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Porgy & Bess (1956)
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Verve VRV 8274752

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Orchestra conducted by Russell Garcia

Music by George Gershwin

Lyrics by Du Bose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

1. Overture

Overture: Russell Garcia has created a medley of “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Wants To Stay Here.”

2. Summertime

Summertime (Act 1, Scene 1): This quatrain developed from a couplet Heyward used in the play, Porgy:

“Hush, little baby, don’ yo’ cry,
Mother an’ fadder born to die”

“Summertime” was the first song (Gershwin himself seldom called them arias) written for the opera.

3. I Wants to Stay Here

I Wants To Stay Here (Act 2, Scene 3): This lyric by Ira Gershwin was set to a melody George had written some years before he started Porgy and Bess. The casually rhymed quatrains Ira wrote here were evolved from two speeches of Bess in the play:  “When Crown put he had on me dat day, I run to he like watuh. Some day again he goin’ to put his hand on my throat. It goin’ to be like dyin’, den. But I gots to talk de truth to you. When that time come, I goin’ to go.” And: “Oh, fo’ Gawd’s sake, Porgy! Don’t let date man come an’ handle me! Ef yo’ is willin’ to keep me, then lemme stay! Ef he just don’t put dem hot hand on me, I can be good! I can remember! I can be happy!”

4. My Man's Gone Now

My Man’s Gone Now (Act 1, Scene 2): The almost pagan, rhythmic undertones of this lament recall in aspect of the Porgy story not overtly transferred to the opera. In both the novel and the play, there had been discussion of voodoo, a reliance upon charms and an occasional mistrust, by Maria and others, of Christianity. In the opera the only explicit religion is fundamental Christianity, but the uncanny, incantatory spell of “My Man’s Gone Now” recalls the complex background of the Catfish Row inhabitants.

5. I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'

I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (Act 2, Scene 1): Gershwin called this a “banjo song”; it was a collaboration effort done over great distances. When both Gershwins and Heyward were together in George’s New York apartment, the music itself was written, Ira Gershwin suggested the title, and a lyric (containing some of the lines ultimately published) was concocted. Heyward took this South with him and finished the song; when it came back North, Ira Gershwin modified it slightly.

6. Buzzard Song

Buzzard Son (Act 2, Scene 10): Because this song was positioned between “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” both of which required sustained singing, and because in itself the “Buzzard Song” was an aria of unusual range and vocal requirements (including a hardy laugh and a shout), the number was dropped from the first production. Through the years it has gained distinction as an art song. Though it was originally sung by Porgy, here Bess (Ella) sings it.

7. Bess You Is My Woman Now

Bess, You Is My Woman Now (Act 2, Scene 1): In the first act, Porgy had sung an aria of his lonesomeness. Now that he has Bess, the same musical theme is incorporated in this lyric to his new-found love – a typical example of how Gershwin worked his musical themes to underscore and recall certain ideas expressed in the libretto.

8. It Ain't Necessarily So

It Ain’t Necessarily So (Act 2, Scene 2): This contains one of the most sophisticated of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, here built upon a limerick structure. For a history of the writing of this unusual number, consult Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions (Knopf, 1959).

9. What You Want Wid Bess?

What You Want Wid Bess? (Act 2, Scene 2): Gershwin composed this unrhymed song by giving a musical setting to some lines casually lifted from Heyward’s libretto. The careful musical structure has given it so definite a form, the absence of rhymes and the presence of unbalanced lines is unnoticed. Like all of the other numbers written for Bess, this too was a duet.

10. A Woman Is a Sometime Thing

A Woman Is A Sometime Thing (Act 1, Scene1): This song introduced the “travel” imagery (“Lissen to yo’ daddy warn you, ‘fore you start a-traveling”) which carries through many of the arias and culminates in “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way.” Heyward used imagery in his libretto as a unifying principle, precisely as Gershwin did with the evolution and development of his musical themes.

11. Oh, Doctor Jesus

Oh, Doctor Jesus (Act 2, Scene 3): Written as a solo for Serena, this aria (with a different lyric) became one of six simultaneously sung prayers during the hurricane in the following scene. (They were published in the score but were never staged.)

12. Here Come De Honey Man / Crab Man / Oh Dey's So Fresh And Fine (Strawberry Woman)

Medley (Here Come De Honey Man; Crab Man; Oh Dey’s So Fresh an Fine – Strawberry Woman) (Act 2, Scene 3): When Gershwin visited the Heywards in Charleston he paid close attention to the calls of the shrimp and vegetable vendors. These “authentic” cries were the result.

13. There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York

There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York (Act 3, Scene 2): Ira Gershwin developed this lyric from Sporting Life’s remark to Bess in the play, Porgy: “Dere’s a boat to New York to-morruh an’ I’m goin’.”

14. Bess, Oh Where's My Bess?

Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? (Act 3, Scene 3): Written as a trio, this song has been more frequently sung as a solo, as it is here. In its original contrapuntal form, there were three different lyrics simultaneously accompanying three melodic lines. The result was a brilliant cacophony. Unfortunately, this robbed the aria of its dramatic significance, and it was important that the audience understand Porgy’s lamentation. When Ira Gershwin heard Louis Armstrong’s rendition of this song, he found it most touching and poignant.

