Afro-American composer wants Porgy banned from the stage

Afro-American composer wants Porgy banned from the stage


norman lebrecht

December 08, 2019

Judith Anne Still, daughter of the neglected symphonist William Grant Still and custodian of his legacy, has written to US music directors seeking help in restoring his music.

Among other things she writes:

It is time for the racially defamatory opera, Porgy and Bess, to abdicate the stage. George Gershwin, said to be a friendly fellow, visited Harlem almost every night in the 1920s where he and other White composers stole the music, songs and dances of the prolific Afro-Americans and made millions from them.

The music of William Grant Still, W. C. Handy and James Johnson was broadly taken over by Gershwin and, after all the thefts, composers of Color were left with ‘plenty of nothing’.

It’s a timely point of view, coming as it does after Porgy’s sell-out success at the Met, but is it valid?

In my new book, Genius and Anxiety, I argue that Porgy’s music is more Jewish than Afro-American.



  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Identity politics, and naïve people who takes it as legitimate, is the biggest threat to high culture.

    • Lorelei says:

      Just the fact that you speak of “high culture” shows what an elitist bigot you are.

      • Paul Brownsey says:

        It shows nothing of the sort. “Elitist” and “bigot” are the sneer words of those who have nothing of substance to say.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That is nonsense. The notion of ‘high culture’ is a perfectly normal and legitimate way of describing all art which rises above the mere entertainment, hobyism, vulgar populism, or advertising or agitprop. There are many reasons why we don’t see Banksy in the Louvre. There is nothing wrong with Banksy, but his work does not belong there. When I go into a 5 star restaurant, I expect the absence of MacDonald hamburgers.

        • John Porter says:

          This is absurd. You will certainly see Banksy in The Louvre. It is only a matter of time. People said the same about Warhol, Pollack, and Cindy Sherman. But guess what? In the Louvre…

          • Sue Sonata Form says:

            And what about Duchamp’s “fountain”? That’s in the “loo” vre, isn’t it? I certainly hope it is transgendered.

        • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

          But do you expect the absence of fried chicken, ribs, chitlins, and watermelon?

        • Met Bass says:

          Is your analogue of Banksy’s work as mediocre artistic hamburgers meant to be amusing satire, or do you literally have to have the exhaustive context (sacred space) of the Louvre to be able to register high culture?

          This is a key element of one of culture’s biggest issues; people have to have the practitioner and/or their work in an exact, dedicated context to be able to truly see its value. It only exemplifies that those who are snobs (which is based on appeal to authority and conversely ad hominem, a fallacy double-whammy) prove themselves incapable of legitimate analysis.

    • BrianB says:

      Her statement is clearly anti-Semitic as well. I doubt Still himself would have endorsed his relatives bitter comments. in October 1935, Still wrote to a friend that Gershwin’s “Porgy” “met with success in New York, and I am glad…”

      • Kevin Scott says:

        This is very interesting pending that Judith’s mother, Verna Arvey, was Jewish, which would make her Jewish by birth as well as African-American.

      • Ivan Chavez says:

        A theft is a theft. And we still see it in popular culture, which this piece was at the time. Remember, that the 1st jazz bands played on radio were white, mostly Jewish, now before you pull the anti Semitic card, keep in mind that i would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders, unlike many of you.

  • Novagerio says:

    Why not just say: “Pity a white american-russian jew wrote Porgy and not my father”…

  • Francesca says:

    Quo vadis, America?
    All the world is laughing.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Funny, Verdi wrote an opera about an English knight, an Ephiopian Princess and a Moorish Captain. Must we ban them? Along with Wagner’s Dutchman? I doubt whether the African American singers who have performed Porgy wish to see it shelved. No doubt Ms Still would have no problem if the opera had not been successful.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The point is, that if a similarly gifted black composer had written something like P&B, he would have had much less opportunities to have it performed, to reap success with it, etc. Gershwin was not hindered by his skin colour.

