Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This Day in Music History, 30 September 1935

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

On this day, 80 years ago, the world premiere performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston—the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935.

With an all-black cast headed by Todd Duncan (Porgy) and Anne Brown (Bess), and including Warren Coleman, Helen Dowdy, Georgette Harvey, Edward Matthews, and the Eva Jessye Choir, the original production of Porgy and Bess was a commercial disappointment when it opened on Broadway in 1935, running only 124 performances.

In an article for Jazz History Online, Thomas Cunniffe writes:

[Porgy and Bess] lives in two separate worlds. It is an opera, yet it premiered in a Broadway theatre. Its premiere run [of  124 performances could be viewed as]a flop by Broadway standards, but an impressive record for a contemporary American opera. Gershwin composed the work in the established style of European grand opera, but the music reflected the American genres he loved: jazz, blues, ragtime, folk songs, and black sacred music. He was criticized for including “hit songs” into a serious opera, but those songs became the work’s greatest legacy. In addition to creating an indigenous sound for American opera, the music from “Porgy and Bess” was performed by jazz and pop musicians all over the world, and it was loved by audiences who had never seen the opera in its stage or film versions.
Couldn’t have said it better myself…

In doing my research for this post, I stumbled onto this excellent article that provides a great overview of the work, the literary sources and the overall reception:

In another article, on Sound Fountain, there is a comprehensive look at “serious” recordings of the Gershwin opera. It confirms that, probably because it did poorly on Broadway, no formal original Broadway cast album was recorded. But in 1942, a Broadway revival was mounted that again featured Brown, Duncan, Coleman, Dowdy, Harvey, Matthews, original music director Alexander Smallens and the Eva Jessye Choir, with Avon Long replacing John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life. This production was more successful than the original, running 286 performances and helping to establish the show as a classic.

Decca Records had cut some recordings using these performers in 1940 and added more tracks in 1942 for what was technically a studio cast album, even though it featured most of the key members of the original Broadway cast. I’m pleased to have uncovered a version on the Internet Archive, for you to listen to.

All and all, I find the recording to be pretty good - and the digital transfer as well – and hearing the original voices gives this a little bit of extra legitimacy.

Happy Listening!

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
(Selected numbers)

Anne Brown (Soprano)
Todd Duncan (Baritone)
Eva Jessye and her Choir
Members of the original New York production,
Decca Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Smallens, conducting
DECCA "Personality Series"

Synopsis and Libretto -