15. Oh Lawd, I'm on My Way

Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way (Act 3, Scene 3): It was Dorothy Heyward who reminded her husband that he had once thought of a quasi optimistic ending for Porgy – and so they concluded their play with the action (but not the words) of Porgy’s departure for New York. That determined act is here given a triumphant assertion.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Orchestra conducted by Russell Garcia

Music by George Gershwin

Lyrics by Du Bose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Total Playing Time: 66.11

Entire album produced by Norman Granz

Art Direction: Sheldon Marks
Illustration by David Stone Martin
Mosaic by Joseph Young
Photos by Tommy Amer, Phil Stern and Herman Leonard
Prepared for Compact Disc by Richard Seidel

Digitally remastered and remixed by Dennis Drake,
Polygram Studios, USA
(P) 1958 Verve Records, Inc., (C) 1958 Verve Records, Inc., USA


The scene is Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. According to DuBose Heyward, its architect, it “was not a row at all, but a great brick structure that lifted its three stories about the three sides of a court. The fourth side was partly closed by a high wall, surmounted by jagged edges of broken glass set firmly in old lime plaster, and pierced in its center by a wide entranceway. Over the entrance there still remained a massive grill of Italian wrought iron, and a battered capital of marble surmounted each of the lofty gate-posts. The court itself was paved with large flag-stones, which even beneath the accumulated grime of a century, glimmered with faint and varying pastel shades in direct sunlight. The south wall, which was always in shadow, was lichened from pavement to rotting gutter; and opposite, the northern face, unbroken except by rows of small-paned windows, showed every color through its flaking stucco, and, in summer, a steady blaze of scarlet from rows of geraniums that bloomed in old vegetable tins upon every window-sill.” The time is that recent past which, like a cherished memory, has about it the feeling of unreality, of never having been – except in the dreams of Heyward and this embodiment of them.

It is night in Catfish Row when the curtain rises on Act 1 of the opera. Only Jasbo Brown’s room is filled with light, and there Jasbo plays “a low-down blues, while half a dozen couples can be seen dancing in a slow, almost hypnotic, rhythm.” The stage lights then fall upon another group where Clara, wife of the fisherman Jake who owns the “Sea Gull,” rocks her baby in her arms and croons the lullaby, “Summertime.” Finally we see another group: the men of Catfish Row (among them: Mingo, Jake, Sporting Life) shooting craps. Serena pleads with her husband, Robbins, not to join the game but he insists “Night time is man’s time. He got a right to forget his troubles. He got a right to play.” Serena wishes the money were used to join a burial society; but she cannot persuade her husband, and the game continues. Meanwhile, Clara has been unable to lull her child to sleep, and Jake snatches it to sing jocularly, “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing.” Peter the honey man now arrives, continuing to chant the day’s call; he is followed by the cripple, Porgy, who comes in n his goat cart and drives up to the game. All talk about the expected arrival of the stevedore Crown and his woman, Bess, whom Maria calls a “liquor guzzlin’ slut” and whom Serena says “ain’t fit for Gawd fearin’ ladies to ‘sociate with.” Porgy defends the absent Bess, but says he personally “ain’t soft on no woman.” For “When Gawd make cripple, he mean him to be lonely.”

Soon Crown and Bess arrive, Crown is already drunk. He enters the game and, in the excitement of the play, Porgy and Bess fall into a duet, reprising “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing.” The game tenses as Crown buys some happy dust from the dope peddlar and bootlegger, Sporting Life. Crown then attacks Robbins and, in the ensuing melee, kills him with a cotton hook. Immediately the inhabitants of the row flee to their own rooms; Bess gives Crown money and urges him to escape. As for herself, she will try to find shelter in the row. Sporting Life offers to hide her – but only if she will go to New York with him. None of the women will take her in, and her desperation increases as the police whistle shrieks through the night. And then she sees Porgy’s room, and the music of the cripple’s lonesomeness rises in ecstacy to suggest that Bess has found a haven and that Porgy himself is no longer meant to be lonely.

The second scene presents Serena’s room, where the body of Robbins lies on the bed, a saucer on is breast. The mourners sit about, grieving and trying to raise themselves to an emotional enthusiasm whereby the can contribute freely to the burial of this man who gambled away his burial lodge money. Bess and Porgy enter and all implore, “Fill up de saucer till it overflow.” A detective and two policemen walk into the room, abruptly canceling the music. they have come to find Robbins’ murderer. Arbitrarily they accuse old Peter the honey man; when they seize him, the old man blurts out that the murderer was Crown – but this admission identifies him as a material witness and he is locked up anyway. After this new misfortune, the mourners resume their song; and Serena bewails “My Man’s Gone Now” in a moment of unsurpassed anguish. When the undertaker appears, there is only fifteen dollars in the saucer; but he is a kindly man and will bury Robins anyway rather than let him be turned over to the Board of Health where “the students take him to cut up an’ scatter.” All prepare for the morrow’s funeral and jubilantly sing “Leaving for the Promised Land.”

