Making Porgy and Bess – The Letters
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. Take a look at the first of our series of posts on this group of sources.
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.
George Gershwin and the author of the novel Porgy, DuBose Heyward, kept in regular touch via mail about their developing project. Their collaboration, which led to the production of one of America’s iconic operas, was no easy task, and George and DuBose often relied on their letters of correspondence to communicate important developments regarding the opera. Whether it was questions about a particular scene’s length, the pending musical direction of DuBose’s lyrics, character casting and auditions, or simply extending a warm hello to each other’s families, George and DuBose’s letters record the two men’s deep commitment to the opera’s creation as well as a professional respect and personal affection for one another.
Thanks to the South Carolina Historical Society, we at the Gershwin Initiative have been able to look through some of these letters, gaining a deeper understanding of the collaboration between George and DuBose. Their intelligence, wit, and sometimes pointed humor are a testament to their collective creative spirit and acumen.
To kick things off, here’s a look at a letter George wrote to DuBose on February 26, 1934, about a year and a half before Porgy and Bess’s premiere in September of 1935. George, having just returned from a month-long tour performing his own works, writes to tell DuBose that he has begun composing music for Porgy’s first act, beginning with the songs and spirituals. DuBose had already sent George the libretto and script through the second act by this time—and George makes a point to congratulate DuBose on this excellent work before apologizing, saying that he is quite busy until the end of June and promising to devote his summer months to Porgy and Bess alone. The young composer, though devoted to the opera and its creation, was clearly well into his successful career by this point and simply didn’t have the time to produce music as rapidly as DuBose was sending his libretto. Only a few thousand more notes to go, George!
We will be posting about these letters of correspondence over the next few months, sharing with you the work—and play—that went into the creation of the American folk opera, Porgy and Bess. Make sure to be on the lookout for them all!
Here is the letter’s transcript:
132 EAST 72ND STREET
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
26 February 1934
Well here I am, back again after an arduous but exciting trip of 12,000 miles which took 28 days. The tour was a fine artistic success for me and would have been splendid financially if my foolish Manager hadn’t booked me into seven towns that were too small to support such an expensive organization as I carried. Nevertheless, it was a very worthwhile thing for me to have done and I have many pleasant memories of Cities I had not visited before.
I received your Second Act’s script and think it is fine. I really think you are doing a magnificent job with the new libretto and I hope I can match it musically.
I have begun composing music for the First Act and I am starting with the songs and spirituals first.
I am hoping you will find some time to come up North and live at my apartment – if it is convenient for you – so we can work together on some of the spirituals for Scene 2, Act I. Perhaps when the weather grows a little warmer you will find time to do this. I cannot leave New York to go South as I am tied up with the radio until June 1st; then I have a two-month’s vacation – which time I shall devote entirely to the opera. Of course I would prefer you to come North to stay with me long before June 1st and we could do a lot together.
I saw “4 Saints In 3 Acts”, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, with a colored cast. The libretto was entirely in Stein’s manner, which means that it has the effect of a 5-year-old child prattling on. Musically, it sounded early 19th Century, which was a happy inspiration and made the libretto bearable – in fact, quite entertaining. There may be one or two in the cast that would be useful to
you. us [handwritten].
Hoping you and your wife and child 100% well and looking forward to seeing you soon, I am
George Gershwin [handwritten signature]
This letter from George Gershwin to DuBose Heyward was obtained from:
Dubose Heyward Papers. SCHS 1172.01.01. George Gershwin to DuBose Heyward, February 26, 1934. Letter. Box G 01-01. The South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, SC.