      But that is no reason to ban P&B, it is not Gershwin’s fault that blacks were and still are discriminated against. One could even argue that Gershwin saved the musical potential of the blacks at the time by using their idioms for his piece so that a wide audience could get to know them.

    • Novagerio says:

      Exactly. Let’s not start again with the old “Klinghoffer-episode” (!) – there are also ” racially prejudicial issues” with Otello, Madama Butterfly, Iris, The Mikado, L’Africaine, La Juive etc.
      I can’t wait for those neo-philistine “politically correct” nitwits to suddenly discover and censure Uncle Tom’s cabin, Tom Sawyer, The Merchant of Venice or worse, La Divina Commedia !!

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        What about “poor old Uncle Thomas” ballet in “The King and I”. An absolutely superb piece of artistry on every level that’s sure to have fallen foul of the culture police. These people would have LOVED living in the USSR.

      • Sceptical and non-impressed says:

        I believe you are too late for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn. I do remember those showing up on banned book lists (from midwest USA) from the 1990’s, and pushed by both left and right in the US.

    • Fan says:

      Using exotic locations and cultures as mere background was not exactly what Gershwin was up to. The second part of your statement is equally illogical. The real question is the question Lebrecht asks in the last sentence.

  • cym says:

    Oh boy ! Here we go again ! Are the French going to ban ‘La Bohème’ for an Italian composer representing poor and drunk artists, not paying their rent, chasing women in cabarets, and lack of good medical care for poor Mimi !?!?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The lack of medical care for Mimi was caused by the lack of money, not by the lack of availability. At the time, there was no health insurance. If these artists could have done some crowd funding or find a rich merchant to send her to Egypt for a cure, Puccini would not have written his opera as we have it now. Maybe he had then a very different plot where Mimi got involved with dubious locals in Luxor with eastern music underneath.

  • A ‘timely’ POV, as the times are so perverse. But not valid. Not if Music is actually one’s main concern. Social Justice Warriors have other concerns that interest me not at all.

  • Patrick says:

    WG Still is a fine composer, but he’s no Gershwin.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    The music of William Grant still is neglected, and so is a vast amount of other music written by his contemporaries – often for good reason it must be said. I’ve played the Afro-American Symphony, and the better Negro Folk Symphony by William Dawson. They’re ok, but both were anachronistic when written and now just footnotes in music history. Judith just needs to be grateful that the symphonies are at least recorded. She could help the situation too: lower the rental prices for the music and have easier to read score and parts! But then, we’ve had this talk in Flagstaff years ago.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ‘Anachronistic’ is no valid assessment measure. Bach was anachronistic, and Rachmaninoff, and Rossini.

      • It just doesn't matter all that much says:

        And William Grant Still is no Bach, nor Rachmaninoff, nor Rossini.

        The comparison game is essentially pointless, as time has proven, and will continue to prove, who and what remains performed and how frequently.

        As has been said, and quite rightly, Still is a fine composer. His works are worthy of performance and audiences have shown their appreciation
        for them in the few times I have led his work.

        Gershwin is in a different league.

    • Kevin Scott says:

      Okay is, in my opinion, a slap in the face to Still and his contemporaries. I’m sure you’re aware that Still studied with Varese and some of his compositions prior to the Afro-American Symphony were written in a modernist vein before Still realized he could go no further with this idiom on both a musical and personal level.

      His fourth symphony, which I find to be the best of his five, is a magnificent work of epic proportions that captures not only the American landscape after we recovered from the Second World War, but also uses modernist elements in a more tempered fashion. That he decided to become a modern romantic does not mean anachronistic. The music still says that it is of this century by way of its orchestral colors, harmonic language and structural content.

