Caterwauling Summertime Babies

June 7, 2014



PART TWO  “Summertime”  Without Gershwin

The 1940 original cast recording was directed by Alexander Smallens and recorded during the period “Porgy and Bess” was in flux.


Gershwin died in 1937.  “Porgy and Bess” closed after 142 performances in 1935, then wandered in sporadic repertoire until it was revived in 1940, the year of DuBose Heyward’s death. This recording is sung by Anne Brown who did not sing in the production, but was chosen for the recording. It’s clean, professional and pretty, but speaks more to New York than South Carolina. By this time of his death Gershwin was widely discussed as a significant composer. In Paris he had met, Poulenc, Ravel, Weil, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. His correspondence shows he was interested in Virgil Thompson, Alban Berg, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, and Aaron Copland.  He had subscribed to and read Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly. He studied musical notation with Arthur Schillinger. When he died, Gershwin was an active, ambitious intellectual; however these posthumous bona fides sometimes bring an artifice of austerity that this version of “Summertime” struggles to carry.

The sonic arrangement of the Decca 78rpm record emphasizes the orchestration and diminishes the tonal flexiblity of the voice compared to the 1935 Gershwin trial recording. The 1940 version is under the direction of Alexander Smallens, who had been Gershwin’s personal choice since he heard him direct “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thompson. Based on their relationship and Smallens long dedication to performing the work, I assume that this arrangement and the choice of Ms. Brown in large measure reflect his sense of the musical intentions of George Gershwin, an opera in the European tradition depicting American ambitions.

Interestingly, in the 1940 revival, the part of Bess was performed by Julliard trained, Metropolitan Opera soprano, Leontyne Price. Later she recorded a version of “Summertime” in Germany under the baton of Herbert Von Karajan in 1960 at the Fledermaus Gala of Prince Orlofsky. I would establish it as a gold standard in terms of following the score with absolute obedience. If any recording could achieve a flawless, note for note rendition, this would be as close as possible. Ms. Price was both in full voice and intimate with performing the song. Herbert von Karan, as the premier 20th Century conductor of Beethoven, was a legendary musical tyrant. It seems a marriage made for fidelity.


This rendition has some sense of ethereal weather, but expresses little feeling of belief. In spite of the complete control of the score, a legendary orchestra and Ms. Price’s astonishing voice, strangely it doesn’t reflect summer or a sleeping baby. It seems to have no geographical context. Listening to it, it could as easily be a woman imprisoned in a Schwartz Walden castle as Catfish Row. Being correct is only so valuable. Taking the music to its European limit didn’t seem to have produced a finer form of expression.

That same year Mahalia Jackson also recorded an interpretation of “Summertime” that seems incendiary:


Here is a hearkening to the original voice, song and fundamental sentiment that attracted Gershwin, one that Billie Holiday had immediately understood. This voice understands the nuances of the gospel spirituals. It holds what is precious, closer. The naked piano has moved the music to near complete interiority. The child becomes the sense of self in a wretched world. Ms. Jackson seamlessly moves into “Motherless Child” in an organic reflection of the chord progression, but also as a protest. Not that Gershwin has appropriated the tune, but a song that has its roots much deeper than Tin Pan Alley. In “Motherless Child” it’s not “nothing can harm you”, but nothing can rescue you. The person who sings this “Summertime” imbues it with the contradiction that a rich daddy and good looking mama are no genuine protection from harm. Everything can be taken by this world; loss is the foundation of any spiritual before the first hands clap.


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