I love George Gershwin and Margaret Bonds. These two American composers wrote in popular and classical musical idioms ranging from operas to concertos, theater pieces, solo instrumental music to symphonic works, and song literature.
It is no secret that Gershwin was inspired by Black artists and the art of B/black people. His opera, “Porgy and Bess” is maybe the most explicit example of this. While I’ve never sensed that Gershwin intended to exploit the art of Black American people — in fact, when considering the opera, “Porgy and Bess,” I believe his intention was to give distinctive voice to each character and honor the breadth of human experiences within a community of people — the reality is that George and Ira Gershwin profited both fiscally and in terms of notoriety from appropriating Black American culture and incorporating it into their music.
While not directing it at the Gershwins explicitly, Margaret Bonds commented on this in one of her song settings of a poem by Langston Hughes titled, “Note on Commercial Theatre”.
In it the text reads:
You’ve taken my blues.
You’ve taken my blues and gone —
You sing ’em on Broadway
And you sing ’em in the Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ’em up with symphonies
And you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me…
You also took my spirituals and gone…
It is also important to mention that although performing Gershwin’s music gave tremendous professional opportunities for artists of color, when they traveled across the globe, many artists ran the risk of being exploited in predominantly white, and often oppressive, racist spaces without guarantee of safety or security.
So why perform Gershwin and Bonds side by side? Personally, I simply love the material! Two of the Gershwin orchestral arrangements by Nelson Riddle on this program were written for the incomparable jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, whose voice and musical personality influenced the compositions; and the new arrangements of Margaret Bonds’ stunning songs written for me by Jannina Norpoth are sensitive and gorgeous.
As a classical singer, I perform a lot of historic music. This opportunity to reflect upon and recognize a complex history while celebrating extraordinary music is something I value in my life.
And for anyone who also loves historic music, I hope you will continue to take on the responsibility to engage with our history and not dismiss any part of it. Because it is ours to share.