      Granted, Still could have chosen to continue the modernist path, but he also realized that writing in this idiom would have further placed him into an abyss of obscurity from which he would never recover from. I’m sure others would disagree, but while his music will never received the wider popularity that Gershwin enjoyed during his lifetime and after his passing, Still’s music still holds an important place in the annals of serious African-American composition. Without him, we would not see the likes of many men and women of color writing contemporary concert music in a wide variety of idioms.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        I am delighted that you enjoy his music. But I hope you can accept that few others share your passion, even among the concert going public. This isn’t to say you are wrong to enjoy it; rather than you have different tastes. Gershwin’s music is much more popular, which is why it is regularly programmed.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    “stole the music, songs and dances of the prolific Afro-Americans”

    Evidence? Does she bother with that?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s very true that the white population did appropriate the music of African Americans – particularly in the realm of jazz. They ‘gentrified’ it, if I can put it like that; making it less culturally specific for general consumption. But, just like Bela Bartok and others before him, George Gershwin used the ‘lingua franca’ of popular culture to create his masterpiece; and, as others have suggested here, just as ‘appropriated’ as anything by Verdi et. al.

      Must we continue having this argument? Or is it really about grievance, money and jealousy?

      • Bone says:

        You cannot “put it that way,” Sue: you have no idea what you are talking about. Jazz is an art form based on European composition models and performance concepts; nothing gentrified about jazz performed by white musicians.

    • Christ Ponto says:

      I think, but can’t be sure, that she meant that Gershwin et alia “stole” jazz by cultural expropriation. But I try to pay as little attention as I can to the American Victim industry.

  • Larry says:

    William Grant Stills’ wife — that is, Judith’s mother — was White and Jewish.

    • Anon says:

      This is so ironic. Verna Arvey was indeed white and of Russian Jewish descent, and she even collaborated with W.G. Still on two of his operas. Therefore, Judith’s argument could hold just as true for these works too. How ridiculous, and what a disservice to his music. In fact, her attempt to put down Gershwin is only having the reverse effect for me.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    US-Americans are going crazy with this extremist political correcness. It both laughabe and worrying. It is a symptom of decadence.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      And probably the main reason Trump will be re-elected next year. Sorry; you break it, you own it.

    • John Rook says:

      They seem to have nothing else to worry about. This lack of existential goals manifested in identity politics will see the back of our civilisation.

      • SamUchida says:

        Lack of existential goals? What about paying back their staggering national debt, 25% owed to foreigners? A financial ‘nuclear bomb’ with an unpredictable detonator if there ever was one.

        Or justice for the millennials – seven times (not 7%!) less wealthy than the baby boomers at the same age. It is no coincidence they are the SJWs.

        All this SJW business is being used as a risky diversionary tactic, because the SJW will eventually bring up the basic injustices – why do so few people own the land and wealth of ‘their’ country?

        • Bone says:

          All I read was, “blah blah blah give me something to make me happy.” That lot – SJW’s – will never be happy. Your “statistics” are as empty as their brains.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Oh dear me. Sigh. 7 times less wealthy than the boomer of the same age. I lived in a squalid flat until I was 22, with cockroaches and without computer, mobile phone, overseas trips, smashed avocado, fancy clothes or even a car. You are talking absolute RUBBISH. I certainly could NOT afford to eat out every other week.

        • It just doesn't matter all that much says:

          Because they worked hard to attain it. They didn’t spend their time in “safe places” and wondering if they identified as a male or a female. They had aspirations and ambition, and they acted upon them.

          The “American Dream” is about opportunity, NOT entitlement. Likewise, it is not about your personal success or failure, but opportunity. Jealousy of another person’s success is a personal problem, not a social problem.

          As I said before, William Grant Still is a fine composer. He has a place in musical history. He is not George Gershwin.Decrying Gershwin for his success with a musical idiom, simply because he was a white man has no merit. Should we decry Brahms (and how many others) because they were not Magyar?

