THE WAR AGAINST "PORGY AND BESS"

Porgy and Bess
is the superlative American opera, just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the superlative American novel. Unfortunately, in America both are considered not politically correct. Both are contaminated by the repugnant N-word, and are thought to insult the people who may no longer be called Negroes, or even Blacks, but only African-Americans.

There is a common-sense answer: Characters who represent ethnic archetypes are rarely flattering. Examples are Don Quixote and Falstaff. The Greek myths and the Bible are populated by liars, thieves, adulterers, and murderers. Modern Jews have losers like Tevyeh the milkman and Salach Shabati; modern Americans have losers like Archie Bunker, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld. The offended parties, however, will not listen. In spite of the beauty and power of Porgy and Bess. in spite of its popularity, the opera has always been the target of a coalition of critics, purists, racists, bigots, backbiters, and snobs

The most malignant enemy of Porgy and Bess was the composer and music critic Virgil T
homson, who wrote that "Gershwin has not and never did have the power of sustained musical development." His opinion of Gershwin's opera was: "Falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed crooked folklore and halfway opera." Thomson's disdain may have stemmed from the comparison with his own misbegotten opera, now thankfully forgotten: Four Saints in Three Acts. The text is by Gertrude Stein, and like her writing it makes no sense. The characters are some 20 saints (not 4) and there are 4 acts (not 3). St. Teresa's role is divided between two singers, called "St. Teresa I" and "St. Teresa II." A master and mistress of ceremonies sing Gertrude Stein's stage directions. The cast are all black (although all the saints were white). The music is pretentiously banal and boring.

The Dearborn Independent
, Henry Ford's antisemitic newspaper, warned that music like Gershwin's, with its "abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes," was "Jewish jazz -- moron music -- becomes our national music."
     While we are on the subject of antisemitism: in Virgil Thomson's review of Porgy and Bess, as printed in the journal Modern Music, he described the Gershwin sound as "plum-pudding orchestration." Apparently this was censorship by the editors of the journal, because In Thomson's collected writings, the phrase is "gefiltefish orchestration."

African-Americans feel that the subject matter and the musical style of Porgy and Bess are an insult.
     Duke Ellington's reaction to the first production in 1935 was: "The times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." (But when he saw the 1952 revival he changed his mind.)
     When Todd Duncan, the baritone who first played Porgy, auditioned for Gershwin, he sang an eighteenth-century Italian aria. He refused to conform to the idea that blacks ought to sing spirituals, and he had nothing but disdain for popular songs.
     Harry Belafonte refused to play Porgy in the 1959 film version.
     Grace Bumbry at first refused to play Bess in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production, saying: "I thought it beneath me. I felt I had worked too hard, that we had come far too far, to have to retrogress to 1935." (But she changed her mind, and had a great success.)

James Hicks, music critic for the Baltimore newspaper The Afro-American, called the opera "The most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times."
     Harold Cruse, of the University of Michigan, called Porgy and Bess "The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world." In his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual he mounted a full-scale attack: "The Gershwin-type musicians achieved status and recognition in the 1920s for music that they literally stole outright from Harlem nightclubs... [Porgy and Bess is] a symbol of that deeply-ingrained American cultural paternalism practiced on Negroes ever since the first Southern white man blacked his face. It portrays the seamiest side of Negro life, presumably the image of black people that white audiences want to see." Cruse called for a boycott of the opera by all black musicians, and insisted that it ought to be performed only by whites in blackface.

Some composers "corrected" folk music to conform to their own styles: Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Liszt, Tchaikovsky. Some composers created "national" styles with little actual folk music: Grieg, Chopin, Dvorak, Smetana, Sibelius, Glinka, De Falla. Some composers created their styles on the model of authentic folk music and the diction of native speakers: Mussorgsky, Bartok, Kodaly. Gershwin was of the latter kind.

Gershwin called Porgy and Bess a folk opera. Indeed, it contains a spectacular wealth of folk elements.
     Gershwin spent months with the Gullah community on James Island near Charleston, learning their music. The only thing he quoted directly in the opera was the cries of the street peddlers. Other sections are authentic simulations of Gullah music: the mourning songs; the heterophonic prayer meeting; and the sudden inspired solo prayers that the Gullah call "shouts."
     Simulations of black folk music include the famous pentatonic lullaby "Summertime," the work song of the fishermen; and the spirituals.
     Jazz genres include blues, stomp, cakewalk, ragtime, and charleston.
     Gershwin even purposely included things that are not authentic folklore, but part of the negative stereotype: blacks singing "da-doo-da" (at the very beginning); fake african drums (at the picnic); and the vulgar minstrel-show song "It Ain't Necessarily So."
     The recitative of the black characters is an evocative recitativo accompagnato (accompanied by the orchestra) whose jazzy nature seems to say that jazz is more than their folk music; it is their very identity. In glaring contrast, the white characters speak without any music, so that they seem soulless.

