Gershwin’s “Catfish Row”: A Symphonic Suite on “Porgy and Bess”

Set in the Catfish Row tenement of sultry 1920s Charleston, George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, tells the story of a tumultuous love triangle poised between darkness and redemption.

Abandoned by her violent, drug-dealing lover, Crown, Bess turns to the caring, disabled beggar, Porgy, for support. Their newfound happiness is cut short when Crown abruptly returns. The stormy human drama is underscored by an approaching hurricane. Vowing to protect Bess, Porgy kills Crown and is taken to jail. A week later, when Porgy is released, he discovers that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life, Crown’s dope-pedaling associate. Undeterred, Porgy prays for strength and sets out on the journey to find her.

Porgy and Bess was based on a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward. (The libretto was written by Heyward and Ira Gershwin). The three-act opera, the first to require an all-black cast, opened at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway on October 10, 1935, and ran for 124 performances. Distinctly American in its subject matter, Gershwin described the work as “a folk opera.”

A year after the opening, Gershwin adapted the opera’s music into a five-movement symphonic suite, which was premiered by conductor Alexander Smallens and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music on January 21, 1936. For a while, the suite fell into obscurity, replaced by Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, scored by Robert Russell Bennett in 1942, at the request of Fritz Reiner. Five years after Gershwin’s death, the original score was rediscovered and published under the title, Catfish Row. 

The first movement, Catfish Row, begins with the bright strains of Jazzbo Brown’s Piano Blues, and continues with the soulful and languid Summertime. The second movement, Porgy Sings, contains the aria, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, heard in the banjo with clarinet interjections, and the soaring love duet, Bess, You Is My Woman Now. The third movement is a hellish, shrieking Fugue. This is the chaotic, dissonant music which accompanies the murder of Crown in the the first scene of the third act. Beginning with chimes and a sense of quiet foreboding, the fourth movement, Hurricane, features music from the opera’s wind-swept hurricane sequence. The final movement, Good Morning, Sistuh, contains music from the opera’s final scene, as well as the song, Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way. As the curtain falls, the indomitable Porgy climbs into his shabby goat cart and sets out for New York.


About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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