‘Porgy and Bess’ offers us an orchestral sumptuousness of a degree that should satisfy anyone who enjoys classical music, as in the music of the hurricane, Wagnerian in its richness, or the soaring orchestral quote from ‘They Pass By Singin’. “. The notation often includes tasty blue notes that Puccini or Wagner never experienced.
But the play engages black styles more deeply than that. Gershwin spent time on South Carolina’s barrier islands, most notably with black Gullah-speaking Carolinians, to prepare for writing. The result is an opera with stylized yet authentic food vendor calls, a funeral lament invoking different sounds and feelings than one would write for any white character, a healing sequence invoking the power of Jesus. , a furious spoken word sequence, “I Hate Yo” Struttin ‘Style, “in which Maria denounces drug dealer Sportin’ Life in a way that is almost reminiscent of a piece of popular music today, and a song by work, “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There”.
Amidst these wonders, “Porgy and Bess” can seem messy at times. You never really know what’s in store for you and you might be wondering if everything is connected. But that’s it: maybe as an American piece it shouldn’t hang on more than America ever has. Horowitz cherishes this quality in what he considers true American art in an eternally hybrid experience of a nation, tracing a commonality between the ample narrative quality of Mark Twain’s greatest works and the vivid, shattered quality of a much of the work of Charles Ives, where, despite the rigorous classical structure of the whole, a folk tune can crash into the debates. Those who saw Copland as the real thing tended to find Ives’ work interesting but somewhat quaint and unfinished. But Horowitz underscores Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought that “in the mud and foam of things there is always, always something singing.” This mud and scum, for Emerson, was what we now call authenticity.
Black composers, of course, created truly American classical music like this – William Dawson’s shattering “Negro Folk Symphony” is one example. Yet “Porgy and Bess” qualifies itself, despite its white creators, as the keystone of true American classical music in its day, as well as a guide to where it should go. From my reading, there isn’t a single uninteresting bar in the entire score. Every melody is contagious; each harmonization goes beyond the functional to become magnificent.
And yet a compelling white critic and composer like Thomson, widely regarded in his day, could only hear something he described as “choppy accompaniments” and “gefilte-fish orchestration.” Few would resonate with it today, but the essence of the altering of that judgment informs the idea that music like Copland’s and Thomson’s, followed by almost intentionally provocative works by composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt , represents the yellow brick road of American classical music. .
Horowitz teaches us to stop hearing “Porgy and Bess” tightly, like a black opera, or like a secondary quirk called a folk opera. This is what opera should be in this country, with our history, period. According to this analysis, Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” scores, for all their beauty, are the fascinating but secondary development, not “Porgy and Bess”. Broadway pieces incorporating black and immigrant musical styles that plausibly perform in opera houses, such as Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’ “Street Scene” and Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina”, are less collector’s quirks than collector’s quirks. cobblestones on the way to real American classical music, landing further off target than “Porgy and Bess” but worth considering.
Horowitz taught me to listen to black classical music like the most American of classical music. His lesson should sound.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the “Lexicon Valley” podcast and is the most recent author of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America”.