  • Fliszt says:

    Shall we also ban Dvorak for his shameless theft of American folk music in his 9th Symphony, Bartok for stealing Bulgarian & Romanian folk tunes, Ravel for imitating gypsy & Spanish music, Mendelssohn for writing an Italian symphony, and…and…

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Correct; Bartok used the folk tunes and appropriated them into the popular forms of classical music – piano concertos and the like. They became ‘comprehensible’ there to a wider audience. And these explorations and appropriations were borne of his own intensive ethnomusicological research. In no way were they disrespectful. Quite the contrary.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Sue writes: “Bartok used the folk tunes…they became ‘comprehensible’ there to a wider audience”

        I think you mean “they became ‘comprehensible’ there to a narrower audience”

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes. The local populations in Rumania, Transylvania, etc. were devastated when they found-out they had no tunes left after Bartok had collected them. Italian families were depressed for 7 years after the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Ravel was forbidden to enter Spain again after his plundering of its melodic material, which led straight to the Spanish civil war.

      • Anson says:

        It’s sad that it’s seen as a zero-sum game. “Your work was successful, therefore it must have taken away audience from mine.” Absurd. Paganini should sue Rachmaninov.

    • Antonia says:

      Did the composers you mention copyright their work? Did the black composers in Harlem copyright their work? This would make a difference.

      • Anson says:

        ” Did the black composers in Harlem copyright their work? This would make a difference.”

        Not sure it does make a difference, because I don’t take Judith’s argument to be that Gershwin literally stole a motif here, a chord progression there, and a melody there. If it were her argument, surely she’d cite chapter and verse. It’s more just a general impression that Gershwin was inspired by what he heard in Harlem, and that inspiration sparked his own work. And that’s the “theft.” You either buy that argument or you don’t, regardless of copyright.

        It’s ironic because a real artist would be the most thrilled and excited of all to learn that his work had so inspired another of his number.

    • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

      Ravel’s mother was Basque so he has familial connection to that part of Europe

  • Allen says:

    What a silly point of view! To “steal” something means to take it away, and that would have to mean that those who originally possessed it would no longer have it. Would you also attack composers who quoted folk music? White people and yes, even Jewish people have just as much a right to play or create jazz or any style they wish. Next they may as well criticize Dave Brubeck. And surely Ms. Still would not like us to accuse her father of having “stolen” the music of white orchestral composers who came before him!

  • Chris says:

    We have to ignore (though not forget) the racial and religious backgrounds of so many who have contributed so much and in so many fields. Unless we do, we are in profound danger of completely breaking the cultural and other backgrounds to our lives as we know them today

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You are so right; this kind of activism and SJW politics is in danger of becoming a deal-breaker for western audiences.

  • Eric says:

    Based on this logic we should also ban Dvorak’s New World symphony as it also contains themes “stolen” from African-Americans.

  • RASFLUTE says:

    I was profoundly moved – and, as a Caucasian, shamed – by last year’s ENO production. That black people managed to maintain a profound sense of dignity and community despite the appalling way society treated them is quite incredible, and it’s a part of history that we would do well to remember and learn from even today. If an opera production can elicit a response like mine from the audience, it is surely contributing to the eventual breaking down of racial barriers. I’d like to think so anyway.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I presume you meant ‘the way (white) society treated them’. I don’t know if you’re aware or not, but in the continent of Africa black Africans are treated worse than anywhere else in the world – by their own people. Have you read anything about Ethiopia, Somalia or Nigeria (et al) AT ALL?

    • John Borstlap says:


  • Pacer1 says:

    Oh well, there goes the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite.

  • Minnesota private citizen says:

    To answer the question is Judith Anne Still’s complaint valid? The answer is No, No, and No. If it were true, then perhaps we should ban pieces with fugues by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, as they clearly stole them from J.S. Bach. Or we should ban certain organ pieces by Bach since he clearly stole from Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Vivaldi, etc., etc. Or ban Carmen because it isn’t Spanish and lacks admirable characters. Or perhaps we should ban William Grant Still because he was using European musical forms rather than sticking to black-sourced ideas.

    I do not at all agree that “Porgy” is “demeaning,” but if it were, then name a single important opera that does not cast some type of person or group in a light they might find uncomfortable. Opera is drama; it is not public relations. Also, name a single opera that has provided as much work for great black singers.

