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About this Piece

Composed: 1934-1935
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2 = piccolo), 2 oboes (2 = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, cymbals, bells, woodblock, chimes, tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, sandpaper), banjo, piano, and strings  [TO BE CONFIRMED BY THORNTON SYMPHONY ORC HESTRA LIBRARY]

George Gershwin had the idea for Porgy and Bess as soon as he read DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy in 1926. He immediately wrote to Heyward, who was enthusiastic, but it was not until October 1933 that they signed a contract with the Theatre Guild in New York and began work. (In 1927 Heyward and his wife Dorothy had turned the novel into a play with spirituals. This ran on Broadway for 367 performances in a Theatre Guild production.)

“No story could have been more ideal for the serious form I needed than Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin wrote. “First of all, it is American, and I believe that American music should be based on American material. I felt when I read Porgy in novel form that it had 100 per cent dramatic intensity in addition to humor. It was then that I wrote to DuBose Heyward suggesting that we make an opera of it.

“My feelings about it, gained from that first reading of the novel, were confirmed when it was produced as a play, for audiences crowded the theater where it played for two years. Mr. Heyward and I, in our collaboration on Porgy and Bess, have attempted to heighten the emotional values of the story without losing any of its original quality. I have written my music to be an integral part of that story.”

Gershwin started the score the next year, spending the summer in South Carolina, familiarizing himself with the setting of the opera. He had most of the composition done by early 1935, orchestrated it in the following months, and in October it opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater (after a private performance at Carnegie Hall and a try-out in Boston). Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who had also staged the Heywards’ play, Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances, but still lost money in this original production. (It did tour in 1936, and was revived in 1938.)

This original three-act version – itself greatly revised before it reached Broadway – ran for almost four hours, with two intermissions. A few years later, director/producer Cheryl Crawford cut it sharply, reducing the cast and orchestra and replacing many of the recitatives with spoken dialog. In that form it returned to Broadway in 1942 for a commercially much more successful run. Much of the music that Crawford had cut was restored by Blevins Davis and Robert Breen for their 1952 production, including some of the recitatives. This production, with William Warfield as Porgy, Leontyne Price as Bess, and Cab Calloway as Sporting Life, had very successful runs in Europe and on Broadway.

All of these performances were presented as Broadway-style theater productions, not in opera houses. The work, which Gershwin called a “folk opera,” came in for criticism on a number of counts, social and musical. It was considered racially patronizing by many (including some of its cast members), and all the cuts and the theater venues created an image of it as a song show in the manner of Gershwin’s previous revues, rather than a through-composed opera.

“Since the opening of Porgy and Bess I have been asked frequently why it is called a folk opera,” the composer wrote. “The explanation is a simple one. Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work on the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.”

He addressed the song issue – one that hardly seems vexing today – rather plaintively later in the same account.

“It is true that I have written songs for Porgy and Bess. I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs. In Porgy and Bess I realized I was writing an opera for the theater and without songs it could be neither of the theater nor entertaining, from my viewpoint. …

“Of course, the songs in Porgy and Bess are only a part of the whole. The recitative I have tried to make as close to the Negro inflection in speech as possible, and I believe my song-writing apprenticeship has served invaluably in this respect, because the song writers of America have the best conception of how to set words to music so that the music gives an added expression to the words. I have used sustained symphonic music to unify entire scenes, and I prepared myself for that task by further study in counterpoint and modern harmony.”

— John Henken