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PIECE: Porgy and Bess: Selection for Orchestra

COMPOSER: George Gershwin, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett

DATE: 1935 (Gershwin), 1961 (Bennett arrangement)

ERA: 20th century, opera

GOOD FOR: Really feeling like it's the 1930's again but not always in the fun parts of the 1930's? Wait, were there any fun parts of the 1930's? Well, it's a complicated work...

Let's start with a little background on George Gershwin. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. His family members were Russian Jewish immigrants and he grew up near the Yiddish Theater District, where he and his brother attended shows and even appeared as an extra occasionally. provides this nice back-handed compliment: "As a boy, George was anything but studious, and it came as a wonderful surprise to his family that he had secretly been learning to play the piano." 

So, I guess it wasn't particularly surprising when he dropped out of school at age 15 to work in Tin Pan Alley, and by 17 he had his first song published and from there his songs quickly gained popularity.

As his fame grew, he began collaborating on Broadway shows including Funny Face (which became a great film) and Oh Kay! (which produced "Someone to Watch Over Me" ). Eventually, he would be credited on over fifty stage musicals, not counting his film musicals and also a fat catalog of piano and orchestral works. The man has tunes on tunes on tunes y'all.


In “Funny Face” we get a rare cameo of Gershwin himself, seen here composing even more musicals

So, by 1930 George Gershwin was pretty hot stuff. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to write a thoroughly American opera. Gershwin first sought the rights to The Dybbuk, a play based on a spooky bit of Jewish mythology by Russian playwright S. Ansky, but was denied (although later Bernstein wrote a cool ballet based on it). That is unfortunate because had Gershwin been granted those rights, his only contribution to opera probably wouldn't be a hotbed of controversy. 

Gershwin next sought and was granted rights to Porgy, a play by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. Dubose Heyward and George's brother, Ira worked together to write the libretto and so, in the words of Gershwin scholar James Standifer, Porgy and Bess was "created by two northern Jews and a white Southerner who, despite his admiration for black people, was a product of his time." 

You guys, this music is heavily loaded. That Gershwin scholar I just mentioned, James Standifer, wrote an amazing article for the National Endowment for the Humanities, about the very tumultuous life of Porgy and Bess, that really deserves to be read in its entirety. Really. You should read it. I would summarize it here but I couldn't find any parts worth leaving out.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Elaine Dutka called Porgy and Bess "an odyssey of American race relations" and you can certainly see waves of outcry that mirror surges in the civil rights movement. Even in the original cast, some of the singers were uncomfortable with the content. Later, American soprano, Grace Bumbry said, in regards to playing Bess, "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there."

Porgy and Bess has been through revisions that attempt to make it less of a caricature, and while I'm grateful that racial slurs have been removed, I don't think the Porgy we have now is perfect. The world of classical music players and listeners alike deserve to give "period pieces" such as this one a long and hard look to decide how we want to present them.

These parts of the work's history are too frequently shoved under the rug and ignored and that Standifer article is really fascinating it and spread the word.


Maya Angelou, yes THAT Maya Angelou, was in a touring production of Porgy and Bess in the 1950's.

Ok now let's talk about the music itself. 

Porgy and Bess: Selection for orchestra is an arrangement compiled by Robert Russell Bennett, a successful Broadway arranger. Bennett stayed largely true to Gershwin's original orchestration and style, so we are not going to spend a lengthy amount of time talking about him or his composing style, sorry Bennett! But thanks for compiling these movements into Selection

Gershwin frequented jazz clubs in Harlem and that jazz influence comes through in all of his compositions, including Porgy and Bess. Gershwin called this a "folk opera" which basically meant that he wanted to use authentic folk music from the African-American community. 

He visited the Gullah community on James Island in South Carolina for inspiration and research because he believed they had preserved their African musical traditions. However, Gershwin felt that verbatim use of the folk-tunes wouldn't match up with his original music or general opera stylistic norms. So instead, Gershwin wrote his own versions of spirituals and African-American folk music based off of the original melodies, for example, something like taking the tune of "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and transforming it into the melody for "Summertime". "On the one hand, the opera is a celebration of African American culture. On the other hand, the primary agents who created it were white, and the Gershwin estate is what profits from 'Summertime,' not the community that created 'Motherless Child.'" 



Full plot summary here, totally out-of-story-order explanation of emotional context of songs below!

Bennett opens his Selection with the four chords that open Act II, scene three ("Honey dat's all de breakfast"). According to the libretto, these chords are the bells that "herald the day", so a perfect way to transport you into the world of Porgy and Bess. After that, the cellos come in with one deep, low iteration of the melody from "Bess you is my woman nowwhich serves as a bookend in this work. So remember this theme! It's coming back!