    Judith Still has been obsessed with Gershwin for a long time. Banning Gershwin by claiming that he “stole” musical ideas will not do a thing to enhance William Grant Still’s stature. Still was a very capable composer and perhaps could be played more often than he has been, but that is the case for many very capable but nearly forgotten 20th Century composers. Gershwin’s music includes quite a lot more than elements learned from Black musicians. He very creatively synthesized elements from several traditions with his own unique personal vitality. There are reasons why so many European composers deeply admired Gershwin.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Quite a few rock bands have made their millions stealing from Afro-Americans and leaving them with nothing.

    • Larry D says:

      A deeper question might be is it legitimate for an African-American to “steal” from another African-American?

    • Ellingtonia says:

      You obviously know nothing about the influence of “blues music” in the UK which started back in the 1960s. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, Ten Years After and many more highlighted the debt they owed to many old blues musicians (Son House, Blind lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann). The Stones insisted that Howlin Wolf opened for them on their first TV performance in America such was their admiration for the musician.British promoters brought over blues musicians to the UK thus giving them a second career, and income. It was Bonnie Raitt who said “it took the British rock groups who came to America to introduce us to our own folk music.” So get off your virtue signalling high horse and do a bit of research, you might start with the seminal “Conversation with the Blues” written by Paul Oliver or listen to many of the recordings made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress………both white men by the way!

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Gershwin songs have always made up standard repertory for all of the great jazz musicians: Miles Davis, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, etc. There’s hardly a one that hasn’t played many Gershwin tunes.

  • NYMike says:

    The photo shows the taxi horns from “An American in Paris.”

  • Aaron Herschel says:

    Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess needs to be banned as it shows racist elements and there is no place for such attitudes.
    ( Same goes for Wagner, whose operas need to be culled.)
    We owe that the victims of discrimination, particularly people of colour and the LGBT community, who are harassed on a daily basis.
    On a wider picture also other classical music is tainted ( Mr Osborne regularly presents convincing research here on SD ), such as Haydn , whose music was paid for by aristocrats who suppressed their people.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Presumably we also ban the African American singers who perform it too?

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      “the LGBT community”

      Do stop lumping gay people and trans people together. They are different. It makes no more sense lumping them together than it does to say that all single parents and all sex workers make up ‘the SPSW community’. Lumping gay and trans together puts out the false message that being gay is a staging-post en route to going trans. This gay man shudders at the thought that, when he is in his care home, some care worker who has been on a half-hour ‘course’ on ‘LGBT issues’, will want to put a dress on him so that he looks nice for his husband’s visit.

    • Nathaniel Rosen says:

      I hope you are joking, right? But on the internet, you never know.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed! and all those males suppressed women! The other day I took the box with complete Beethoven symphonies from the library and listened to all of them, and it’s all this terrible authoritarian, bullying music banging on the heads of women! No wonder we never hear of classical woman composers so it’s good that we now get to hear more of them and blacks and queers and whatever, as long as they are being suppressed. Best is to stop performing male music altogether for a while and give space to all the others…. and down with those silly aesthetic arguments, because they have never been part of music, it was all about banging on innocent heads!


    • Enquiring Mind says:

      A for Satire!

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Titania, are you there?

    • Barbara says:

      I am so sickened by the thumbs down on this. How can we not recognize that this opera’s plot (forget the music stealing) is not racially charged? Also, that he insisted on black singers for he roles. I bet 75%of the people commenting here have not read the lyrics or paid attention to any of it outside of the “catchy” tunes. This day in age it absolutely needs to be banned.

      • Ainslie says:

        OF COURSE it’s racially charged!!!! All great operas have at their core some social tension that generates the story. OF COURSE he insisted on black singers!!!! Would you have been happy if all these years white singers had performed in blackface? And it’s worth noting that the minor roles given to white performers (who are not sympathetic characters, to say the least) are speaking only.
        Ban the opera? Are you familiar with the term “entartete Musik”? Or maybe Gershwin’s music is “formalist” and doesn’t conform to “capitalist realism”? Oh, for an American version of Andrei Zhdanov! He could really Make America Great Again.

