“Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part I

William: 75 years ago this fall, “Porgy and Bess” had its premiere. The following interview for operawarhorses.com is with Gershwin biographer Walter Rimler.

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Wm: 2010 is the 75th anniversary year for George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”. You are the author of a major recent biography of the composer, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait, which includes considerable attention to how his music has been evaluated over time. How would you characterize the general reaction to Gershwin’s music in general and “Porgy” in general in 1935 and the present day.

WR: In his lifetime, Gershwin was lionized by the popular music community, which was made up of performers, producers, songwriters, theatergoers and drama critics. During the 1920s and ’30s – his era – there weren’t any professional critics of popular music because popular songwriting was considered a trade, not an art, and the songs were thought to have very brief lifespans, maybe a year or two. In its July 19, 1937 obituary for Gershwin, Time magazine wrote: “If songs like ‘Somebody Loves Me,’ ‘I Got Rhythm,’ ‘Embraceable You,’ and ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ were ephemeral, Gershwin at least had the satisfaction of hearing a nation sing them.”  We now know that “eternal” would have been a better word choice than “ephemeral.”

As for the classical music community, some professional critics put him down outright, while others damned him with faint praise. Among contemporary composers, the verdict was mixed.  Alexander Glazunov called the Rhapsody in Blue “part human and part animal,” while Maurice Ravel wrote a letter of recommendation for the young composer (Gershwin wanted to study in France with Nadia Boulanger), describing him as “a musician…endowed with the most brilliant, most enchanting, and perhaps the most profound talent.”

It was only after Gershwin’s death that the accolades for Porgy and Bess started – and slowly, since performances were always based on incomplete or bowdlerized versions. Genuine recognition finally came when the opera could be heard uncut and with Gershwin’s recitatives and orchestrations intact. This first happened in a 1976 recording by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, but the real turning point was the Houston Grand Opera’s inspired production and recording, also in 1976.

As for Gershwin’s concert works, the Concerto in F, written in 1925, was condemned by critic Olin Downes as lacking in “inherent energy and physiognomy” and by composer Prokofiev as “a lot of 32-bar choruses ineptly bridged together.” It was not recorded in Gershwin’s lifetime, but gradually, over the decades, it has become the most performed and beloved of American concertos. Still, it took the Boston Symphony Orchestra until 2005 to schedule it for a regular subscription concert.

[Below: the front cover of Walter Rimler’s biography, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait.]

Wm. You spend much time in your book on the evolution of “Porgy” and the respective roles that the Gershwin brothers and DuBose Heyward had in construction of the opera’s libretto. How would you apportion the contribution to the final work among these three men?

WR: DuBose Heyward was the sole author of the Porgy and Bess libretto. He also wrote most of the lyrics, including “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now.” In speaking of Heyward’s work on Porgy and Bess, Stephen Sondheim called him “the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater.” Not that Ira Gershwin didn’t contribute some great lyrics (“It Ain’t Necessarily So” for one), but he wrote none of the libretto and never asked to receive equal billing with Heyward, much less with George.

Yet Ira’s name has begun of late to mysteriously appear next to Heyward’s on the sheet music of “Summertime” and other songs he did not write. Moreover, the opera is frequently billed these days as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” It’s a good bet that Ira’s heirs are behind such misrepresentations, getting opera and record companies to accede to them by offering to underwrite their productions. Since Ira outlived his brother and Heyward by more than forty years, adding his name to their creations is a way of gaming the copyright laws to keep the royalties flowing in. Ira Gershwin – an honest man and anything but a self-aggrandizer – would never have allowed this to happen.

[Below: a photograph of George Gershwin from the Library of Congress’ George Grantham Bain collection.]

Wm: Gershwin’s wealth and fame came from his musical comedy, movie, and popular music, but his heart seemed to be in what his friends and public would surely have called “highbrow music”.  Gershwin’s death at a young age suggests that – like Wolfgang Mozart, Vincenzo Bellini, Carl Maria von Weber, Georges Bizet, and Alban Berg – even greater masterworks than we already have from each of these composers might have followed. Do you believe that, if Gershwin had lived, the indifference that “Porgy” had initially received in many quarters would have discouraged him from writing more operas, or might have spurred him on to more operatic works.

WR: Actually, Gershwin’s first real fame came from the Rhapsody in Blue, written in early 1924 when he was 25. It made him a lot of money too. In addition to royalties, he was paid big fees to play it at concerts, and in 1930 he received $50,000 for its use in the movie The King of Jazz. Another of his highbrow works, An American in Paris, brought in good money too. Its first radio broadcast in 1929 earned him $2,500. So he could have skipped songwriting and had plenty of fame and fortune as a classical composer.

But from the first he wanted to be a songwriter. And he wanted to write his songs for the theater. In one of his earliest interviews, given in 1920, he said his goal was to someday write “An American opera.” Fifteen years later, after the dismal reception given Porgy and Bess, he was ambivalent about returning to popular songwriting, and wary about moving to California to work for the Hollywood studios. But he went, lured by the prospect of movie money and movie women, but also by a desire to re-establish himself in the pantheon of American songwriters. At first he was happy in Beverly Hills, but after a few months he began telling family and friends that he longed to get back to New York and to symphonic and operatic works. He wrote to DuBose Heyward, asking him to develop ideas for a new libretto. And, as he wrote songs for Fred Astaire, he was composing a string quartet – he had it all worked out in his head but, unfortunately, never committed it to paper.

Had he lived he would probably have emphasized highbrow works over songs, but it is hard to believe he would have ever stopped his songwriting. This is the most puzzling – and amazing – thing about Gershwin. After spending two years writing Porgy and Bess – his head in the musical stratosphere – he allowed himself to be drawn into the Hollywood muck – an environment where songwriters were treated like hired hands by studio overseers. Yet, he made a seamless transition to pop songs and wrote a series of beautiful and successful ones, including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Love Is Here to Stay” (the latter his final work). In fact, he and Ira, in that year, wrote more than twenty of the finest entries in what is now commonly called The Great American Songbook. George’s talent for both popular and classical music was on a spectacular trajectory.

[Wm: For Part II of this interview see: “Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part II.]