The blessing - and curse - of 'Bess' George Gershwin was so impressed by her voice that he changed his greatest work to suit her. But Anne Brown found that the role she pioneered overshadowed her career.

May 17, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

Had American composer George Gershwin never met Anne Brown, the title of his greatest work almost certainly would have been shorter by half.

Gershwin was inspired to create his masterpiece in 1926 after reading Dubose Heyward's novel "Porgy," about a beggar in Charleston, S.C., who falls in love with a beautiful woman of easy virtue. His planned "folk opera" was to have the same name.

By 1934, the composer was hard at work on the score and was beginning to audition singers. He cast a brilliant, handsome baritone, singer Todd Duncan, in the title role of Porgy.

But Bess, in Heyward's novel, was not a sympathetic character. Gershwin himself had originally thought of her as little more than a streetwalker, a minor character undeserving of her own beautiful music.

All that changed after Gershwin heard Brown sing. Brown came to his house one day in 1934 to audition for the role of Bess while a student at Juilliard. She was the first black student ever admitted to the school.

"I had brought songs by Schubert, Brahms and Massenet, and I also had one of his own songs, 'The Man I Love,' to perform for him," Brown recalled in a recent phone interview.

Gershwin listened politely, then asked if she could sing a Negro spiritual.

At first, Brown bridled at the suggestion.

"Why is it that you people always expect black singers to sing spirituals?" she shot back. But then she saw from the composer's expression that he understood her resentment of the stereotype she was resisting. And all her anger dissolved.

"Then I wanted more than anything else to sing a spiritual for this man," she recalled. "Because I loved spirituals, my mother had sung them, and I sensed that he loved them, too. So I sang "A City Called Heaven," unaccompanied and with my whole soul, as a thank-you to George Gershwin.

"Afterward, he said, 'Wherever you go, you must sing that spiritual. It is the most beautiful one I have ever heard.' "

And he gave her the part of Bess in his new opera, eventually expanding the role and changing the title from simply "Porgy" to "Porgy and Bess" so that Brown would share star billing with Duncan.

This month, Baltimore's Peabody Institute will honor the woman who put the Bess in "Porgy and Bess" as part of its month-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth.

Brown will deliver the commencement address to this year's graduating class and will be presented with the school's George Peabody Medal for her contribution to American musical history.

The eldest daughter of what she calls a "terribly conservative middle-class black family," Brown grew up in Baltimore, where ,, her father, Harry Frances Brown, was a prominent physician. Her mother, Mary Allen Wiggins, had studied voice and piano in New York.

The family lived in a West Baltimore rowhouse with white marble steps at 1501 Presstman St., a neighborhood that was then home to the city's segregated black elite.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, then the city's only public high school open to blacks, Brown hoped to continue her musical education at the Peabody Conservatory. But Peabody refused to admit her because of her color.

Unexpectedly, the young singer benefited from the intervention of a powerful advocate, in the person of Constance Black, wife of then-Sunpapers chairman Harry C. Black. Mrs. Black was a music lover who often held musicales in the couple's Guilford home.

"She had heard about me from her chauffeur, who was a patient of my father," Brown recalled. "He probably told her while driving around that his doctor's daughter sang and had a beautiful voice. So she asked him to bring me out to her one day."

Black was impressed by the young singer and invited her back several times to perform in her home.

"One time she invited me to sing for a group called the

Musical Arts Trio," Brown recalled. "I sang for them, and they all said that I should try to go to Juilliard in New York."

With Black's encouragement, Brown decided to apply to Juilliard. But her father was adamantly opposed to his daughter's leaving Baltimore, believing that New York was a den of iniquity. Things in the Brown household became so tense that Brown's mother eventually threatened to leave her husband unless he relented.

In New York, Brown lived with an uncle, who was a musician, and his wife.

Life in New York proved a revelation and a liberation. For the first time she could go to a concert, shop in a store or walk into a restaurant without worrying about transgressing the South's rigid racial strictures.

At Juilliard, which she entered when she was just 16, Brown won the prestigious Margaret McGill Scholarship, which provided full tuition for three years. She received her diploma in voice in 1932 and the equivalent of an artist's diploma and teacher's certificate in 1934, the year she met Gershwin.

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