ACT II opens on Picnic Day: “The Sons and Daughters of Repent Ye Saith the Lord” (which includes all the residents of Catfish Row) are bound for Kittiwah Island in their fanciest dress and fullest spirits. Porgy gives his own paean to poverty, the triumphant “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.” Such a reformation in Porgy’s temperament all agree is owed to Bess – “Ain’ you hear how he an’ Bess all de time singin’ in their room?” Lawyer Frazier, a harmless fraud, suddenly shows up in the row: he has come to sell a divorce to Porgy’s Bess: “it take expert to divorce woman what ain’t marry” – and he can just contrive it, for a dollar and a half. The negotiations over and Bess now “legally” united to Porgy, a real lawyer, Mr. Archdale, calls upon Porgy to inform him that Peter will soon be released from jail. Everything does indeed seem wonderful when, alarmingly, a buzzard flies overhead. Here one hears the “Buzzard Song,” enjoining this omen of disaster to fly away: “Ain’ nobody dead dis mornin’ – livin’s jus’ begun.” Sporting Life slips up to Bess, endeavoring to get her back on happy dust, but she refuses. Porgy overhears and throws the dope peddler out. Meanwhile Catfish Row begins turning up for the picnic; and Porgy and Bess, in sudden realization of their happiness, carol “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” They are planning to remain behind, for Porgy cannot travel. But Maria insists that Bess must accompany her, and Porgy is of the same mind.

The second scene is located on Kittiwah Island, where the picnickers “are dancing, some play mouth organs, combs, bones. One plays a washboard, another a washtub. Everyone is full of gaiety.” After they exult with “I ain’t got no shame doin’ what I like to do,” Sporting Life tell the crown “It Ain’t Necessarily So” what they read in the Bible. The picnic day is drawing to a close, and as steamer whistles in the distance, all begin packing. Maria is nearly the last to leave; Bess is following a way behind her when suddenly Crown emerges. Bess tells him she is living with Porgy and asks “What You Want wid Bess?” Crown grabs her and “hurls her into edge of Palmetto thicket.” The boat returns to Catfish Row without her.

The third scene opens before dawn, as the fishermen in Catfish Row prepare for the day. From Porgy’s room can be heard the delirious voice of Bess. It is over a week since the picnic and Bess seems no better. Old Peter, who has just been released fomr jail, recommends the hospital; but Serena intervenes with her prayer, “Oh, Doctor Jesus.” The strawberry woman wanders into the row, making her cries. She is followed by the honey man and the crab man. Bess awakens and, in “I Wants to Stay Here,” confesses to Porgy what had happened at the picnic: Crown “hypnotize me when he take hold of me with his hot hand.” Porgy reassures her that all will be well: “When Crown comes, that’s my business.” Meanwhile, the water in the harbor has turned black – and suddenly there tolls the hurricane bell.

The fourth scene reveals Serena’s room where all the frightened residents of the row have taken shelter against the storm outside. They begin singing six-part prayers. Other supplications and hymns follow; and unexpectedly, Crown bursts into the room: he has come for Bess. During the argument that follows, Clara suddenly screams as she see Jake’s boat, the “Sea Gull,” upside down in the river. Thrusting her baby into Bess’s arms, she races from the room. Crown goes after her, and the Negroes resume their prayers.

The storm has ended as the third act begins. Some left in the row are singing for the dead Jake and Clara. Sporting Life still hangs around Bess. Crown silently enters the court and steals to Porgy’s window. But Porgy is waiting for him and plunges a knife into Crown’s back, then throttles him and hurls his body to the center of the street.

The second scene brings the detective and coroner to investigate Crown’s murder. They want Porgy to identify the body. Porgy is terrified, for Sporting Life insists “All I know is that when the man that killed Crown go in that room an’ look at him, Crown’ wound begin to bleed. That’s one way the cops got of tellin’ who killed him.” Porgy is hauled off to jail, resisting wildly, and Sporting Life tells Bess she will never see the cripple again. He urges her to help herself to some happy dust and suggests “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” But Bess refuses and runs into Porgy’s room.

Several days pass before the opera’s final scene. It is morning in Catfish Row, and the clang of a patrol wagon heralds the return of Porgy. Having refused to look on Crown’s face, he was put in contempt of court and is soon released from jail. All greet him hesitantly, and he pleads, “Oh, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess.” Reluctantly, they tell him she has gone back on happy dust and gone off to New York with Sporting Life. Porgy, delighted to find that Bess is still alive, calls for his goat. “Which way New York?” he demands. And he’s off, “Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way.”


Just when George Gershwin first felt a desire to do an opera is a matter of speculation. For the George White’s Scandals of 1922 he and Buddy De Sylva (the Scandals lyricist) had improvised a sketch which, with its four songs and introduction of jazz recitative, might be considered a one-act opera. But Blue Monday – for so it was called – was never regarded by its composer as an unrecognized masterpiece; though Paul Whiteman briefly revived it in 1925 as 135th Street, Gershwin himself spoke of it as “laboratory work in American music.” He wanted to do something worthwhile in this genre, and Blue Monday is important in a study of Gershwin’s developing talent for, among other reasons, bringing about his prediction that within ten years he would have a full-length opera at the Met. Ironically, great as the achievement was of Porgy and Bess, it did not fulfill the prophecy: the promised opera appeared in 1935 – not the scheduled 1932 – and it has never played the Met (although it did play La Scala which may be regarded a greater accomplishment).

