Journal of the Society for American Music

Journal of the Society for American Music (2007), 1:1:1-28 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © 2007 The Society for American Music


Porgy and Bess: “An American Wozzecka



George Gershwin greatly admired Alban Berg and his opera Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna; the score he owned of Wozzeck was reputedly one of his prize possessions; and he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the American premiere. This study argues that Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Berg's Wozzeck. The debts primarily involve structural processes—understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a small role in the discussion, taking their place alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint. Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts. Evidence, in the form of an overlooked interview and a previously unknown recollection by one of Gershwin's friends, supports this argument and leads to questions about how we are to understand Gershwin's use of Wozzeck.


For Lawrence Stewart on his 80th birthday