George Gershwin’s most adventurous music is showcased in Porgy and Bess, argues British conductor Tim Murray. Here he explains why it’s a true operatic masterpiece of the 20th century
The length of the piece allows Gershwin to experiment with a range of musical styles and techniques, skilfully woven together to tell the story of Catfish Row. His great genius is to take so many different elements and styles and to fuse them together into something compelling and vivid.
2. Down-and-dirty jazz
It’s easy to forget how radical it was in the 1930s to bring that kind of music into the concert hall or opera house –Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was given its premiere at a concert entitled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’.
As well as the authentic jazz typically used to accompany the character of Sportin’ Life, there are also elements which are somewhere in between jazz and Italian opera – soaring melodies with bluesy inflections. At the end of the opera, Porgy returns from prison to a classic verismo scenario – the orchestra plays a reprise of Bess, You Is My Woman now and Porgy sings abrupt, bluesy phrases over the top. Porgy is the only person in the room not to understand what has happened – it is utterly heartbreaking.
Gershwin was a huge admirer of Alban Berg, and there are moments in Porgy and Bess, often moments of intensity or crisis in the story, where the music is atonal, highly contrapuntal, and sometimes hysterical. In Act 1, Crown kills Robbins accompanied by music of real modernist intensity. In the aftermath there is an exchange between Sportin’ Life and Bess, where Gershwin takes a fragment of Robbins’ previous music and uses it to write an almost atonal, mournful Passacaglia – a structural technique that could be from Lulu. When the community are praying for deliverance from the storm, the voices all chant and sing simultaneously but independently from each other, which we would now call aleatoric music.
Just as Janáček did when setting the Czech language, Gershwin infuses every vocal line with the rhythms and cadences of the South Carolinan dialect. However, none of this is complexity for its own sake, but rather for dramatic reasons – to tell the story and make the characters come alive.
Tim Murray will conduct Porgy and Bess with the Cape Town Opera at the Liceu, Barcelona from 11-19 July.