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  • Journal of the Society for American Music, Volume 1, Issue 1
  • February 2007, pp. 1-28

Porgy and Bess: “An American Wozzeck

Abstract

George Gershwin greatly admired Alban Berg and his opera Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna; the score he owned of Wozzeck was reputedly one of his prize possessions; and he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the American premiere. This study argues that Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Berg's Wozzeck. The debts primarily involve structural processes—understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a small role in the discussion, taking their place alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint. Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts. Evidence, in the form of an overlooked interview and a previously unknown recollection by one of Gershwin's friends, supports this argument and leads to questions about how we are to understand Gershwin's use of Wozzeck.

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Footnotes
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This article has grown out of my paper “Why ‘It Ain't Necessarily Soul’: On Porgy's Debts to Wozzeck,” read at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Seattle, 2004. I derived the title from Richard Crawford's “It Ain't Necessarily Soul: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess as a Symbol,” Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical 8 (1972), 17–38. Crawford surveys the rocky critical reception of Gershwin's American folk opera, examining the work from the standpoint of several critics who for various reasons—artistic, cultural, political–found the work lacking, especially with regard to its portrayals of African American life. My analytical arguments have been greatly buttressed by comments and assistance from Richard Crawford, Raymond Knapp, William Rosar, Wayne Shirley, and Lawrence Stewart. I am grateful to them all.Every effort has been made to secure necessary permissions to reproduce copyrighted material in this work. If any omissions are brought to our notice, we will be happy to include appropriate acknowledgments on reprinting in any subsequent edition.
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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music
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