“Porgy and Bess” gives us orchestral sumptuousness of a degree that must satisfy anyone who loves classical music, as in the music for the hurricane, Wagnerian in its richness, or the soaring orchestral quotation of “They Pass By Singin’.” The scoring often includes savory blue notes a Puccini or Wagner never knew.
But the piece engages Black styles more deeply than this. Gershwin spent time on South Carolina’s barrier islands, including with Gullah-speaking Black South Carolinians, to prepare for writing. The result is an opera with stylized but authentic-sounding food vendor calls, a funeral lament summoning sounds and sentiments unlike what one would write for any white character, a healing sequence invoking the power of Jesus, a furious spoken sequence, “I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style,” in which Maria excoriates the drug dealer Sportin’ Life in a way that almost brings to mind a dis track in today’s popular music, and a work song, “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There.”
Amid these marvels, “Porgy and Bess” can feel, at times, messy. You never quite know what’s coming and might wonder whether it all hangs together. But that’s just it: Maybe as an American piece it shouldn’t hang together any more than America ever has. Horowitz cherishes this quality in what he regards as true American art in an eternally hybrid experiment of a nation, charting a commonality between the narratively baggy quality of Mark Twain’s greatest works and the splashy, smashed-up quality of so much of Charles Ives’s work, where despite the stringent classical structure overall, a folk tune can come crashing into the proceedings. Those who saw Copland as the real thing tended to find Ives’s work interesting but somewhat quaint and unfinished. But Horowitz points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought that “in the mud and scum of things, there alway, alway something sings.” That mud and scum, for Emerson, was what we now call authenticity.
Black composers, of course, created truly American classical music of this kind — William Dawson’s smashing “Negro Folk Symphony” is one example. Yet “Porgy and Bess” qualifies, despite its white creators, as a keystone of where truly American classical music had gone by its time, as well as one guide for where it should go. By my reading, there isn’t a single uninteresting bar in the entire score. Every melody is infectious; every harmonization goes beyond functional to gorgeous.
And yet an imperious white critic and composer like Thomson, widely regarded in his day, could hear only something he described as “fidgety accompaniments” and “gefilte-fish orchestration.” Few would echo him today, but the othering essence of this judgment informs the idea that music like Copland’s and Thomson’s, followed by almost willfully ear-challenging work by composers such as Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, represents the yellow brick road of American classical music.
Horowitz teaches us to stop hearing “Porgy and Bess” narrowly, as a Black opera, or as some sideline oddity called a folk opera. It is what opera should be in this country, with our history, period. Under this analysis, the scores to Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo,” for all their beauty, are the fascinating but sideline development, not “Porgy and Bess.” Broadway pieces incorporating Black and immigrant musical styles that play plausibly in opera houses, like Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s “Street Scene” and Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina,” are less collectors’ oddities than pavers on the path to true American classical music, landing farther from the bull’s-eye than “Porgy and Bess” but worth attending to.
Horowitz has taught me to listen to Black classical music as what the most American of classical music is. His lesson should resound.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”