Brooklyn’s Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, were among the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1920s and 30s, with countless popular songs and six Broadway musicals to their name. But George (1898-1937), who wrote all of the music to Ira’s lyrics, longed for a place in the classical music pantheon. In 1924, his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and band (later orchestra) established his credentials as a serious composer. Its use of jazz elements within classical structures became a hallmark of Gershwin’s style. His Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris continued in this direction, culminating in his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Despite his success in the classical arena, Gershwin’s requests for lessons with other major composers were repeatedly denied. Arnold Schoenberg, for example, told him “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”
Porgy and Bess is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. It follows the adventures of Porgy, a crippled black beggar in South Carolina. All of its major roles are black characters, which has led some to see the opera as racist. These concerns have largely given way to the beauty and intensity of the music, helped by Ira Gershwin’s insistence that the opera only be performed with a black cast. Because of this requirement the opera is rarely given a full staging. However, the many memorable numbers from the opera can be heard regularly in a variety of arrangements such as the one we are playing.
A preview of Heyward’s Porgy on Google Books.
About the composer:
Gershwin.com – the official Gershwin family website.
George Gershwin bio at balletmet.org.
Another Gershwin bio, with portraits, at naxos.com.
And now some video!
The South Jersey Area Wind Ensemble plays the James Barnes arrangement of Porgy and Bess, played be the Columbia Summer Winds in the 2010 under the baton of Bill Tonissen:
There is also a Robert Russell Bennett version of Porgy and Bess for band, called the Porgy and Bess Selection. Unfortunately there are no decent recordings of this at my disposal, including the CUWE recordings in 2003 and 2006, which are marred by a terrible recording device and a terrible performance venue (Miller Theatre) respectively.
An excerpt from the opera itself, as recorded for film based on a 1986 Glyndebourne Opera production:
There are several other clips like this on YouTube which you can find if you click around a bit.
Finally, a bonus: Gershwin plays his hit “I Got Rhythm” in 1931.