Perception in the Eyes of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
In 1935, the release of Gershwin’s first opera brought many surprises to the classical music world. Written in a century of change, this opera would open, or close, the minds and eyes of all those who encountered it. Not only was this opera written in a jazz style, which was nontraditional, it was also based upon African Americans in a small town in America. Porgy and Bess premiered on October 10th, 1935 in New York with an all African American cast, the way Gershwin wanted and intended it to be. Although categorized as a folk opera, there is much controversy and debate on whether Porgy and Bess truly falls into this description. With Gershwin being an outsider looking in on African American culture, one can easily say the perception is off, incomplete, or invalid, making some categorize the opera as a “fakelore.”
Gershwin’s interest and love for African American musical culture is very apparent and present in many of his compositions. The compositions for Porgy and Bess reflect this jazzy and bluesy style. In particular, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, the use of the jazz style and blues scale is definitely heard. In the opera, Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer, sings about the bible and how everything in it isn’t necessarily true. The meter switches from 4/4 to 2/4, there is a subdominant to tonic relationship, quarter note triplets are present throughout, imitation between orchestra and the singers, and the 3rd, 5th and 7th scale degrees appear flattened and in their natural state. All of these musical elements are associated with the jazz style and connected to African American culture. But the most interesting aspect of the song are the lyrics and how the perspective of African American life is skewed. Reading through the vocal score, the way the lyrics are spelled and written really caught my eye. Why is the word ‘that’ written as ‘dat’? A few more examples of strange words are ‘de’, ’t’ings’, ‘li’ble’, ‘Hebben’, ‘debbles’ and many more. If these words are depicting how people talk, many can perceive this as inaccurate and have a derogatory meaning. The characters’ and their personas in the opera have been criticized for showing African American life in a bad light. This only goes further with the lyrics used in this song. Although Gerswhin was trying to highlight African American culture as an American folklore, his efforts would fall short in some eyes simply because it is not his culture and he could never perceive the traditions in a noble way.
As stated in, It Ain’t necessarily Soul: Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” a Symbol, “true folk-culture is so unique that it must be weakened if it is to be assimilated.” To put on an opera from a White American perception, in all aspects from creating to producing, is not enough to successfully portray African American culture. Gershwin understood the musical side of jazz and its relation to African Americans, but he would never be able to understand the culture on a deeper level. Even with Gershwin’s good intentions of creating an opera showcasing an ethic group in America, the function is perceived negatively to many.
Allen, Ray. “An American Folk Opera? Triangulating Folkness, Blackness, and Americaness in Gershwin and Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess”.” The Journal of American Folklore 117, no. 465 (2004): 243-61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137739.
Crawford, Richard. “It Ain’t Necessarily Soul: Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as a Symbol.” Anuario Interamericano De Investigacion Musical 8 (1972): 17-38. doi:10.2307/779817.
Crawford, Richard. “Porgy and Bess.” Grove Music Online. 29 Jan. 2018. http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000004106.
Gershwin, George. Porgy and Bess: It Ain’t Necessarily So. Miami, FL: Warner Bros.
“McKinley Box Office.” Porgy and Bess Synopsis –. Accessed January 28, 2018. http://sopaa.org/porgy-and-bess-synopsis/.