An American Classic

GLENN McNATT

May 29, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

When the American composer George Gershwin died in 1937 at theage of 38, the prevailing view was that his popular songs would survive while his ''serious works'' -- ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' ''An American in Paris,'' the ''Piano Concerto in F'' and above all the opera ''Porgy and Bess'' -- would be consigned to permanent oblivion.

Gershwin's popular songs and show tunes have survived. Yet when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents its final ''pops'' concert of the season at the Meyerhoff next week, it will devote the second half of the program to the music of Gershwin -- and all the pieces will be from the composer's ''serious'' opera, ''Porgy and Bess.''

There is more than a bit of irony in this. ''Porgy and Bess,'' now recognized as perhaps the greatest of all American operas, was Gershwin's masterpiece. Yet like those other two perennial favorites, Verdi's ''La Traviata'' and Puccini's ''La Boheme,'' it was a flop at its premiere.

Gershwin was crushed by the failure but he never lost faith in ''Porgy's'' artistic value. Once after reading through the score he remarked to a friend, ''the music is so beautiful I sometimes can't believe that I wrote it.''

''Porgy'' is often described as a ''folk opera,'' but the term is misleading. It is as much ''grand opera'' as any of the Italian, German and French classics. Still, it would take Americans nearly a half century after the composer's death to accord ''Porgy'' its rightful place in the nation's musical heritage.

Part of the problem was that Gershwin became famous as a songwriter while still in his 20s, and everything he wrote thereafter came to be viewed through his success on Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood.

Yet he was never content to be a mere writer of ''pop'' tunes. Commentators Milton Cross and David Ewen suggest that Gershwin ''was driven by artistic impulses and an idealism no less powerful than that of composers of symphonies or oratorios.'' His goal was nothing less than to use jazz and African-American folk song to create a genuinely American music equal to that of the greatest European masters.

In that aspiration, however, lay another problem. ''Negro spirituals'' and jazz were not considered suitable materials for art by ''serious'' musicians of the 1920s. Even after the success of ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' premiered in 1924 by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, the best the critics could say was that Gershwin had ''made a lady out of jazz.''

Several years later Gershwin happened to read DuBose Heyward's novel about a poor, crippled black beggar in Charleston, South Carolina, who falls in love with a beautiful woman of easy virtue. The steamy tale became the inspiration for ''Porgy and Bess.'' Gershwin threw himself into this new project with characteristic energy and enthusiasm.

To get a first-hand feeling for the story's background, Gershwin rented a cottage on James Island off the Charleston coast for VTC summer. There he encountered for the first time the religious ''shouts'' and wailing spirituals of the Gullah Negroes, descendants of African slaves whose relative isolation from the mainland had enabled them to preserve the musical traditions of their ancestors.

The composer soaked up these influences, then returned to New York where he completed the score of ''Porgy'' within a few months. The show opened at Boston's Theater Guild on September 30, 1935 and moved to New York on October 10. But the critics were lukewarm, and the production closed after only 124 performances.

Yet ''Porgy'' refused to die. It was revived in 1938 as a musical and brought back to New York in 1942, where it enjoyed an eight-month run. It was revived again in 1952, with Leontyne Price and William Warfield in the title roles, then toured Europe, where it became the first opera by an American-born composer given at Milan's famed La Scala opera house. In 1959 it was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, and in 1965 it entered the permanent repertory of the Vienna Volksoper.

In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera revived ''Porgy'' again in the form the composer had originally intended. The subsequent touring production firmly established the opera as an American classic.

One final irony: ''Porgy'' is not only the best-known American opera, it is also probably the only opera many Americans know. Thus ''Porgy'' has finally achieved its creator's ambition: A truly American music that is ''serious'' and ''popular'' at the same time.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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