Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Porgy and Bess: The Movie (sort of)

I recently read Oscar Levant's A Smattering of Ignorance, a collection of his anecdotes and opinions of musical life in New York and Hollywood in the 20s and 30s. It was a quick and fascinating read. One of the essays is entitled My Life: The Life and Times of George Gershwin.

Oscar Levant

Levant's reminiscences reacquainted me with the extraordinary life of George Gershwin, who began as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and lived to become an acclaimed composer of concert music. He died, tragically, at the age of 39, in 1937, from a brain tumour.

George Gershwin

Everyone at all familiar with the repertoire for piano and orchestra will have heard the Rhapsody in Blue. There is also a Second Rhapsody, a Piano Concerto, and Variations on I Got Rhythm.

His orchestral works include An American in Paris and the Cuban Overture. There are also Three Preludes for solo piano.

Like so much really good music, any of these pieces is worth revisiting.

Gershwin studied composition only after his initial Broadway success (according to Levant most of the successful Broadway and Hollywood composers did). This led him to compose his most ambitious work, the opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed in 1935.

It's full of truly fabulous music, not all of which is as well known as Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So and Bess You is My Woman Now. Gershwin had the gift of vocal melody, whether writing for pre-existing lyrics or tunes to which words would be fitted later by his lyricist brother, Ira. In Porgy and Bess he composed a fully worked out orchestral score, the details of which are not evident in a piano reduction. Lush orchestration, counterpoint melodies and complex rhythms abound.

It was made into a movie in 1959 directed by Otto Preminger. Most, but not all, of the principal player's voices are dubbed. Sidney Poitier, for example, plays Porgy but the singing voice is that of Robert McFerrin (father of Bobby McFerrin), the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

I found the following recording on YouTube. The poster has substituted the stereo cast recording for the mono soundtrack of his copy of the film. Only the fifteen songs from the LP are here, but it gives some idea of what the movie (and opera, if you're lucky enough to see it live) is like. It's a little disturbing that the actors are so obviously not singing but that fault is hardly unique to this film.

I'm afraid you may have to follow the link to YouTube as I was unable to properly embed it in the blog.

According to comments that follow on YouTube, the film is currently unavailable. Disney, who owns it, won't spend the money to restore the negative. How sad is that?

1 comment:

  1. I've seen it. The music is wonderful and I feel Gershwin is under rated. The Three Preludes are very very good.