Catfish Row

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            George Gershwin was arguably the most successful and talented of America’s composers of popular music.  His songs constitute the core of the “American Songbook,” whether composed as part of his immensely successful Broadway shows, or as stand alone popular tunes.  Born of Russian Jewish immigrants, he didn’t evince his formidable musical talents until about the age of ten, when a piano was purchased for his older brother and later collaborator, Ira.   Much to the latter’s relief, George soon commandeered the piano, and the rest is, as they say, history.   His audiences rewarded him substantially—he is estimated to have become the wealthiest composer in modern times.   He earned over a quarter of a million dollars for Rhapsody in Blue during the first decade of its life, and it still is bringing in the bucks, as witnessed by the commercials for United Airlines.

            What is specifically germane to appreciating Catfish Row is the importance of so-called “serious” or “classical” musical interests and training in Gershwin’s life that is quite unprecedented for someone who enjoyed his kind of success.  He certainly was not some sort of untutored musical genius who later sought “legitimacy” after having proven himself in the popular world.   Rather, early on, as a young boy he studied and performed under traditional piano teachers the music of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.  Later, he journeyed to Paris to study under the famed teacher of composition, Nadia Boulanger, as well as Maurice Ravel. However, both rejected him, more or less afraid to compromise the genius evident in his burgeoning success.  While in Paris he met and admired the music of eminent composers such as Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Milhaud.  It is important for an understanding of Gershwin’s ambitions to realize that long after he had achieved the kind of success that any popular composer would have envied, he assiduously studied formal composition with established teachers.   And he was successful.   His Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess are masterpieces of his unique bridging of the so-called gap between popular art and “high” art.  It is amazing that until recently otherwise intelligent people debated whether or not Porgy and Bess was really a “legitimate” opera.   Now we know better—especially now that it is enjoying revivals that are true to the original 1935 version.

            Gershwin prepared the orchestral suite based on the opera shortly after the show closed in New York City after 124 performances—not enough to recoup the financial investment.  It was completed by Gershwin in January of 1936, and given its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra that same month.  Only later did Ira change the name of the suite to Catfish Row.  There are five sections in the work:  Catfish Row, which begins with “Jazzbo Brown’s Piano Blues,” and goes on to the familiar “Summertime.”  Porgy Sings follows, with “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” and “ Bess You Is My Woman Now,” separated by an interlude played by a solo cello.  The third section, Fugue, showcases music in an advanced style, not normally associated by audiences with Gershwin.   In the opera these passages are from the scene of the murder of the despicable Crown.  Hurricane obviously comes from the intense storm section in Act II of the opera, and the fifth section, Good Morning, Brother, contains music that was cut from the opera, and then goes on to conclude the suite with the familiar Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way, sung by Porgy as he courageously starts off for New York in his pathetic goat cart.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan