Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Porgy and Bess: Gershwin's melodramatic trash

You know, it ain't that much different from high school. Maybe what happens there is what happens always. You have a great idea, nobody notices, or you're even seen as a freak. I look at my "views" and it's pathetic, because everybody else I know who keeps a blog has hundreds of views a day. I have almost none. It's not supposed to matter, and if I push it out my mind (hard, and each day), maybe it doesn't.

But am I putting anything out there at all that is of any use to anyone, besides me?  If I ever dare ask anyone, they tell me I'm not hustling enough or writing the kinds of things people want to read. I'm making the dire mistake of expressing my feelings and views rather than bartering: I will praise your work, not because it's any good but so that YOU will praise MINE, and thus we can reflexively call each other good writers (whether we've even read each other's stuff or not) and thus drum up sales. That is how it is done, and I'm not doing it, so once more I am fatally out of step. After writing "real" reviews for what now seems like a dismal and futile 30 years, it's dismaying, to say the least. And I won't do it, and so, the results, which I must live with. 

What got me going on all this? George Gershwin. Lately I have been obsessed with his death, which is too bad because it wasn't representative of his boyish, buoyant life. It was an awful way to end it, suffering alone from a horrible condition that everyone seemed to think was a form of attention-getting. He had cancer of the brain, which is not a condition given to malingerers.

And even Porgy and Bess - an opera that STILL creates controversy whenever it is produced anywhere, because nobody seems to be able to square three white guys writing a masterful opera about poor blacks in the South - he was trashed for it, though that didn't keep the crowds away.

I listened to this recording from 1935 today and just caved in, collapsed in tears. I don't know what it is. At first it was the sheer beauty and sheen of the voices, and the way they were being used; then it was the sense of pledging, of vows dearly made and nearly kept. There are aspects of music that can never be put into words, of course. Gershwin was speaking something never spoken before, in a language he invented as he went along. We notice the freshness, vitality, but also a profound sadness, and yes, a Hebraic quality that caused Oscar Levant to label it "the best Jewish opera ever written". You can layer the two on top of each other and see a lot of overlap, the core of it being the pain of exile.

All this takes me to an incredible, even jaw-dropping review in a new book I have on Gershwin. Vergil Thomson was a composer himself, a failed one who wrote scores for industrial films. One year he made $300 from composing, which is $300 more than I ever earn, let me tell you. Anyway, the review - I have to transcribe it out of the book here, but I'm going to take a crack at it, not just because it makes me feel better, but - because it makes me feel better.

"One can see, through Porgy, that Gershwin has not and never did have any power of sustained musical development. . . The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles. . . His lack of understanding of all the major problems of form. of continuity, and of serious or direct musical expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of his musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. . . It is clear, by now, that Gershwin hasn't learned the business of being a serious composer, which one has always gathered to be the business of he wanted to learn. . .His efforts at recitative are as ineffective as anything I've heard. . . I do not like fake folklore, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor plum-pudding orchestration." 

Other choice words from critics included "tripe", "lamp-black Negroisms", and "melodramatic trash", and there were even anti-semitic references to "gefilte fish". Oscar Levant muttered during the intermission, "It's a right step in the wrong direction."

Dying seems to be a good career move for many. Only a couple of years after this recording was made, Gershwin's head exploded and he was gone. Only then did everyone begin to sing his praises, to recognize his greatness. Bickering over Porgy goes on even today, and maybe it's a good thing - keeps the edge on it, keeps people talking. Can three white guys write an opera full of black stereotypes and get away with it? Only if they're brilliant enough to see beyond race and social standing, rip off the veils of pretension to find the human souls beneath. These aren't pretty people, but neither are the thugs and prostitutes of Mahagonny.  They aren't there to prove a point, but to sing their lives, to let us hear. 

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