Culture  /  Music Review

‘Porgy and Bess’ Isn’t Black Opera. It’s American Opera.

If “Porgy and Bess” is a mere detour from the maturation of American classical music, what represents the through line?

By the end of the 19th century, as America took its place on the world stage, patrons of high art started to ask whether there could be an American variety of classical music, rather than pieces simply imitating what Europeans had already done. Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer who was doing what we would today call a residency in New York City in the 1890s, called for an American classical music making use of our indigenous musical forms: namely, Native American music and Black music such as the blues, work songs and spirituals. He tried to get the ball rolling with, for example, the Largo theme of his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” with its mournful horn solo, intended as summoning a Native American idiom with its construction on the pentatonic scale.

But much of the history of classical music in America has been written as if indigenous American musical forms were ultimately insufficient to form the basis of mature art, such that Dvořák’s call fell largely upon deaf ears. A former music critic for The New York Times, Joseph Horowitz, writes in his new book, “Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music,” that in the first half of the 20th century, a cadre of American composers created American classical music that either held Native American and Black music at an arm’s length or ignored it, mining white folk tunes of the Stephen Foster sort instead.

Hence, the music of Aaron Copland, in works such as “Appalachian Spring,” is often treated as where American classical music went for real, with “Porgy and Bess” often treated as a zesty but idiosyncratic business created by an undertrained upstart. One can love “Porgy and Bess” deeply and yet fall for this perception (note my slightly ashamed use of the third person here).

No more: Horowitz has taught me a new way of processing the timeline of American classical music. If Dvořák’s counsel made sense — that is, if America is to develop a native classical music in the sense that a Bartók used Hungarian folk music to shape his work — then the through line runs directly through “Porgy and Bess.” Taking in the Metropolitan Opera’s fine production a few days ago, I experienced the opera for the first time as an imperious touchstone rather than as a fascinating question.