Problems of race and genre in the critical reception of Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin's desire to create a uniquely American opera led him to compose Porgy and Bess, a stylistically heterogeneous work whose controversial racial and musical aspects are both intrinsic and interrelated. His purpose was not to create a work that would accurately depict African American culture, but to draw on African American culture and performers because they could encompass what he saw as being most distinctive about the national character: its variety. This dissertation explores the critical reception of Porgy and Bess, taking note of the tendency of reviewers to fault its composer for stylistic inconsistency and racial and cultural inauthenticity, as though these resulted from incompetence and ignorance rather than from conscious decisions by Gershwin.The first chapter of the dissertation is concerned with the artistic and nationalistic goals that Gershwin articulated in his writings, and how he set about achieving them with Porgy and Bess. The second chapter provides an overview of the American production history of the work, and examines the interrelationships among the composer's reputation, the ways in which the score has been modified over the years, and the critical reception of various productions. The third chapter explores Gershwin's attitude and approach to African American culture, and takes a close look at ambivalent black critical responses to Porgy and Bess. The fourth and final chapter argues that the opera was created as an interracial collaboration, and investigates the indispensable role that African American performers have played and continue to play in shaping the work and how it is understood.
- Music