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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Gershwin (1898-1937) arr. Bennett (1894-1981) - Symphonic Picture: “Porgy and Bess”

It’s a humbling thought. Were it not for the fickle finger of fate, much of the music we love might never have existed. Take, for example, the piano bought by the Gershwins. This was intended for the studious Ira, not the streetwise George. Without that piano’s timely stimulus, George might well have ended up a criminal rather than a composer. It also steered his talents towards Tin Pan Alley, and thence to Broadway - a career path that would have confined him to composing popular ditties, had not fortune intervened again. That crucial stimulus seemed to awaken more than mere talent: looking at the “here today, gone tomorrow” musical machine of which he was but one cog, he began to envy the immortality of the “Great Composers” - and he began to do something about it. Bit by bit, he learned what he needed to know. 

Whether by wilful act or happy accident, he “decided” not simply to emulate those envied predecessors, but to carve his concert compositions from the same stuff as his songs: Tin Pan Alley and all that jazz. It’s tempting to imagine that his desire to write opera similarly emerged from his awareness of the disposable nature of Broadway musicals. However, he’d been bitten by the opera bug as early as 1922, when he’d scarcely had time to dip his toes into these waters. Rather, it was the other way round: if anything his operatic ambitions influenced his approach to musicals. Because of the disposable, “do it then bin it” nature of Broadway musicals, direct evidence is hard to find. Recently however, several painstaking reconstructions by Tommy Krasker have allowed us to hear for ourselves some of these operatic infusions. Whilst the pervasive influence of Gilbert and Sullivan in Strike up the Band is as obvious as - relatively speaking - it is trivial, the incursions of a Mozartian influence into Oh, Kay! is as striking as it is subtle. 

Coincidentally, it was around the time (1926) of Oh, Kay! that Gershwin came across DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy. Gershwin leapt at it, and Heyward was willing, but nevertheless the opera was a long time coming, partly because Heyward first worked with his wife on a play based on the novel. Rather conveniently then, the play rather than the novel became the eventual source of the libretto. Although the trip to Europe that prompted An American in Paris also gave Gershwin first-hand experience of such as Die Meistersinger and Wozzeck, he nevertheless put off starting work until he had immersed himself in further studies of opera - and spent an entire summer absorbing the musical idiom of the Afro-Americans of South Carolina. Ultimately, all this coalesced with his Broadway experience and prodigious, tuneful talent. From his imaginative crucible emerged Porgy and Bess, an undoubted and wholly original masterpiece. Gershwin had declared, “If I am successful, it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger, if you can imagine that.” If, he says! 

In the pursuit of maximum authenticity, Gershwin went so far as to insist that the entire cast should be black - proper black people as opposed to “blacked up” white opera singers, which back then must have caused considerable practical difficulties. I can imagine the horror with which Gershwin would have regarded the furore since raised by certain adherents to the doctrine of political correctness. I cannot imagine how anyone could ban performances of this work on the grounds that it is “degrading” and “insulting” to black people - other than, that is, because Gershwin committed the cardinal sin of being born a white man (sorry, should I say “IC1 male”?). Do none of these people ever consider how they “degrade” and “insult” the memory of a sincere and sympathetic human being, whose Porgy and Bess encapsulates a cultural fusion that leaves most of today’s proponents of “crossover” gasping in its wake? 

Speaking of his Scènes de Ballet, Stravinsky reported receiving this telegram: “YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF YOU WOULD AUTHORIZE ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT RETOUCH ORCHESTRATION STOP BENNETT ORCHESTRATES EVEN THE WORKS OF COLE PORTER.” Stravinsky telegraphed back, “SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS”. The American musical theatre culture was based on teamwork, which meant that “composers” wrote the tunes, whilst “orchestrators” would lick them into performing shape. The unlucky sender of that telegram had laboured under the misapprehension that Stravinsky would thus leap at the chance because Bennett was, quite simply, “the best there was”. A highly skilled composer who had nevertheless taken time out in the 1920s for “mature study” with Boulanger, Bennett was involved in some eight Gershwin stage and screen projects. Nobody, other than Gershwin himself, was more under the skin of Gershwin’s style, which almost explains why Bennett’s symphonic “take” on Porgy and Bess is far more popular than Gershwin’s own Catfish Row

Bennett opts for a straightforward free fantasia, creating at once a colourful cavalcade of melody and an approximate symphonic synopsis of the operatic scenario by linking the biggest “hit numbers” in order of appearance,: Summertime, I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’, Bess, You is My Woman Now, Oh, I Can’t Sit Down, There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York, It Ain’t Necessarily So (which ain’t necessarily in sequence), and the hopeless optimism of Porgy’s Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way


© Paul Serotsky
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