Let’s Get This Porgy Started
The South Carolina Historical Society holds letters of correspondence between George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward that detail their the process of creating Porgy and Bess. In this letter, George Gershwin writes to DuBose Heyward in March of 1932 to discuss a possible folk opera collaboration.
Frances Sobolak is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan pursuing a Linguistics major and Music minor. She joined the Gershwin Initiative team in the fall of her sophomore year through the university’s undergraduate research opportunity program.
In 1926, George Gershwin was busy with musical rehearsals for the upcoming premiere of Oh, Kay!—so busy, in fact, that he found time to read a novel that was becoming increasingly popular, Porgy, cover-to-cover in one night. George was already familiar with the play adaptation of Porgy, and had even met with DuBose Heyward in Atlantic City in 1927 to discuss the possibility of a folk opera based on the book. He fell in love with the idiomatic language and poetry of southern blacks and wrote to DuBose that same night, re-proposing a collaboration between the two. Reading the novel was just the inspiration he needed to reach out again to DuBose. (See the transcription of his letter, below.) His letter to DuBose was short and sweet—supporting the image of an excited George hastily writing to DuBose upon finishing the novel in the middle of the night. He calls the theater production of Porgy the “most outstanding play that I know” about Southern blacks and eagerly asks DuBose to catch him by telephone or telegram to discuss the project’s possibility before he leaves to travel abroad. As was often the case, George had his hands full at the time of the Porgy inspiration, and it wasn’t until 1934 that he had the time to seriously commit to composing the music for the opera. Reading Porgy, however, influenced George’s compositional approach at the time. Howard Pollack has even speculated that the experimental nature of some of Oh, Kay!’s tunes, such as “Clap Yo’ Hands,” resembled what would become the style for many songs in Porgy and Bess.
Read more about George and DuBose’s correspondence at our earlier post here.
Hutchisson, James M. DuBose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of Porgy and Bess. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000. Print. Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Print.
GEORGE GERSHWIN 33 RIVERSIDE DRIVE NEW YORK, NEW YORK
March 29 – 1932
My dear Mr. Heyward: I am about to go abroad in a little over a week, and in thinking of ideas for new compositions, I came back to one that i had several years ago – namely, Porgy – and the thought of setting it to music. It is still the most outstanding play that I know, about the colored people. I should like very much to talk with you before I leave for europe [sic], and the only way that I imagine that would be possible would be by telephone. So if you will be good enough to either telephone me or collect at TRafalgar [sic] 7-0727 – or send me your telephone number by telegram, I will be glad to call you. Is there any chance of your being abroad in the next couple of months? I hope this letter finds you and your wife in the best of health, and hoping to hear from you soon, I am
George Gershwin [handwritten signature]
DuBose Heyward Dawn Hill Hendersonville, North Carolina
This letter from George Gershwin to DuBose Heyward was obtained from:
Dubose Heyward Papers. SCHS 1172.01.01. George Gershwin to DuBose Heyward, March 29, 1932. Letter. Box G 01-01. The South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.