For music lovers possessed of even a dollop of reason September was a grim month as paeans to George Gershwin crescendoed toward mega-sforzando on the 24th, the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Aside from their sentimentality and the unnecessary excesses of their praise, the worst thing about these tributes was their nationalism: Gerswhin the Greatest American Composer; Gerswhin the musical genius of the melting-pot; Gershwin the indigenous original.
The cultural ritual of celebrating the hundred-year marks of beloved musicians - either their births or deaths - has long been tied up with nationalism. The first such centenary, and one which has an interesting resonance with the Gershwin commemorations, was Handel’s hundredth, mistakenly celebrated a year late, in 1786 (contrary to the opinions of 18th century English music historians, Handel was born in 1685, not 1686). It was a vast spectacle culminating in a performance in Westminster Abbey of the Messiah sung by a chorus of more than a thousand. So secure were the ruling classes of England with their sense of national identity that not only could they go about conquering the world under a bunch of German kings (George I, who assumed the English throne in 1712, had been Duke of Hanover, where he had also been Handel’s employer), but they could fete another German as their greatest musical hero, a man whose heroic style was commensurate even to the reach of the British empire.
An even more virulent nationalism attended the revival of interest in J.S. Bach’s music in the 19th century. From its opening paragraph, the first biography of Bach, which appeared in 1802, makes its subject into nationalistic symbol: the author first page of his Bach biography Forkel ‘This great man man was a German. Be proud of him, German fatherland, but be worthy of him too His works are an invaluable national patrimony with which no other nation has anything to be compared.” Unveiled in 1843, the Bach monument outside the St. Thomas in Leipzig depicts a young, tall, strong, virile Germanic warrior in extremely tight trousers - a wholesale Romantic distortion of the rather portly, probably short man who had been a disgruntled employee of that church and its school from 1723-50.
When I was last in Leipzig in the first year of German reunification, it made a disturbing kind of sense to me that a squad of skinheads should come marching by shouting Nazi songs and giving Bach synchronized Sieg-Heils. It was a strange moment. Clearly none of those thugs knew that Felix Mendelssohn had given the money for the monument, otherwise they would have set about destroying it as a Jewish slur on the German nation.
To get to the pernicious core of nationalistic composer tributes, just imagine what the Nazi’s would have done with a Wagner centenary had their reign coincided with the hundred year anniversary of his birth (1813) or death (1883).
The greatest symbol of musical nationalism was certainly Verdi, whose operas became the most powerful cultural engine of the risorgimento, the movement for Italian revival and unification which was soon followed by Fascism.
Though Gershwin would suffer from various forms of anti-Semitism, it was the durability of American nationalism that allowed for the iconic status quickly afforded Gershwin, the son of Russian immigrants, even during his own life. Now, however, Gershwin has become the epitome of the American dream, the musical voice of rags-to-riches, the songwriter-apostle of a diverse and flourishing capitalism. This is the kind of Golden Age approach to music history, that the Nazi musicologists were so good at.
Mindless and relentless was the praise that spewed forth from NPR for Gershwin’s role as cross-cultural missionary and his genius for capturing the most important ethnic dimensions of the American spirit in song.
Writing in the New York Times at the end of August, just before the Gershwin month got rolling, Stanley Crouch, William Bolcom, Paul Simon trotted out all the old banalities, the chief of which is Gershwin as the synthesizer, his works transcendent of class and race division.
I too love the optimism and snap of Gershwin, and recognize his unique gifts, but that doesn’t change the fact that his music is a sham, in the way the blues are not. It is never mentioned in such op-ed pieces that Gershwin’s last decade and many of his greatest successes coincided with the first ten years of the Great Depression. Gershwin is the greatest American composer in the same way that Garrison Keillor is its “greatest humorist” and Normal Rockwell its “greatest painter.”
Amazing as it may seem to anyone who has actual been to see “Porgy and Bess,” it is this opera which is usually called upon to answer any suggestion that Gershwin’s music is in any way inauthentic. Astounding though it is, Paul Simon’s assertion that Porgy “has come to be considered the great American opera” accurately describes the work’s status, and just goes to prove the seductive power of song over even the most obvious of truths: Gershwin’s most beloved creation is an insult to anyone who pays attention to what’s happening on stage. The blacks in “Porgy and Bess” are subject to only the basest emotions; they are little more than apes capable of language, which in Heyward Dubose’s libretto is the worst sort of bogus pidgin. (e.g.: “Ain’t you say Bess gone to Noo York?”) Porgy is a moron, a cripple, and a sap. Bess is a junkee and a slut. It is almost embarrassing to watch the debasing actions move across the stage.
As Duke Ellington put it, the opera is “black on stage, white everywhere else,” and urged critics to “debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.” Even more vehement was the black journalist James Hicks, who denounced a 1953 revival of the opera as the “the most insulting, the most libellous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times.” At the first Metropolitan Opera production in 1985, the female lead, Grace Bumbry, initially resisted accepting the part of Bess, since she resented its stereotypical racial potrayal and found the work as a whole regressive; she eventually relented, however, accepting the opera as documented American history rather than a great work of art: “Whether we like it or not [and presumably she did not], whether I sang it or not, it was still going to be there.”
You won’t find any serious engagement with these issues in the New York Times now that Gershwin is ensconced in the pantheon of national mythology.
The only good thing about this year’s celebration is that it has allowed me to take my fleet of Gershwin-polemics out of mothballs and steam into battle. The Opera People can be easily prompted into ecstatic effusions over Porgy with but the slightest of promptings. Once their raves have subsided, you hammer them with the Duke.
One opera fan recently told me how he saw a Vienna State Opera production of Porgy, but “it just didn’t swing.” I calmly informed him that, as pianist Marcus Roberts puts in the liner notes to his 1994 re-working of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ “Gerswhin’s view of jazz is from a European perspective,” and it definitely doesn’t swing. If you want to hear Gershwin renewed through jazz, buy Roberts’ recording; his performance is the best rebuttal to claims of Gershwin’s true Americanness, however that concept might be construed.
A couple of weeks ago I got into a a similar exchange with another devotee of the opera, who eventually asked me if I wanted the piece censored. I assured him that I did not. Instead, I would stage the work as follows:
The action takes place in the ballroom of the Ku Klux Klan headquarters Charleston. The opera will form the evening’s entertainment. During the introduction the men of the Imperial Council enter the room wearing dinner jackets and smoking cigars. As they take their seats to watch the show, they do lots leering, sniggering, and insulting. When a character murders another one the Klansmen laugh heartily and slug down more bourbon. They chortle heartily at Bess’s various betrayals of the loathsome Porgy. After Bess finally leaves him for good at the end of the opera, the crippled beggar calls pathetically for his goat to drag him in his cart so he can follow his love to New York. A Klansman rises and shoots the goat with a revolver, and the audience laughs as the animal’s blood spurts on the abject Porgy. As the chorus sings “I’m on my way to a Heav’nly Lan’,” the Imperial Wizard claps his hands and the young and lovely Bess is dragged back into the ballroom, and then hauled into the secret chambers of the headquarters.
The blood-drenched Porgy rises from the floor and starts to follow them, but the Klansman guard brandishes a rope with a noose already made and points up at a naked rafter. Porgy thinks for a moment, then turns and follows the cast out through the back exit.