Table of Contents
3 jazz Masters perform Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” at the piano
Bill Evans “I Loves You, Porgy” (Complete Transcription) with sheet music
Keith Jarrett – I Loves You Porgy
Oscar Peterson – I Love You Porgy (Gershwin) Piano Moods
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Porgy and Bess: The Opera in the Key of Gospel
On September 30, 1935, the Colonial Theater in Boston was the scene of an unprecedented cultural event: the premiere of the opera Porgy and Bess, with music composed by George Gershwin and a libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, with the collaboration of Ira Gershwin.
It was the first production of an opera with a mostly black cast with classical musical training in a country where 36 states had segregation laws and where parastatals like the Ku Klux Klan operated with absolute impunity. There were still thirty years to go before the civil rights movement and its leaders Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X achieved the full operation of constitutional rights for the black population of the southern United States.
In this context, a composer and three white writers decide to present an opera that not only had an almost entirely black cast, but also celebrated the musical heritage of the Afro-descendant population and used the black dialect of Charleston (the Gullah) in the letters.
However, the disruptive force of Porgy and Bess does not begin with the opera itself. To understand how this momentous moment for the black population in the history of American art came to be, we must go back to previous works by the Heywards: the novel Porgy (1925), written by DuBose, and its subsequent adaptation as a play in 1927 by by DuBose and Dorothy.
The action of the novel takes place in Catfish Row, a black community in New Orleans. Porgy, the protagonist, is an invalid who lives by begging and is highly appreciated in the community. Her life is completely altered with the irruption of Bess, a cocaine-addicted woman who runs away from her partner who beats her, Crown, and takes refuge with Porgy. The precarious domestic harmony that develops between them is threatened by Crown’s looming presence and by Bess’s own demons.
The stories of the other characters of Catfish Row are also narrated with their joys, their amusements and their tragedies, such as the death of Robbins and the pain of his widow Serena, or the hurricane that claimed the lives of various characters.
Porgy is in many ways a musical novel. The songs in the novel come from the popular songbook of negro spirituals sung since ancient times by black communities in the United States. George Gershwin, in collaboration with the Heywards and his brother Ira to adapt the play into an opera, wanted to retain the popular and collective character of the music in the story. This is why he referred to Porgy and Bess as a folk opera .
However, he decided to write his own negro spirituals for the religious parts of the opera, mixing them with the performances of individual characters for dramatic effect. One of the times when this is seen most forcefully is at Robbins’ funeral. The community sings a dirge, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” which is followed by one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play, when Serena sings “My Man Is Gone Now.”
Thus, we quickly move from the collective drama, of the community that has lost a member, to the individual drama of a wife who has been left alone in the world.
Another masterful example of Gershwin’s use of popular music is the first and most famous song from the play, “Summertime.” It is a lullaby sung by Clara, who tells her baby that in the summer life is easy, there is plenty of food and money, and then she should feel protected, she does not have to cry, since the future is looks promising.
However, as noted by critic Jeffrey Melnick (Schiff, 2000), the music composed by Gershwin is very similar to that of the well-known Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Clara will tragically die minutes after her husband, leaving her son orphaned by her. In this way, Gershwin is masterfully announcing the tragic end from the beginning of the work, simply resorting to the knowledge of the public from the popular songbook.
Another interesting detail is that the entire libretto is sung, except for the lines of white characters, which are recited. Gershwin puts music on the side of the black community, suggesting that it is their natural mode of expression, and therefore cannot be used by whites, who are always outside the community.
The opera’s script establishes three clear antagonists, who come to break the balance of Catfish Row and destabilize the community: Crown, Sportin’ Life and Bess, who burst onto the stage with unbridled jazz music. Bess appears in the opening scene as a defiant character, drinking alcohol and brawling with the men in provocative ways, much to the horror of the “God-fearing” women in the community. Crown and Sportin’ Life constantly laugh at the taboos of the community, and blaspheme against their god. Their songs are vaudeville numbers, fun and catchy, like the vices of those who flaunt.
Mainly the number “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, sung by Sportin’ Life, hilariously questions Biblical truths in the middle of a religious picnic, which sends the devout Serena into a rage and drives everyone back to Charleston. Bess, for her part, tries to become “decent”, to participate in the values of the community and leave the low life, but she knows that she does not have the inner strength to do so, that it is in her essence to love freedom and fun, although they lead you down the path of self-destruction. Sportin’ Life appears again and again to remind her that it is not in her nature to lead a life of domestic tedium alongside an invalid.
Critic David Schiff notes that while these three characters are the “diabolical trinity of mythological and subversive powers” in the play, they also have great audience appeal as forces of change and rebellion as opposed to acceptance and resignation. characters like Serena, who seem to leave their fate in the hands of divine providence.
Heyward’s work, from his original novel to the opera Porgy and Bess, aimed to make visible an absolutely marginalized sector of the American population: the Gullah community of Charleston. In addition to giving it centrality, Heyward sought to present Catfish Row as a complex, diverse community, united against a common enemy such as xenophobia and oppression, but also with dissent, with its positive elements and with its demons, such as addictions, gambling , and even a blind dependence on divine providence.
Despite being white, writing about a community to which he did not belong, Heyward managed to open doors for black artists and contributed to highlighting the racial issue in the American literary scene, achieving a work that challenges us even to this day.