 "Clara, Clara, Don't You Be Downhearted" is our first full selection in this arrangement, which is a dark way to jump in but it sure does have a gorgeous melody. A group of women are mourning those who died in the storm the night before, and singing their souls to heaven. They repeat this chorus three times, changing the name to another of the victims on each repeat. 

Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted, Clara, Clara, don't you be sad an' lonesome.

Jesus is walkin' on de water, rise up an' follow Him home. Oh, Lawd, oh my Jesus, rise up an' follow Him home.

This flows right into "A Woman Is a Sometimes Thingwhich is a father's very poor attempt at a lullaby for his child after his wife's attempts (spoiler alert: her lullaby is "Summertime" and it's better). 

Lissen to yo' daddy warn you, 'fore you start a-travelling, Woman may born you, love you, an' mourn you, But a woman is a sometime thing, Yes, a woman is a sometime thing.

Yo’ mammy is the first to name you, an` she’ll tie you to her apron string, Then she’ll shame you and she'll blame you till yo’ woman comes to claim you, ‘Cause a woman is a sometime thing, Yes, a woman is a sometime thing.

Don't you never let a woman grieve you Jus' cause she got yo' weddin' ring. She’ll love you and deceive you, then she'll take yo' clo’es and leave you, ‘Cause a woman is a sometime thing. Yes, a woman is a sometime thing.

The melody starts in the clarinet, slowly adding the rest of the woodwinds. As the music gets more worked up, the trumpets join and eventually the rest of the brass as well. The clarinet leads us out of "A Woman Is a Sometimes Thing", through a brief hint of the melody from this unpleasant foreshadowing motif of the stormy seas from Act II, and into "Summertime" (Bonus Audra McDonald version here in a different key). Summertime is Clara's lullaby to her baby in Act I, and she reprises it in Act II, as the town huddles in shelter during the hurricane, and the song appears again after Clara's death, when Bess sings it to Clara's baby. As I mentioned earlier, "Summertime" is possibly an adaptation of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and if you are like me, you can definitely sing one tune along with a recording of the other, especially after a cocktail or two. The melody here belongs to the high strings, flutes and oboes a.k.a. the generally "feminine" instruments of the orchestra*.

Summertime and the livin' is easy, Fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high. Oh, yo' daddy's rich, and yo' ma is good lookin', So hush, little baby, don' yo' cry.

One of these mornin's you goin' to rise up singin', Then you'll spread yo' wings an' you'll take the sky.But till that mornin', there's a-nothin' can harm you With Daddy an' Mammy standin' by.

To move us into our next tune, Bennett uses the same foreboding chords that open Act II, as Jake declares he'll be going out to fish, no matter what the weather threatens. These chords lead us into "I got plenty of nothin'". Porgy sings this aria early in Act II, about his new carefree outlook on life since Bess came to live with him.

Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin', An' nuttin's plenty fo' me.I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery. De folks wid plenty o' plenty got a lock an dey door, 'Fraid somebody's a-goin' to rob 'em while dey's out a-makin' more. What for? I got no lock an de door, (dat's no way to be) Dey kin steal de rug from de floor, Dat's okeh wid me, 'Cause de things dat I prize, Like de stars in de skies all are free.

Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin', An' nuttin's plenty fo' me. I got my gal, got my song, got Hebben de whole day long! No use complainin'! Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song.

I got plenty o' nuttin', An' nuttin's plenty fo' me. I got de sun, got de moon, got de deep blue sea. De folks wid plenty o' plenty, Got to pray all de day. Seems wid plenty you sure got to worry How to keep de debble away. I ain't afrettin' 'bout hell Till de time arrive. Never worry long as I'm well, Never one to strive to be good, to be bad, what de hell, I is glad l's alive.



Now we get to what Bennet clearly views as the crown jewel in Porgy and Bess, "Bess, you is my woman now", Porgy and Bess' love duet from Act II. Bennett already quoted it at the beginning and now it gets an expansive section of time right in the middle of this arrangement.The melody stays mostly in the very romantic string section, occasionally passing off some of the tune to the flutes, the next most romantic instrument in the orchestra. The rest of the orchestra swells up gorgeously around this melody to lend support. This lets the dramatic interval jumps (large distances between notes) in the melody be the star of this movement and make you feel all the feelings.

Porgy: Bess, you is my woman now, you is, you is! An' you mus' laugh an' sing an' dance for two instead of one. Want no wrinkle on yo' brow, nohow, because de sorrow of de past is all done done. Oh, Bess, my Bess! De real happiness is jes' begun.

