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About this Piece

It was in 1929 that Gershwin read DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and determined to write an opera using its story dealing with Negro life in Charleston, South Carolina. After Hayward had made Porgy into a play, he fashioned a libretto for Gershwin, and collaborated with George’s brother Ira Gershwin on the lyrics. The composer dedicated himself totally to the formidable task, doing research which took him for the summer of 1934 to Folly Island, ten miles from Charleston. There he absorbed the music and folkways of the resident blacks; on nearby islands he attended services of the Gullah Negroes, taking part in their “shouting.” In Charleston he was fascinated by the street vendor’s cries, some of these becoming the only true folk material to be incorporated into a score that abounds in a folklike idiom.

After the actual work of composing was done, Gershwin spent some nine months orchestrating the opera, and in September 1935, Porgy and Bess opened in Boston, moved to New York for a 16-week run, then went on a road tour of three months. To be sure, there were dissenting voices that said Porgy and Bess is a super-musical rather than an opera, but the overwhelming consensus was and is that, nomenclature aside, the work is a masterpiece – an American classic. (An extravagant production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1980s, although late in coming, was a welcome acknowledgment of that fact from our country’s most august opera house.)

Gershwin’s open sesame to success with Porgy was due to his sense of artistic rightness and his complete honesty with himself. The work has its big set pieces, but in style and content it does not have pretensions to grand opera status. It is gloriously melodious and unabashedly melodramatic; there are at least five important roles; the orchestra is large and rich, and participates importantly, as does a chorus. Come to think of it, how much more grand opera-like could the work be?

The music of Porgy and Bess is so loved that performances of it cannot be limited to the formal context of a staged production. Thus the songs are offered individually or in all manner of combinations arranged in medleys, sung or merely played, and Gershwin himself made a concert suite of selections from the opera, which he titled Catfish Row. Further, an important addition to the Porgy literature was made in the form of the present Symphonic Picture, a synthesis of the score written by Robert Russell Bennett at the request of conductor Fritz Reiner, who premiered it with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1943. Bennett was eminently well-equipped for the commission. A friend of Gershwin who had scored several of the composer’s Broadway shows, Bennett lavished both technical expertise and affection on the work.

The Symphonic Picture begins with an evocative introduction, and then goes on to include a large cross-section of the score taken out of sequence of the action: the calls of the Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man (virtually the only ‘folk’ music in the opera); Clara’s music, followed by the opera’s opening; “Summertime”; “I Got Plenty of Nothin’”; the hurricane music; “Bess, You is My Woman”; “I Can’t Sit Down”; “There’s a Boat Leavin’ Soon for New York”; “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; and, to close, the rousing “Oh Lord, I’m on My Way.”

—Orrin Howard