Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture

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Arranged by Gershwin's good friend and sometimes assistant Robert Russell Bennett in 1942, Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture includes most of the best-known songs from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, although not exactly in the order of their appearance. Though the Symphonic Picture is sometimes dismissed as a sequence of the opera's "greatest hits," the first well-known melody, "Summertime," is not heard until nearly seven minutes into the work. While some of the more esoteric parts of the opera are absent, much of the catchier tunes can be heard only in this suite and not in others, as Gershwin neglected to include them in his Catfish Row Suite, which tended to highlight the more cerebral elements of the work.

The medley was prepared at the behest of Fritz Reiner, then conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and one of Gershwin's most favored conductors (Reiner had hosted Gershwin while leading the Cincinnati Symphony in the 1920s, and gave the second-ever performance of An American in Paris.) Reiner's surviving outline for the work shows that he laid out the order of the excerpts and even keys—a few short sections were transposed, with overall key sequence in mind—almost down to the measure. Reiner aimed for a precisely-24-minute length; it was designed to fit three 78-rpm records (4 minutes per side). Reiner at first considered retaining the solo piano "Jazzbo Brown" sequence. Once he had changed his mind, he did not include Gershwin's piano in his specified instrumentation (in Gershwin's opera, the piano is used primarily to double and reinforce the orchestral texture, rather than in an obbligato role). The actual orchestration in most passages is very closely based on Gershwin's original scoring.

For the 1943 Pittsburgh premiere, Bennett provided this synopsis:

  1. Scene in Catfish Row (with peddlers’ calls; Strawberry Woman; Crab Man)
  2. Opening Act 3 “Clara, Clara” (Requiem)
  3. Opening Act 1 (Introduction)
  4. Summertime
  5. I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’
  6. Storm Music (Hurricane)
  7. Bess, You Is My Woman Now
  8. The Picnic Party (Oh, I Can't Sit Down)
  9. There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York
  10. It Ain’t Necessarily So
  11. Finale (Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way)

*italicized words are the titles in Gershwin's original score

Instrumentation[edit]

Bennett arranged Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for the following orchestra:

References[edit]

  • Bennett's program note for the March 1943 Pittsburgh Symphony premiere
  • Bennett, Robert Russell. The Broadway Sound: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett. Ed. George J. Ferencz, University of Rochester Press, 1999 (Eastman Studies in Music 12)
  • Ferencz, George J. “Porgy and Bess on the Concert Stage: Gershwin's 1936 Suite (“Catfish Row”) and the 1942 Gershwin–Bennett Symphonic Picture.” Musical Quarterly 94:1-2 (Spring-Summer 2011), 93-155.