  • MacroV says:

    I wouldn’t agree with dropping Porgy, but I would certainly like to hear more of William Grant Still’s music – his four symphonies (recorded very nicely by Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit SO a generation ago) are certainly worthy of more exposure.

    And it’s certainly nothing new that white musicians appropriated the work of black musicians – a lot of country music, Elvis, and more.

    • Kevin Scott says:

      Errr…Still composed five symphonies (six if you want to count Africa, which was composed in 1930 before the Afro-American Symphony), and Jarvi only recorded the first two for Chandos. He did perform the third symphony and the ballet Lenox Avenue in concert with the DSO and he may have recorded those two works, but if so they’re going to remain in the can unless someone can confirm if they were even recorded by that company. (And for the record, Jarvi also performed Ives’ third symphony and that may also be in the can, never to see the light of day).

  • engineers_unite says:

    At this rate they will soon ban Walkure because of incest, turn on Strauss for doing all sorts of unspeakable things in his operas, and ban DH Lawrence (again), then tell kids Shakespeare is out because of Shylock, (anti-semitic).

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      An online reviewer expressed qualms about a revival of Weill”s Street Scene for a production in Glasgow, because, she thought, the song, “Wouldn’t You Like To Be On Broadway?” made it inappropriate now we have MeToo.

  • SVM says:

    Ultimately, all music is to some extent derived from and conditioned by existing traditions and conditions. In some musical traditions, especially those not reliant on notation, the reuse of ideas is, and always has been, prolific and widespread. Meanwhile, musical traditions more reliant on notation are amenable to establishing individual ownership of musical ideas. Musical traditions are not, however, sovereign countries with clear boundaries, and many musicians have drawn on multiple traditions, and long may that continue.

    At the same time, creators are entitled to claim a degree of exclusivity for their ideas. The threshold at which a creator is entitled to exclusivity is certainly contestable, but it is absurd to argue that composers should not draw on musical ideas originating from other cultures/traditions, howsoever defined.

    Although the law is not perfect, it provides for a means of reconciling these issues. Moral rights are designed to protect the reputation of these ideas and their creators, whilst copyright is designed to enable creators to profit from their work.

    J.A. Still’s allegations against Gershwin as described (very briefly) in this article seem tenuous, but perhaps she has more robust evidence… if so, perhaps the allegation of profiting unfairly from the ideas of others should be tested in court.

  • david hilton says:

    Fortunately, US copyright law was very strong in the 1930’s and if anyone stole anyone else’s music, songs, dances, etc, there were — and still are — robust remedies to counter such infringement of copyright. And in the US, in contrast to the UK and most other countries, an aggrieved composer or other author even gets their attorneys’ fees and court costs paid, if they raise a legitimate claim.

  • Jack says:

    Ms. Still won’t be successful in gaining a ban on Porgy, but I hope that more and more serious musicians will take a good look at her father, a composer of real substance.

    However, lost in the adulation of Porgy and Bess is a fair discussion of just where to place this work in the context of African American music in the American music tradition. I found a good short article addressing this topic called “The Harlem Renaissance and American Music.”

  • david hilton says:

    Thankfully, in the US there were strong copyright laws in place throughout the 1930’s to protect composers and other authors who might have had their works ‘stolen’ by others. This included the right to authorise or not the creation of a derivative musical work based in whole or part on someone else’s pre-existing composition. Best of all, successful claimants in copyright actions in the US can have their court costs and attorneys’ fees paid as well. So it is hard to feel too much sympathy for these allegations. Even if there were legitimate instances of copyright infringement, it is hard to sympathize with someone who sits on their rights for decades.

  • Giora says:

    Brahms and Bartok stole the music from gipsy culture, Mahler from popular yiddish music, Mozart from TurkIsh music and so on.
    Let’s stop play all this music…. or let’s stop telling b…shit

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Well, I’d certainly be interested in reading that book, “Genius and Anxiety”.