Throughout the middle Twenties, Gershwin looked around for a possible operatic libretto. From the first he seems to have determined in his own mind that it would deal with the American Negro: “The jazz opera cannot be entirely jazz. Jazz is not grateful music for the voice. It is easy to dance to and difficult to sing. In it the words seldom matter. The tune seldom matters. It is the rhythm that makes jazz. A whole opera in the vein would be inconceivable. An opera must be lyric, and to me it must be fantastic. I think it should be a Negro opera, almost a Negro ‘Scheherazade.’ Negro, because it is not incongruous for a Negro to live jazz. It would not be absurd on the stage. The mood could change from ecstacy to lyricism plausibly, because the Negro has so much of both in his nature.” So Gershwin reported to his old friend, Henrietta Malkiel, in April 1925. Otto Kahn had been calling for a Jazz Opera at the Met, and this had occasioned Gershwin’s own reactions. In the parlance of the time, “jazz,” of course, meant primarily “syncopation”; Gershwin’s concern with “rhythm” would account for part of his instantaneously favorable reaction to Porgy.

Before he knew about DuBose Heyward’s work, however, Gershwin thought of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones as a possible libretto; he also briefly entered into negotiations with Carl Van Vechten, who was then working on his own Harlem novel. But it was not until sometime in 1926 that Gershwin came across a book which captivated him. During the writing of Oh, Kay!, he picked up one evening a copy of Porgy, a prose success of the previous year. Gershwin was never an extensive reader; therefore for him to go though Porgy at one sitting as he did was in itself a testimonial to the book’s appeal. Gershwin did not suppress his excitement: he finished the book at 4:00 a.m. and immediately dashed off a note to Heyward, saying how much he liked the book – and wouldn’t it make an opera libretto? Heyward replied that the novel was already in the process of being dramatized for the Theatre Guild; regrettably, therefore, any operatic use of the material would have to be postponed. Gershwin answered that this was fine – he was not yet equipped to right an opera anyway. Heyward observed, “It was extraordinary, I thought, that, in view of a success that might well have dazzled any man, he could appraise his talent with such complete detachment. And so we decided then that some day when we were both prepared we would do an operative version of my… Negro beggar of the Charleston streets.”

The moderate-sized volume that Gershwin took up so casually that 1926 evening constituted DuBose Heyward’s first attempt at a novel. Heyward had begun his literary career as a poet, and this – his first extended piece of prose – clearly revealed the impulse which generated the author’s genius. Although the book called itself Porgy, and although the central character was indeed the cripple with the goat-cart, the work might better have been labeled Catfish Row.

Porgy, Maria and Bess,
Robbins, and Peter, and Crown;
Life was a three-stringed harp
Brought from the woods to town.

So began the lyric which prefaced the book, and these were the characters with whom Heyward was concerned. The story itself was set in the Golden Age: “an age when men, not yet old, were boys in an ancient, beautiful city that Time had forgotten before before it destroyed.” Porgy himself was perhaps in his late forties – though at the novel’s end “Maria saw that Porgy was an old man. The early tension that had characterized him, the mellow mood that he had known for one eventful summer, both had gone; and in their place she saw a face that sagged wearily, and the eyes of age lit only by a faint reminiscent glow from suns and moons that had looked into them, and had already dropped down the west.”

The novel has six parts; episodes are sewn together like the brightly colored patches of a crazy quilt. Each of the sections is prefaced with one of Theodore Nadejen’s stylized drawings – all suggestive of the lush tropical world in which the Catfish Row people dream out their days. There is no highly structured plot. Sporting Life is an inessential figure, casually drifting into this world and emphatically and permanently expelled by Maria. When Bess goes away while Porgy is in jail, it is not to New York with the dope peddler but to Savannah with some men from the river. Porgy does not follow: he and his goat are left “alone in an irony of morning sunlight.” Porgy, the novel, is not a book of dialogue; mainly it offers poetic portraitures, sketched in Heyward’s highly figurative language.

Yet it was to just such a casually drawn, episodic tale that Gershwin was originally attracted. Perhaps it was the absence of caricature which fascinated him. Long before he beheld these material reshaped into a dramatic story, with climaxes and a unifying point-of-view. Gershwin was convinced that Porgy could be an opera. And in 1927 he pressed upon at least one friend a coy of the book, emphasizing that it was to be the source for his own.

Meanwhile Dorothy Heyward, wife of the novelist, had also perceived that Porgy was potential stage material. She began secretly to turn the book into a play, and when she showed her husband what she had accomplished, he agreed to collaborate. It was this venture which had been promised to the Theatre Guild by the time Gershwin first wrote Heyward. The Guild presented the drama at their theatre on October 10, 1927, and it created such a sensation that when Gershwin finally did undertake his opera, he worked from the play rather than from the novel.