Bess: Porgy, l's yo' woman now, I is, I is! An' I ain' never goin' nowhere 'less you shares de fun. Dere's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow, but I ain' goin'! You hear me sayin', if you ain' goin', wid you I'm stayin'. Porgy, l's yo' woman now! I's yours forever, Mornin' time an' evenin' time an' summer time an’ winter time.

Porgy: Bess, you is my woman now an' forever. Dis life is jes' begun, Bess, we two is one now an' forever. Oh, Bess, don' min' dose women. You got yo' Porgy, you loves yo' Porgy, I knows you means it, I seen it in yo' eyes, Bess. We'll go swingin' through de years a-singin'.

From there we plunge head-on into the picnic scene "Oh, I Can't Sit Down". This is a chorus song and the whole orchestra joins in for a raucous party

Oh, I can't sit down! Got to keep agoin' like de flowin' of a song. Oh, I can't sit down! Guess I’ll take my honey an' her sunny smile along!

Today I is gay an' I's free, Jes' a-bubblin', nothin' troublin' me. Oh, I's gwine to town. I can't sit down.

Happy feelin' in my bones a-stealin', no concealin' Dat it's picnic day. Sho' is dandy, got de licker handy. Me an' Mandy, we is on de way 'cause dis is picnic day.

Oh, I can't sit down! Got to keep a-jumpin' to de thumpin' of de drum! Oh, I can't sit down! Full of locomotion like an ocean full of rum! Today I is gay an' l's free, Jes' a-bubblin', nothin' troublin' me! Oh, l's gwine to town. I can't, jes' can't sit down!

Then the bass gets real squirrely and sneaky all of a sudden, which lets you know it's time for "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York." This is slimy, drug dealer, Sportin' Life's creepy attempt to lure Bess away with him. But we only linger on that tune for a second before jumping into Sportin' Life's big number, "It Ain't Necessarily So", where he shows off his cool bad-boy beliefs about the bible. This slouchy bass line and syncopation in the melody which can throw the listeners ear off are like a musical portrayal of trolling, which is more or less what Sportin' Life is doing here.

lt ain't necessarily so, De t'ings dat yo' li'ble To read in de Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

Li'l David was small, but oh my! He fought big Goliath who lay down an' dieth, Li'l David was small, but oh my!

Wadoo – Zim bam boodle-oo, Hoodle ah da wa da – scatty wah.

Yeah! Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale, he made his home in Dat fish's abdomen. Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale.

And Moses was found in a stream, He floated on water Till Ole Pharaoh's daughter She fished him, she says, from dat stream.

Yeah! It ain't necessarily so, Dey tell all you chillun De debble's a villun But it ain't necessarily so.

To get into Hebben, don' snap for a sebben! Live clean. Don' have no fault. Oh, I takes dat gospel Whenever it's pos'ble, But wid a grain of salt.

Methus'lah lived nine hundred years, But who calls dat livin' When no gal'll give in, To no man what's nine hundred years? I'm preachin' dis sermon to show lt ain't nessa, ain't nessa, ain't nessa, ain't nessa ... Ain't necessarily so.

Then, we get a quick snippet of the overture with awesome xylophone antics, before our last official number, "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way", the final number of the opera, where Porgy decides to chase after Bess, who has gone to New York with Sportin' Life and his delicious/very bad drugs, and prays for guidance.

Oh Lawd, I'm on my way.I’m on my way to a Heav'nly Lan', I’ll ride dat long, long road, If You are there to guide my han'.

Oh Lawd, I'm on my way. I'm on my way to a Heav'nly Lan' oh Lawd. It’s a long, long way, but You'll be there to take my han'.

But Bennett doesn't leave us there! He finishes up his bookends, giving one last grand iteration of "Bess, you is my woman now". 

Whew, that is a crazy amount of opera to fit into about fifteen minutes of concert music! Video below of some very talented young musicians playing the work, as well as a table of times and musical references if you want to really hear each one separated out. 

MUSICAL REFERENCES Timings based on youtube video above

00.00: Act 2, scene 3 opening

00.18: "Bess, You is My Woman Now" theme

00.29: "Clara, Clara, Don't You Be Downhearted"

01.27: "A Woman Is a Sometimes Thing"

02.30: Act 2, scene 1 opening "bad weather" music

02:38: "Summertime"

04:37: Act 2, scene 1 "bad weather" music returns

04:40: "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'"


06:09: "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"

08:36: "Oh, I Can't Sit Down"

09:27: "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' New York"

10:15: "It Ain't Necessarily So"

11:43: Overture material

11:54: "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way"

12:43: "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" theme


*I am sorry instruments! I don't want to impose gender roles on you! Let's write some more new music that mixes all that up!