This plethora of folklore met with harsh criticism. Virgil Thomson wrote that Gershwin had adhered far too uncritically to his "melting-pot sources," that Porgy and Bess is afflicted by "fake folklore," and is racially offensive. He concluded: "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935." (When Debussy concluded his suite for piano Children's Corner, L113, with a piece called Golliwogg's Cakewalk whose main theme is a maladroit imitation of a cakewalk, that showed what a genius Debussy was. But when Gershwin included in his opera the aria "I Got Plenty of Nothing," a real cakewalk complete with banjo accompaniment, that showed that he employed "fake folklore" and that he was not really a serious composer.)

Porgy and Bess
contains, together with its folk and popular genres, fine operatic music: arias, duets, ensembles. and choruses. Other composers have been praised for eclecticism, but Gershwin was belittled.
     The New York Times sent both a drama and a music critic to review Porgy and Bess. The drama critic objected to the use of operatic recitative (a device he seemed never to have heard before), while the music critic complained of the number of Broadway-style songs.
     Lawrence Gilman, music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, decried "the song hits which he has scattered through his score... They mar it. They are its cardinal weakness. They are the blemish upon its musical integrity... You wonder how the composer... could stoop to such easy and such needless conquests." (One wonders if Gilman wondered the same wonder about the popular arias in Rigoletto or La Traviata.)

I
n addition to the folklore, the jazz, the unique style of recitative, and the operatic sections, several other techniques are employed.
     There is an extensive system of leitmotives. Some passages are quite wagnerian, for example, Porgy's monologue when he returns from jail while the orchestra plays the melody of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
     The spiritual at the end of the funeral scene includes a fugato.
     Maria's monologue in Act 2 is a melodrama: spoken with orchestral music.
     Gershwin had seen Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, and borrowed some elements: the severe dissonance at moments of violence, and the purposely out-of-tune piano on stage at the very beginning.

Other composers have been praised for their synthesis of disparate styles. but Gershwin was belittled. The theater historian Robert Kimball wrote: "It crossed the barriers. It wasn't a musical work per se, and it wasn't a drama per se; it elicited response from both music and drama critics. But the work has sort of always been outside category."

Cutting and cropping of operas is not unknown, but it is usually done with deference to the composer and his conception. Examples of common excisions are: the final scene in Don Giovanni; and the second stanza of the aria "Ah, fors'e lui" in La Traviata. But the merciless cuts to which Porgy and Bess has been subjected are unprecedented, unjustified, and pernicious.
     Gershwin offered the opera to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but was not pleased that they accepted it for only five performances. Here he made a fatal mistake. Feeling more at home and more in control on Broadway, he arranged for the Theater Guild to produce it, not as an opera, but as a musical. This made it vulnerable to cutting in order to "tighten it up" and make it less operatic. (Fortunately, he had had the original score printed, so what was excised was not lost.) The resulting mutilated version was a success at the tryout in Boston, but the version that opened in New York in 1935 was cut even more. This Broadway-musical version was a success with the public, but not with the critics.
     Porgy and Bess was revived on Broadway in 1942. Meanwhile, Gershwin had died, at the age of 38. This version was subjected to even more drastic cuts. The orchestra was reduced, the cast was cut in half, and most of the recitatives were reduced to spoken dialog. Incredibly, this emasculated version was a huge success. The critics were well-disposed. Duke Ellington changed his mind. Even the arch-enemy, Virgil Thomson, approved.
     In 1952 a new production was mounted, similar to the first amputated version of 1935. This toured the world, and was a success in Europe, in Latin America, and even in the Soviet Union.
     In 1976, almost half a century late, Porgy and Bess was finally produced in its complete original form for the first time, by the Houston Grand Opera. Other complete productions followed: at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1985, and at the Glyndbourne Festival in 1986. Only then did it finally become possible to appreciate the exuberant complexity and the unique beauty of this work of genius. Only then did it become clear what a catastrophe for American music was Gershwin's untimely death, just when he was beginning to mature.

But alas, even this revelation fell on some deaf ears. Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times, wrote in his review of the historic complete 1976 production: "The libretto is fake, and the music is fake. The libretto invents a never-never land with crap-shooting, watermelon-toting black stereotypes who in moments of stress fall on their knees and start shouting spirituals. It is true that by now Porgy and Bess can be regarded as a period piece; still, there is something distasteful about the condescension of librettist and composer, two white men, slumming in Charleston." (The "watermelon-toting" comes not from the opera but from the stereotype in Schonberg's own mind. No character in Porgy and Bess totes a watermelon. The word occurs only once, during the crap game, when the men make fun of Crown, singing: "Crown cockeyed drunk. / He can't tell dice from a watermelon.")

Thus, Gershwin is still remembered as an anomaly, attractive but suspect. The fact that his music immediately captivates and mesmerizes the listener is still considered proof that he was not really a serious composer. There have been no imitators, no disciples. His memory is like a lone signpost, pointing the way to a glory that no one is willing to risk seeking.