Born George Jacob Gershwin in Brooklyn, New York, this Russian-Jewish-American composer was the first second child of immigrants. Gershwin works can be found under the genre of classical and popular, which is rarely heard of in musical theater. He is most known for works like Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess.
This composer was a student of Charles Hambitzer, Rubin Goldmark, Joseph Brody, and Henry Cowell. His career working for song publishers as a plugger but teamed up with his brother Ira and friend Buddy DeSylva to write musicals for Broadway. Gershwin also relocated to France hoping to train with Nadia Boulanger but she said no so he came home.
Let’s take a moment to look at some of the works created by George Gershwin.
Blue Monday (Opera à la Afro-American)
This “jazz opera”, which is performed in two acts, is set to an English language libretto by Buddy DeSylva. It is very short, lasting in length the most a half hour, experts say that it is just a teaser, and a template Gershwin used to create later works. It is also believed to be the first attempt of merging classical music with popular music like jazz and it is the first opera to use an influence of African-American culture founds predominantly in Harlem, New York.
It was Buddy DeSylva’s idea to create a jazz opera with Harlem as a backdrop and he wanted to use Pagliacci as a base for his story. New Haven, Connecticut was the location of the premiere performance of this Gershwin opera, and the crowds loved it. Gershwin himself claimed that the nervousness he felt when this show opened is what he dubbed “composer’s stomach”, which he would experience for the remainder of his career.
Yet, the reception on Broadway was the opposite. Opening on August 28, 1922 at the Globe Theatre, critics say that the ending was too tragic to draw a crowd. A critic in the New York World printed that Blue Monday was “the most dismal, stupid, and incredible blackface sketch…ever…perpetrated.” No wonder the man had composers stomach.
Still, this was not the only critic in town. Another dubbed it “genuine” and claimed the show “foreshadowed” future excellence “from Gershwin.” Blue Monday was reworked by Ferde Grofé and renamed 135th Street for a production at Carnegie Hal in 1925 on December 29th.
An American in Paris
One of Gershwin’s most famous work is a jazz inspired symphonic poem that was first presented in 1928. It was written when he moved to Paris hoping to study with Nadia Boulanger, who had turned him away. Walter Damrosch hired Gershwin to compose the work and it was written with the typical instruments found in a symphony orchestra.
Yet Gershwin included saxophones and a celesta, which is a struck idiophone with a keyboard and resembles a small piano. Gershwin also included the sound of car honking their horns and when it premiered in New York, Gershwin had taxi horns typical to Paris streets sent to the States for the premiere.
An American in Paris opened on December 13th at Carnegie Hall played by the New York Philharmonic. Damrosch conducted the work at with only having four weeks to rehearse since Gershwin wasn’t finished with the scoring until then. It is said that Gershwin was unhappy with the conductor’s interpretation saying the temp dragged and it felt sluggish. Gershwin walked out of a matinee presentation.
The intention of the composer, when he was writing the piece, to give the listener the impression of walking down a Paris street, taking in all the sounds and culture. He collaborated on the work, for a bit, with Deems Taylor, another American composer and critic. It is more widely recognized for its use in the 1951 MGM film by the same title.
That year An American in Paris, the movie, won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite the lack of acclaim this Gershwin piece received when it was first presented to the world, it has quickly gained popularity and is regularly revived throughout the United States and Europe.
Porgy and Bess
Arguably the most popular of Gershwin works, Porgy and Bess has reached the height of popularity that it was the subject of a United States commemorative postage stamp in 1993. DuBose Heyward wrote the English-language libretto along with Ira Gershwin, which they based on Heyward’s novel Porgy. The first performance of this celebrated opera was in Boston on September 30, 1935.
The cast consisted of African-American vocalists who had all be trained classically. This may not seem like a big deal by today’s standards, but in 1935 Depression Era America, this was, indeed, a very big deal. Of course, the crowd was made to feel uncomfortable with the highly racial message the story told and Porgy and Bess was not received well.
Gershwin himself referred to the work as a “folk opera” and did so because he felt it was a “folk tale.” The plot revolves around Porgy, who is reduced to begging in the street due to her disabilities in Charleston, South Carolina. He falls for Bess and tries to save her from a man who abuses her.
It opened on October 10, 1935 in New York City at the Alvin Theatre. Before opening night, Gershwin decided to shorten the performance by cutting certain part hoping it would be more refined in its storytelling. It ran for over 100 performances.
The next year a tour of Porgy and Bess began on January 27 and moved from Philadelphia to Chicago by way of Pittsburg. Then it made its way to Washington, D.C. and opened there on March 21, 1936. Todd Duncan, who played Porgy, protested with others to the theaters standard segregation policies and it was Porgy and Bess that was first performed to an integrated audience in the Nation’s Capital.
Since it was first premiered, Porgy and Bess has been revived for Broadway in 1942, had several European premieres, had tour in 1952, and a 1976 production by the Houston Grand Opera, which is said to have catapulted this work to iconic status. It has been adapted for film, television, radio, concerts, and piano recitals.
Not surprisingly, a story about race will bring up racial controversy, especially in Pre-World War II America. Duke Ellington called Gershwin’s depictions of African-Americans as “lampblack Negroisms.” And then Ellington called a 1952 revival “superbest” and said “Gershwin [is] the greatest.”
Still, during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 20th century Porgy and Bess was seen as racist and then it moved to the area of being considered old hat. Gershwin put it as a stipulation in any reproduction that all the singers must be of African-American descent, which has prompted the launch of quite a few careers for African-American opera singers.
One of the most recognizable songs form the opera is a recorded version of “I Loves You, Porgy” recorded by Nina Simone in 1958.
Porgy and Bess remains as one of the best English-language operas of all time. Here are some other great opera pieces that were composed in English!