    But that last sentence just contradicted everything that went before. “Mother, father, kindly disregard this letter”.

  • concerned one says:

    Does anyone actually know Grant Still’s music here? Everyone is speaking solely about Porgy and Bess and PC censorship. I am against PC censorship. I do not want to ban Gershwin, but I do want more performances of WG Still!

    I also would like to see an article on Slipped Disc that mentions a person of African descent not trigger so many people. No matter the context.

  • CanuckPlayer says:

    While banning Porgy might go a bit far, Ms Still’s anger is certainly understandable. The active ignorance of William Grant Still’s music is beyond negligent. In any other country he would be considered a major figure of classical music culture. There is a certain historical theory of American music which erases folks like Chadwick, Beach, etc., but a guy who worked with Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, the NY city Opera, and L.A. Phil, deserves more respect. From an American orchestra perspective, his works are audience pleasing potential hits. What are these music directors waiting for?

  • James says:

    I don’t think “abdicate” means to ban anything. She offered her opinion, and like clockwork, the Slipped Disc commenters emerge from their cesspool to attack. In no part of the quoted text does Ms. Still suggest “banning” Porgy and Bess. For a bunch of people who complain about snowflakes, this group of commenters seems to be quite easily triggered.

  • mick the Knife says:

    With her logic, the Duke stole modal music from the white folks.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It is legitimate to take a critical stance towards works of art from the past,, but calling out for these to be banned shows intolerant fanaticism. I am not a huge fan of Porgy & Bess, but I would be horrified if it was to be banned.

  • Zauberflote says:

    The Gypsies of Hungary are suing the Bartok family for millions. Come on….

  • In order to understand the real motivation behind Ms. Still’s comments, I would suggest reading “Just Tell the Story – Troubled Island: A Collection of Documents, Previously Published and Unpublished, Pertaining to the First Significant Afro-American Grand Opera, “Troubled Island” by William Grant Still with Librettists Langston Hughes & Verna Arvey.” William Grant Still was a fabulously gifted composer but he shot his own legacy in the foot when he very publicly supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to create a Communist Blacklist.

    • Gezeichnet says:

      Having read the book, I can say that there was more to the story than even that. The book implies that Still met resistance from rival composers who were living alternative lifestyles in addition to being politically in McCarthy’s crosshairs. The book also states that Still was very friendly with Paul Creston who shared Still’s views on these topics, yet somehow escaped the informal censure of musical colleagues.

      Or, did he? At his best, Creston was as great as any American composer but his music is now as difficult to come by as Still’s, and perhaps more so.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Porgy was a product of its time – and it has been long recognized as such. The racial insensitivities of its plot are at this point in time (hopefully) self-evident.
    But must we now consider cancelling this wonderful opera and relinquishing all the great music it contains to placate the wishes of one person?
    I too would vigorously welcome more exposure to the music of William Grant Still, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Gershwin’s music is performed all over the world and is loved by millions.
    There is plenty of room for ALL musics to share the stage, even those which have over time come to have shown the social prejudices of their day.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I would be satisfied if some of the stereotyped dialect was cleaned up (“Bess You Is My Woman Now”). No black person I ever met was that illiterate. Maybe a couple whites… .

    • Ken says:

      Good call. The original vocal score is plentiful with “the n-word.’

      • Adam Stern says:

        … as were “Huckleberry Finn”, the novels of William Faulkner, even the script to “Blazing Saddles”…all, in their ways, tracts against prejudice and in favor of brotherhood… I hope we are not ever subjected to future “PC” editions or rewrites because hypersensitivity to the words, rather than the reasons they were used, eventually rules the day.

  • Steven van Staden says:

    The time is long overdue to recognise this victimhood syndrome for what it is: racism.