On March 29, 1932, Gershwin wrote Heyward that “in thinking of ideas for new compositions, I came back to one that I had several years ago – namely, PORGY – and the thought of setting it to music.” Heyward responded on April 12, 1932: “I want to tell you again how pleased I am that you have returned to your original idea of doing a musical setting of Porgy. I would be tremendously interested in working on the book with you. I have some new material that might be introduced, and once I got your ideas as to the general form suitable for the musical version. I am pretty sure that I could do you a satisfactory story. As to the lyrics, I am not so sure until I know more definitely what you have in mind. Perhaps your brother Ira would want to do them. Or maybe we could do them together. At any rate I want you to feel that I would be happy to do what you would want me to, and that at the same time you must feel entirely free to use anyone else that you might wish.” It is inconceivable that a collaboration, begun so selflessly and with such mutual respect and understanding, could be anything except a memorable delight – and so this three-part one was.

When the actual work on the opera was underway in 1934, Heyward refused to live in New York (“I find my creative ability practically paralyzed in a new environment,” he said), and Gershwin’s radio contract prevented his venturing far from the broadcasting studios. The essential nature of Ira Gershwin’s contribution was then revealed with complete clarity, as he acted as liaison between librettist and composer. Ira Gershwin brought to the collaborative effort not only his distinctive talent – which, as Heyward pointed out, “was exactly suited to the task of writing the songs for Sporting Life” – but that critically keen ear and excellent judgment which had shaped his own achievements. It was, indeed, to this Gershwin that the opera owed its name (although in Heyward’s article about the opera, the Carolina novelist seems to have thought the title, Porgy and Bess, was his own idea). During the writing of the opera, both George Gershwin and Heyward favored Porgy as the name of their new production. But the Theatre Guild’s publicity department sensed a confusion between the play and this re-formation of it. Ira Gershwin, remembering all the Man and Woman opera titles, suggested that Bess here too be elevated to nominal billing. Although Heyward was to do all the writing for the first act, Ira Gershwin soon helped on recitative as well as formal songs for the rest of the show: “Bess, You IS My Woman Now,” “Oh, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?,” “A Red Headed Woman,” etc. Because he occasionally used Heyward’s libretto for a phrase or line, he invariably tried to credit his collaborator as co-author. In order to accelerate Heyward’s election to ASCAP – at the time five published numbers were necessary for admission to the performing rights society – he even offered to put Heyward’s name with his on the sheet music of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Heyward appreciated the motive, thanked him, and laughingly refused, insisting that no one would ever believe he could have had anything to do with that particular song!

But before the writing began on Porgy and Bess, there were months spent in negotiations. In August 1932 there briefly arose a complication when Al Jolson expressed to Heyward’s agents an interest in doing a musical version of Porgy. Heyward much preferred Gershwin’s proposal; but no contract had been signed – and could, he wrote on September 3, the composer give “your definite assurance that you would plan for production either this spring or early next fall?” Gershwin was not to be rushed into even so indefinite a commitment, however, and he told Heyward that perhaps Jolson’s inquiry should be followed up: “he is a very big star, who certainly knows how to put over a show, and it might mean more to you financially if he should do it – provided that the rest of the production were well done.” After all, as Gershwin saw matter, the Jolson version might make Heyward some “ready money” and “I don’t know that it would hurt a later version done by an all-colored cast.”

Gershwin outlined his own intentions for the property: “The sort of thing that I should have in mind for Porgy is a much more serious thing than Jolson could ever do. of course I would not attempt to write music to your play until I had all the themes and musical devices worked out for such an undertaking. It would be more a labor of love than anything else.” And on October 14, Gershwin encouraged Heyward’s New York agents to go along with any proposition Jolson might make. No wonder Heyward, who was “ina fairly tight spot financially,” replied to the composer on October 17, “I think your attitude I this matter is simply splendid. It makes me all the more eager to work with you some day, some time, before we wake up and find ourselves in our dotage.”

As is turned out, nothing ever came of Jolson’s proposal, and not until nearly a year later – October 26, 1933 – was a contract signed with the Theatre Guild for an operatic Porgy. Within two weeks Gershwin was telling the press that he was going to work eight hours a day on the long-contemplated assignment, and on November 12 Heyward sent north the libretto of the first scene.

On December 3, 1933 Gershwin arrived in Charleston for his first sight of the opera’s locale. (On November 23 he had written ahead to Heyward: “I would like to see the town and hear some spirituals and perhaps go to a colored café or two if there are any.”)  That first afternoon he and Heyward attended a Negro church to hear the singing, and the composer told one reporter: “I’m sure that even Mr. Heyward was surprised at the primitiveness of this particular service and it gave me a lot to think about,” “ – A lot to think about”: Gershwin may have been deliberating about Porgy for years, but he had come to no formal conclusions – other than that he would write everything himself. “I like to digest ideas a long time, I am really only happy when I am composing or just finishing something,” he once asserted; and he had let Heyward know in November: “I want to do a great deal of thinking about the thing and the gathering in of thematic material before the actual writing begins.” He would employ no traditional hymns or spirituals, but would create everything himself to give the music a continuity and also to avoid any response or connotations which an older song might evoke.

