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George Gershwin's time in the Carolinas launched the musician on such a spree of creativity that it led to what some critics call one of his finest works. (Getty Images)

Summertime for George Gershwin

Porgy and Bess debuted 75 years ago this fall, but a visit to South Carolina the year before gave life to Gershwin's masterpiece.

When DuBose Heyward came to join Gershwin on Folly, though, the real work began. Heyward brought Gershwin to the neighboring James Island, which had a large Gullah population. They visited schools and churches, listening everywhere to the music. “The most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals,” wrote Heyward, “…was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration.” The two paid particular attention to a dance technique called “shouting,” which entailed “a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands, as an accompaniment to the spirituals.”

“I shall never forget the night when at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island,” Heyward later recalled, “George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’ I think he is probably the only white man in America who could have done it.” (Anne Brown, who would play Bess in the debut production of Porgy and Bess recalled in a 1995 oral history that Gershwin claimed that a Gullah man had said to him: “By God, you sure can beat out them rhythms, boy. I’m over seventy years old and I ain’t never seen no po’ little white man take off and fly like you. You could be my own son.”)

On a July field trip to an African-American religious service in a North Carolina cabin, Gershwin suddenly seized Heyward’s arm as they approached the entrance. The distinctive song emerging from the cabin had entranced Gershwin. “I began to catch its extraordinary quality,” recalled Heyward. A dozen prayerful voices wove in and out of each other, reaching a rhythmic crescendo Heyward called “almost terrifying.” Gershwin would strive to reproduce the effect in Porgy and Bess’ Act II storm scene. “Here, in southern black churches,” writes Walter Rimler in his 2009 biography of Gershwin, “he had arrived at the heart of American music.”

Finally, Gershwin set to work. There followed several months of heightened productivity: “one of the most satisfying and creative periods of Gershwin’s whole career,” assesses Alan Kendall, another biographer. His time in the Carolinas launched the musician on such a spree of creativity that by the beginning of November (now back in New York), he told Heyward that auditioning could soon begin.

When the opera debuted the following fall, Gershwin had already said, with characteristic arrogance, that he thought it “the greatest music composed in America.” Contemporary critics, however, were divided: those hoping for a Broadway extravaganza found it too highfalutin, while those hoping for something more highfalutin dismissed it as a Broadway extravaganza. Its first run was disappointingly brief. When Gershwin died from a brain tumor in 1937 at age 38, he died had no real assurance of its legacy. He needn’t have worried about its place in the musical pantheon; critics today are nearly unanimous that Porgy and Bess is one of Gershwin’s finest works, if not his masterpiece. The more fraught component of the opera’s legacy has been its treatment of race. Though early critics praised the opera for a sympathetic rendering of African Americans, they lamented that the characters were still stereotyped and this ambivalence persisted through the decades. Seeking to cast the 1959 movie version, Samuel Goldwyn encountered what he called a “quiet boycott” among certain leading men. Both Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier turned down offers, with Belafonte calling some of the characters “Uncle Toms” and Poitier declaring that in the wrong hands, Porgy and Bess could be “injurious to Negroes.”

Later decades were somewhat kinder to the opera, and in 1985, fifty years after its debut, Porgy and Bess was “virtually canonized,” wrote Hollis Alpert in The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, by entering into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera. The New York Times called it “the ultimate establishment embrace of a work that continues to stir controversy with both its musical daring and its depiction of black life by…white men.” Such controversy would persist, but Alpert’s ultimate assessment is that African-American opposition to the opera more often than not had to do with “a larger or a current cause” rather than “the work itself.” “Almost always,” he added, “other black voices rose quickly to the defense.”

The question may never be settled entirely, but the opera’s resonance certainly must have something to do with a New York City boy’s working vacation to see the Gullah way of life for himself, one summertime many years ago.

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