  • John Haley says:

    P&B is a masterwork of genius that should be taken on its own terms and not subjected to today’s ideas of correctness. It is based on a fictional story that is not a depiction of real life. And it is no indictment to say the music is more Jewish than African American. Should we ban performances of Turandot because its representation of Chinese culture is too Italian? Is that work thus “defamatory” of Chinese culture?
    John Haley

  • Bayard Rustin says:

    Everyone here is so busy being outraged by Ms. Still’s point, but fails to mention or recognize that it wasn’t until the 1960s, that any blacks were allowed to be members of any major American orchestra. Try to find a significant black conductor prior to that time or a chamber music player, or a faculty member at a major American conservatory. Blacks were prohibited from studying at the Settlement Houses during the time Porgy was written. Good luck trying to find anything from a black person in classical music pre 1960s. The fact is that while you are all so outraged at Ms. Still’s concern, American classical music institutions were RACIST. Good luck trying to argue that fact as being politically correct.

    • Leopold says:

      So what is your argument regarding the topic at hand?

      • John Porter says:

        I think the point Bayard is making is that a person of color may have a reasonable case to be made about a white composer appropriating music of black musicians, while black musicians were denied access to the art form. The point, I guess is that there was blatant racism and everyone is responding to the complaint as if there was an equal playing field.

  • Maybe white and black audiences at the first Porgy and Bess performances should have booed and condemned the opera to oblivion? What do the black singers who sing in this think about the opera? Should white jazz singers and musicians be banned? Now that I think of it, the only culture that thought along these lines – and acted on them – was the Nazi culture in Germany in the 1930s. Are blacks trying to revive that culture? Ban white music that has any notes redolent of jazz? The next thing is to ban the Jews…not just Gershwin but Lenny Bernstein, Steve Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And what about Lin-Manuel Miranda who appropriated white American history and turned it into rap? Puccini? Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado?(which the NY Gilbert and Sullivan Players completely modified after some Asians attacked the use of makeup to indicate Asians?) THIS HAS GONE ON LONG ENOUGH. IT IS TIME TO STRIKE BACK AT THE

  • Rob says:

    What about Irving Berlin ?

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    I wonder whether she likes THE MAGIC FLUTE.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I was about to ‘condemn’ (!!) this piece of cultural appropriation – until I realized it belong with the Austro-Hungarian empire!!

  • fflambeau says:

    Sorry but, William Grant Still was not in the same class as any of the Gerswhins.

    The “Jewish” argument sounds like something from the Nazis.

  • There are comments here stating unequivocally that as a composer, William Grant Still doesn’t belong in the august company of George Gershwin. That may be true or it may not; it is not for us to say, for the vast body of Still’s work has yet to be given modern or fair hearings. Particularly Still’s work as an opera composer (the genre in which he put great store, his having written nine) is virtually unknown. Most have heard two pieces if any at all. No one living today can accurately and verifiably make qualitative claims about Still’s work until it is actually performed, disseminated, and examined. Until then, STFD.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      There is an enormous amount of music that is never (or very rarely) performed. I really have no interest in wading through it all just in case some of it might be something I enjoy. Perhaps it means I miss something…but this doesn’t really bother me.

  • Prof Ursatz says:

    The vast majority of these comments miss the point entirely; stop making knee-jerk “PC gone mad!” comments, please – myopic and unproductive. This isn’t about a white composer writing an opera comprised of black characters, or other aspects of political correctness.

    This *is* about the way by which the music itself was sourced, as mentioned in the quote. We all know the story of the manner in which the opera was written. So it’s not “how dare a white man write black men and women,” but rather, “to what extent can the material be argued as being, in essence, plagiarized.”

    This is a very similar issue to that in popular music in the late 60’s/early 70’s, where rock bands were taking previously-recorded blues songs (often with identical lyrical and melodic content), claiming them as their own, then profiting off the millions of records sold, while the writers themselves (Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf, for just a few examples) struggled in at or near-poverty.

    I don’t really know the definitive answer for this case myself; however, let’s at least be in the correct classroom for this discussion.