From Charleston, Gershwin went to the home of his old friend, Emil Mosbacher, at Palm Beach. He was to make several stays there, always working on the opera; on this particular visit he found the melody of “Summertime” coming to him one day as he lay on the sand. “ The trouble with opera is that it unfolds slowly,” complained Gershwin. “It must take its own time. That is the reason that some of the old operas were so terribly long.” In his own case he had decided to startle at least his brother, Ira, and begin the work with a slow, romantic lullaby.

On the return trip to New York early in January, Gershwin stopped off at Charleston for another visit with Heyward. He was still puzzling over the treatment for recitative. Eventually, to the annoyance of some critics, he resolved on having all the white parts in spoken dialogue, all the Negro in musical recitative: “In recitative I have tried to stick as closely as possible to the negro inflection in the speech.” Heyward would have preferred that “all dialog should be spoken. It is fast moving …[and] this will give the opera speed and tempo … with such music (singing) as grows out of the action.”

Progress on Porgy and Bess halted when, on January 14, Gershwin began a twenty-eight day, 12,000 mile concert tour. The Leo Reisman orchestra and James Melton were his traveling companions, and by the time the entourage came to the Brooklyn Academy of February 10, they had played as far west as Omaha. Back in New York, Gershwin devoted all his spare moments to the opera. His radio program took much of his time, however. As a result, Heyward moved far ahead of the composer and on March 27 he was able to send the New York a draft of the third act. Although he worked diligently at condensing his libretto, Heyward kept running over-length, and Gershwin admonished him: “I am a great believer in not giving people too much of a good thing and I am sure you agree with this.” In April, the librettist went north for personal conference with his collaborators.

In June, when Gershwin got a two month vacation from his radio assignment, he and his painter cousin, Henry Botkin, packed up and went to Folly Beach outside Charleston, where they rented a ramshackle cabin for five weeks. Gershwin (“the bearded Folly Beach wild man, who frequently was seen only in dirty white duck trousers,” reported the Charleston press) drank up the Gullah atmosphere. Once he and Heyward went to Hendersonville in North Carolina and stood listening outside a Holy Rollers Church; the musical effects so impressed the composer he recreated them in his six-simultaneous prayers for the opera.

It was not eassy for Gershwin to adjust to he working atmosphere of Folly Beach. The swirling ocean outside his door, the crabs upon the beach, and the playing porpoises at sea – all disturbed him. “The ideal room for composing would be one with four bare walls and no windows,” he complained. When one reporter suggested that the view from Gershwin’s 72nd Street studio could hardly be classed unpanoramic, the composer countered: “The building are fixed and still. They don’t disturb you.” Yet, only by going to Folly Beach was Gershwin to know intimately the materials which so electrified his librettist. All that spring Heyward had been urging him south, telling him the source “is authentic and plenty ‘hot’ as well. I have discovered for the first time a type of secular dance that isdone here that is straight from the African phallic dance, and that is undoubtedly a complete survival. Also I have seen that native band of harmonicas, combs, etc.” At Folly Beach Gershwin reached the half-way point in his opera.

On January 30, 1935, Gershwin stopped overnight in Charleston, once again enroute to Palm Beach. “The composition for ‘Porgy’ is finished, and I intend to work on the orchestrations at Palm Beach,” he said. Actually, the orchestrations were already underway. He did not work on them in sequence; but he spent nine months giving them most of his attention, and they were finished September 2, 1935. As with the writing of the opera, so the orchestrations too took more time than originally expected. Ultimately he would say he could have spent five years – instead of two – on his opera. But Gershwin was a professional who seldom held work back to embroider upon it or to lay it up against a test of time. He said he functioned best under pressure, and throughout his life he adhered to his deadlines.

In the writing of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin had been concerned with several aesthetic problems. The most perplexing solution to one of them was accomplished by labeling it a “folk opera.” “The explanation is a simple one,” Gershwin wrote. “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.” Such a label for the work was perhaps a last minute thought: the subtitle on the title page of the orchestrations is merely Opera in Three Acts.

Although he had never before written a full-length opera, Gershwin was shrewdly award of all that had been accomplished in the genre. (His comment that “Opera becomes just singing in costume” suggest he was not unaware of how the form had been mishandled.) He was less concerned in startling the world with a new concept of opera than in successfully realizing the potentials of his property. The folk material aspect of Porgy naturally recalled Moussorgsky’s Boris Godonunoff, and he freely acknowledged it as a model. His own melodic gifts and innate love of song made him think continually of Carmen, and he frequently mentioned it as the archetype of the sort of work he wished to create. The wonder of Wagnerian leit-motif also impressed him, and he determined to have the same – highly simplified – for his central characters. But most of all, as he insisted to the critic Irving Kolodin, Porgy and Bess must have about it “the smell of our own time.”


