A Finale Without Finality

ohlawd
Photo courtesy of the CincinnatiOpera YouTube channel

After reading a detailed synopsis of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I was immediately struck by the story’s ending. After learning that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life, Porgy is determined to find her and bring her back to Catfish Row. He orders a goat cart and prays, stating that he trusts god to guide him and help him brave the long travel ahead. The residents of Catfish Row join him in song on the second phrase, voicing their support and well-wishes. The opera’s finale captured my attention because the ending is so uncertain. We never learn if Porgy finds Bess or what becomes of their relationship. How many operas end with so many questions left unanswered? Examining the finale piece, “Oh Lawd I’m on my way,” may provide some idea of what comes next for our protagonists. The lyrics are as follows:

Oh Lawd, I’m on my way

I’m on my way to a heav’nly land

I’ll ride that long, long road

If You are there to guide my hand

Oh Lawd, I’m on my way

I’m on my way to a heav’nly land

Oh Lawd, it’s a long, long way,

But You’ll be there to take my hand

The rhythms are almost exclusively syncopated in the orchestra. Though not as prevalent in the vocal lines, the relentlessness of the syncopation in the orchestra drives the piece ever forward and illustrates Porgy’s determination to continue onward with haste, not stopping until he finds Bess and is victorious.

The piece is in E mixolydian, and modulates only briefly to F# major on the phrase “If You are there to guide my hand.” Mixolydian scales are found regularly in folk music, perhaps even more in southern folk and country music (Think “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Ramblin’ Man”). I also couldn’t help but be reminded of Copland, whose compositions are decidedly American-sounding (particularly his “Fanfare for the Common Man”). The melody of “Oh Lawd I’m on my way” is so memorable because it relies heavily on outlining the tonic triad – a common feature in folk music. Both the melody and harmony conform to traditional notions of consonance and diatonicism, and the piece resolves forcefully on the tonic chord. These melodic and harmonic structures taken together represent Porgy’s optimism and overwhelming confidence that he will succeed on his journey. This finale piece oozes confidence, determination, and strength.

I would like to think that Gershwin composed the finale to sound so victorious in an effort to provide relief to the audience, and to take the edge off of the uncomfortable truth that we never do find out what happens to Porgy or Bess. After all, according to Starr, the show was already facing obstacles to success (which are outlined in my previous blog post). Perhaps Gershwin wanted to soften the blow and leave show-goers with some sense of a happy ending, as not doing so could mean a less favorable critical reception. More so however, I would like to think that Gershwin truly believed Porgy would find Bess and convince her to come back with him. The aforementioned musical elements of “Oh Lawd I’m on my way,” in combination with the text in which Porgy proclaims that he is traveling to a “heav’nly land,” arguably foreshadow victory. The fact that we may never know if such a triumphant-sounding finale symbolizes actual eventual victory or only Porgy’s feeling of determination is, I’m sure, one of the main reasons why Porgy and Bess is so captivating to audiences. Even tragic operas typically provide audiences with some form of closure, but Porgy and Bess will always leave us wondering – no matter how certain the ending sounds.

— SUSAN SMITH

 

Bibliography

Fisher, Burton D. Porgy and Bess. Opera Journeys Mini Guide. Coral Gables, FL: Opera Journeys Publishing, 2000. Accessed January 28, 2018. http://0-web.b.ebscohost.com.lib.utep.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzcyNjQyX19BTg2?sid=9b1dcd70-d5ed-4288-bba8-3891b994cd54@sessionmgr102&vid=2&format=EB&rid=1.

Gershwin, George. “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.” Porgy and Bess. Conducted by Simon Rattle. Performed by Gregg Baker et al. Warner Classics – Parlophone. Released November 28, 2005. Accessed January 28, 2018. Naxos Music Library.

Starr, Larry. George Gershwin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

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