Preserving the Great American Opera

New productions of Porgy and Bess make use of critical editions

“We’ve got to do right by Porgy and Bess.”

That was the dream that lyricist Ira Gershwin conveyed to Gershwin family music advisor Robert Kimball many years after the untimely death of Ira’s brother, composer George Gershwin, at the age of thirty-eight in 1937—a mere two years after the world premiere of Porgy and Bess.

George gershwin
Photo caption

George Gershwin was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in 1898 in New York City, where he took to his older brother Ira’s piano and later worked as a song plugger before launching his stellar career as a composer.

—Photo by Carl Van Vechten / Art Resource, NY

John W. Bubbles
Photo caption

Vaudeville performer and jazz tap dancer John W. Bubbles originated the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. “No character,” The New Yorker wrote in 2019, “embodies the split-genre of George Gershwin’s jazz-tinged opera . . . better than Sportin’ Life.”

—Photo by Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress

Now, Ira Gershwin’s dream is coming true, as the opera he and his brother created is being published in new scholarly editions for study and performance.

Porgy and Bess is widely considered the masterpiece of the American operatic tradition,” said Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and associate dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan, and editor in chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, the focus of the University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative.

According to Wayne Shirley, retired senior music specialist with the Library of Congress, for Kimball “doing right” by Porgy and Bess—an opera portraying the lives and times of a South Carolina Gullah community, and composed by George Gershwin to a libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward—meant publishing an edition of the opera’s full score that correctly accounted for all of the materials in use at the time of the first production of Porgy and Bess in 1935 on Broadway.

The materials from the opera’s first production include George Gershwin’s manuscript full score, containing the music for all of the opera’s principal singers, the chorus, and the orchestra; Gershwin’s manuscript short score, a distillation of the full orchestral score notated on piano staves; the first published piano-vocal score, prepared by Albert Sirmay while Gershwin finished orchestrating Porgy and Bess; copies of the piano-vocal score that stage managers and conductors annotated while rehearsing the opera; the orchestral parts used in the opera’s first production; and Heyward’s typescript libretto. Editing Porgy and Bess also meant taking into account the rental orchestral score of the opera dating from the 1940s or 1950s.

Numerous variants exist among these materials, making the task of producing a definitive edition of the opera especially complicated.

After combing through the opera’s early performance materials, most of which are housed at the Library of Congress and at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Shirley has produced a critical edition of Porgy and Bess and, in collaboration with the Gershwin Initiative, has also produced the opera’s definitive performing edition, including newly edited orchestral and piano-vocal scores, and a new choral score. All components of the definitive performing edition, along with the critical edition and its editorial report, will be published as part of the Gershwin Critical Edition by European American Music Distributors.

The definitive performing edition has already been put to use. It served as the basis for the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent production of Porgy and Bess, performed from September 2019 through February 2020.

Porgy and Bess’s journey from a bundle of conflicting source materials to scholarly editions began around the year 2000, when, Shirley says, Kimball asked him to devise a publishable edition of the opera.

Shirley began editing Porgy and Bess in 2002, using Gershwin’s autograph full orchestral score as a point of reference. In addition to reflecting relatively subtle changes in orchestration, Shirley’s performing and critical editions also reflect some larger changes made in the course of rehearsing the opera’s first production. For instance, the orchestral parts and the copies of the piano-vocal score with annotations from stage managers reveal cuts that had been made to shorten Gershwin’s massive opera, known for its enormously taxing solo vocal roles. These cuts do not appear in Gershwin’s autograph full score. However, Shirley has indicated in his new performing and critical editions all of the cuts that were made in the first production.

“There were some major losses in that first production,” said Andrew S. Kohler, project manager for the Gershwin Initiative’s Porgy and Bess editions. “In our editions, we do document where these cuts occurred.”

Shirley’s performing and critical editions also reinstate into the flow of Gershwin’s score the music for an onstage orphan band that Gershwin composed for the first scene of Act II. Gershwin had written the orphan band music on five pages separate from the rest of his manuscript full score. The music on those five pages had been omitted from the opera’s early rental score, the score that had been most readily available for use in performance.

The critical edition of Porgy and Bess that Shirley brought to the Gershwin Initiative, when it launched in 2013, represented three and a half years of painstaking work, followed by several years of dormancy, in part because finding a publisher proved challenging.

“Commercial publishers wouldn’t touch it because it was too expensive to publish,” said Clague.

In 2008, Todd Gershwin, grandnephew of George and Ira Gershwin and a University of Michigan alumnus, contacted the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance about the possibility of devising critical editions of his great uncles’ creative works.

“It’s something the (Gershwin) families had been thinking about doing for a while, and they were looking for a university setting that would do a good job,” said Jessica Getman, managing editor of the Gershwin Critical Edition. “We already had another critical edition going here at the university, the Music of the United States of America (MUSA) edition. So it was a really good fit all around.”

Funding from the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust enabled the Gershwin Initiative to begin work on the Gershwin Critical Edition in 2015.

With 56 volumes currently projected, the Gershwin Critical Edition will likely take several decades to complete, and the payoff will be significant: Performers and researchers everywhere will have access to scholarly editions of the work of two individuals whose creativity helped shape American music.