When Porgy and Bess went into rehearsal, it was with a cast and staff personally chosen by George Gershwin. At first there was some talk of getting Paul Robeson to play Porgy and Jules Bledsoe for Crown. But then Gershwin came across Todd Duncan, a young professor at Howard University, and the composer excitedly wrote Heyward that here was another Lawrence Tibbett. (“He would make a superb Crown and, I think, just as good a Porgy.”) For Sporting Life, he signed John W. Bubbles, of the vaudeville team Buck and Bubbles. Others who distinguished themselves in the cast included Anne Brown as Bess, Ruby Elzy as Serena, and Georgette Harvey as Maria. Rouben Mamoulian, whose brilliant direction of the play, Porgy, had given the production so much of its style, was brought from Hollywood to direct the opera. Alexander Smallens conducted the orchestra, Alexander Steinert coached the singers, and Eva Jessye conducted the choir.

Going into rehearsal, Porgy and Bess turned out to be three hours long. Heyward had cut his play forty percent to produce a workable libretto. Now Gershwin himself had to prune and chop, and his shrewdly professional attitude toward the reduction of his masterpiece indelibly impressed Mamoulian, who said of the composer: “He knew the theatre, he knew the audience. His showmanship was so keen that no matter how well he loved a musical passage or aria…he would cut it out without hesitation if that improved the performance as a whole.” Todd Duncan has reported how Gershwin willingly threw out everything from the opening Jasbo Brown piano music to the “Buzzard Song”; he balked only at the reduction of his third act trio, “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?”. As Duncan pointed out, there were structural justifications for Gershwin’s defense of the trio: “the composer had embodied in it his themes previously used, weaving them into an interesting lace work of counterpoint in which he took pride and delight” – and which contributed enormously to the opera’s musical unity.

Porgy and Bess opened at New York’s Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935, eight years to the day from the premiere of the play, Porgy. The opera had tried-out at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, starting September 30, and from the first night it was apparent that the show would be a success. (It was after the out-of-town ovation that a member of the cast, J. Rosamond Johnson christened Gershwin “the Abraham Lincoln of Negro music.”) Most of the critics were overjoyed with Gershwin’s accomplishment, and though there has grown up a canard that this first production went unappreciated, the notices were such as would delight almost anyone. By attempting an opera, Gershwin had of course entered a realm which many believed sacrosanct. The announcement of his contemplated work had caused A. Walter Kramer of Musical America, for instance, to bemoan on March 25, 1934: “When will some of the men and women in American theatre learn that Mr. Gershwin is not one of this country’s leading composers of real account, and that he is a figure of importance only in our popular music? There are a dozen recognized composers in this country who could do a better job with Porgy. But they won’t get the chance.”

When Mr. Kramer saw the completed opera, he had a different reaction: “I do feel that it is a very successful achievement in clothing an appealing, dramatic story with music. For doing that Mr. Gershwin has the gratitude and approval of all who have been awaiting with eager interest just such an effort by an American composer. With Porgy and Bess he has expressed himself in the terms of a story taken from the life of his own time, in a section of his country and has pointed the way for other composer to follow.”

The most whimsical of all the notices accorded the opera came from Virgil Thomson. In Modern Music he snarled: “I don’t like fake folk-lore, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor bitter-sweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor plum-pudding orchestration.” After referring to his own Four Saints in Three Acts – libretto by Gertrude Stein – as one of four worthwhile American operas, Thomson conceded: “The real drama of the piece is the spectacle of Gershwin wrestling with his medium, and the exciting thing is that after all those years the writing of music is still not a routine thing to him…Porgy is falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed, but it is an important work because it is abundantly conceived and entirely executed by hand…Porgy is none the less an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad set-up. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that is of some power and importance.” But Thomson’s own better nature took over, and he admitted: “I like to think of Gershwin as having presented his astonished and somewhat perturbed public with a real live baby, all warm and dripping and friendly.”

The critical reaction to Porgy and Bess, whether good or indifferent, is not of great moment to those of use who have come after. A few financial statistics describe something of the show’s success in so far as Gershwin himself was concerned, however. The production ran 124 performances in New York and then went on the road; it closed in Washington, D.C. March 21, 1936. The composer did not make enough money from the opera to repay the cost of copying his elaborate orchestrations, but he never seems to have expected that Porgy and Bess would have the run of a hit musical. During the writing of the opera he had supported himself with his radio program in New York and a few concert dates in the East. And when the show was over he began readying himself for another money-making expedition to Hollywood. Those were lean days on Broadway; though the season which produced Porgy and Bess brought out such hit musicals as Jumbo, May Wine, and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (lyrics by Ira Gershwin), the total number of productions that year was 138 – fifty-one below the previous season (which had been thought especially bad). Business was still deteriorating in the Depression theatre; and in view of the runs of other shows, Porgy and Bess found musical success.

The opera made the first of its three extended American revivals on February 4, 1938 when it began a two week run at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium and then moved north to San Francisco for another two weeks. This production was brought about by Merle Armitage, in association with Paul Posz, and fulfilled the roughly discussed plans Gershwin himself had laid with Armitage just before the composer’s death on July 11, 1937. (Both Heyward and Gershwin wanted to sell the opera to the movies, and Gershwin had written on January 26, 1937: the studios “are keen about it, but slightly afraid on account of the color question. However, I am sure it’s only a matter of time when the opera will be done in that form as the music is constantly being played and the enthusiasm for it great on all sides.”)

