The Controversial Opera
An opera composed by a Jewish songwriter, adapted from a novel “porgy” by a white novelist that narrates the tale of Southern blacks and performed on a Broadway and opera stage could not be more controversial. The composer’s interest in spirituals and folksongs make Porgy and Bess the Magnus Opus ever composed by George Gershwin.
Porgy and Bess became a well-known opera after Houston Grand Opera performed a new staging of the work in 1976 under the direction of John DeMain. “Folk opera” is a term used by the composer to describe the work when it was first performed in Carnegie Hall, New York in the fall of 1935. Since its initial production, the casts of Porgy and Bess who were mostly African- American have used the opportunity to address the racial segregation in the United States. The Broadway tour of the work that ended in 1936 in Washington D.C National Theatre resulted in the first integrated audience for a performance at the venue.
“Summertime” was the first aria in Porgy and Bess. It was sung by a young mother named Clara as a lullaby to her baby. The lyrics were taken from DuBose Heyward’s poem “porgy”. The song began with a minor tonality based on the use of a pentatonic melody. The harmonic progression moves a whole step from a minor triad with an added sixth note up to a supertonic triad maintaining the same chord quality function. The concluding part of the song moves to the relative major and progresses in three successive, whole tone movements, which establishes a dominant function on the third chord and resolve back to minor tonic.
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry
One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky
But till that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you
With daddy and mammy standin’ by”
In reference to the musicological methodology approach, Gershwin used the new trend as well as theoretical and analytical method to produce Porgy and Bess. Gershwin devised new way of composing for a mixed audience first by observing a community of African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. His observations led him to learn about spiritual folk tune and formulate his own original folk materials to compose the spirituals and folksongs in Porgy and Bess. Gershwin theoretically studied the use of blue tone and pentatonic scale to carefully construct the melody.
As a successful Broadway and film score composer and a pianist, Gershwin delved into opera through his love for spirituals. His bravery for composing an opera based on African-American lifestyle at the beginning of the 20th century is regarded by music and social critics as the “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.”
Crawford, Richard. “Porgy and Bess.” Grove Music Online. 30 Jan. 2018.
Hamm, Charles. “The Theatre Guild Production of “Porgy and Bess”.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40, no. 3 (1987): 495-532. doi:10.2307/831678.
Schneider, Wayne J., Norbert Carnovale, and Richard Crawford. “Gershwin, George.” Grove Music Online. 30 Jan. 2018.
 Richard Crawford. “Porgy and Bess.” Grove Music Online. 30 Jan. 2018.
 Charles Hamm. “The Theatre Guild Production of “Porgy and Bess”.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40, no. 3 (1987): 495-532. doi:10.2307/831678.
 Schneider, Wayne J., Norbert Carnovale, and Richard Crawford. “Gershwin, George.” Grove Music Online. 30 Jan. 2018.