain't seen nothin' Bess
    49. You knows me, boss...
    50. There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York
    51. Moderato commodo (occupational humoresque)
    52. Good mornin', sister (eliminated in Boston)
    53. Sure to go to Heaven (eliminated in Boston)
    54. How are you dis mornin' (eliminated in Boston)
    55. Thank Gawd, I's home again! (return of Porgy)
    56. Here, boy looks what I brought for you
    57. Where's my Bess?
    58. I'm on my way
    59. Lonely boy (not used)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Bandas Sonoras BSGZ 112CD
    2016 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 88875173752
    2013 Decca
    2012 PS Classics PS 1206
    2011 Decca
    2011 Decca 4782687
    2010 RCA Red Seal 8869759176
    2009 Audite 23405
    2009 Membran 232679
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921501
    2008 Guild Historical 2313/4
    2007 Decca 4758663
    2007 Decca
    2006 Decca 000743102
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243476957
    2005 Shout! Factory / Bethlehem High Fidelity / Shout! Factory/Bethlehem 37965
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 76832
    1998 Sony Music Distribution 63322
    1997 EMI Music Distribution 556220-2
    1996 Connoisseur Society 4206
    1995 Dorian 90223
    1993 RCA 54680
    1992 MCA 10520
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 54325
    1989 Capitol / EMI Music Distribution 49568
    1985 London 414559
    London 430712
    Madacy 56462