The Armitage production reassembled most of the original cast, including Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, and Ruby Elzy. Alexander Steinert, who had taken the podium for Alexanders Smallens during the opera’s original run, was the conductor. Although Mamoulian did not direct the show, he freely advised Armitage; and to all intents and purposes, this was a duplicate of the original production. As Richard Sheridan Ames, a local critic, observed: it was “probably the most exciting spectacle we’ve seen locally since Reinhardt dazzled us with his torches and redefined the adjective ‘colossal.’”

The second revival of Porgy and Bess was produced by Cheryl Crawford and opened at Boston’s Shubert Theatre December 29, 1941, having been assembled in October at Miss Crawford’s summer stock theatre in Maplewood, New Jersey. This presentation eliminated the recitatives and pushed Porgy’s murder of Crown off-stage – deletions which sped the pace of the play and cut the running time by forty-five minutes. Most critics agreed this version, directed by Robert Ross and conducted by Alexander Smallens, improved upon the original. The cast was almost the same as that in 1935; Avon Long now played Sporting Life (as he had done for Armitage in 1938). This was more a musical play than an opera, but Broadway liked it.

When it opened at New York’s Majestic Theatre January 22, 1942, Burns Mantle called the show “a smoother and a more melodious production than the original” – but, in his inexplicable way, gave it 3 stars, whereas the original had won 4! The New York audience reacted with such enthusiasm that the orchestra had to plunge into “The Star Spangled Banner” to cut the applause. Financially, the show was a great success. The orchestrations were thinned, and the pit now held twenty-seven instead of forty-two men. As Wolcott Gibbs brooded in the New Yorker: “‘Classic’ is a forbidding word, usually implying great artistic merit combined with a dismal lack of entertainment, but I’m afraid it is about the only way to describe the Gershwin – Heyward folk opera.” This revival played 348 performances, then went on tour, and on September 13, 1943 returned to Broadway for another run.

It is the third revival of the opera, however, which did more than make the opera seem a classic: it now became an instrument of American foreign policy, the basis of strategy in the cultural cold war, and a universal symbol of the American dram and achievement. Produced by Blevins Davis and Robert Breen, and directed by Mr. Breen, this production opened June 9, 1952 in Dallas, Texas at the State Fair Auditorium. It starred William Warfield as Porgy, Leontyne Price as Bess, and Cab Calloway as Sporting Life; and as the cast was new to the property, so the conception of the opera was also changed. The number of sets was reduced, stage waits were eliminated, and some songs were moved about in the score. Recitative was restored, and twenty minutes of text and music not incorporated in any previous version was put to use.

So brilliant was this production that it ran for four years, making two tours of the United States, three European tours, and one tour of South America. When it opened in Berlin on September 16, 1953, there were twenty-one curtain calls. When it opened in Venice on September 22, 1954, the audience threw flowers on the stage. When it opened in Leningrad December 26, 1955, even Truman Capote was long to take notes! Both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower gave the show their unqualified blessings, and by the time Porgy and Bess struck its sets for the last time on June 3, 1956 in Amsterdam the opera had became a legend instead of a production.

The latest revival underway will transfer the property from the stage to the screen; Samuel Goldwyn is making of it a motion picture which he believes to be the supreme achievement of his own career – and at last those last corners of the world where the opera is know only as a memorable name, there too it will be a visual and audible and emotional experience.

Lawrence D. Stewart

In deciding to record Porgy and Bess, I felt that our best approach, since we were not recording the entire opera, but instead only the best know excerpts, was to use only two voices: thus, I decided that Ella Fitzgerald should sing all the female parts and Louis Armstrong all the male; in fact, I extended my license even further by having Miss Fitzgerald sing The Buzzard Song, which in the play was sung by a male.

There isn’t much one can add to the biographical material already well known about Ella Fitzgerald, because she is the best singer in the world today of popular music and jazz. I felt that this combination of jazz feeling for the melody and popular feeling for the lyrics filled the requirements precisely as the Gershwins might have intended for a folk opera like Porgy & Bess. The inherent feel for jazz that George Gershwin possessed is obviously held by Miss Fitzgerald in full measure, and Ira Gershwin’s need for understanding of his lyrics is equally fully understood and felt by Miss Fitzgerald, as evidenced by her singing the extremes of “Doctor Jesus” and the spirited “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.”

Louis Armstrong symbolically is Mr. Jazz for the world and will continue to be so forever. He is the epitome of all jazz represents and though I constantly seem to be emphasizing the term “jazz,” Mr. Armstrong is also a great human being with great feelings, and armed with this he attacks and conquers beautifully the demands that the folk opera placed upon him. Though he may not give it the trained voice that other versions have, he gives it, I think, far more poignancy, tenderness, and feeling – and that, after all, is what a “folk” opera really should have. Needless to say, all of the great trumpet solos in this album are also done by Mr. Armstrong, who has no peer on this instrument for this kind of material.

Norman Granz

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