“Summertime” anchors George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, a work believed by many to be his most important. Gershwin started out as a “song-plugger” on Tin Pan Alley—he demoed and tried to sell other composers’ songs. At 20, he scored his first hit,“Swanee,” and within a few years he was writing musicals for Broadway with his brother Ira.
During this period, Gershwin’s music was distinguished by its fusion of popular formulas with jazz. While he aspired to make his mark as a classical composer, he hoped to infuse classical music with the distinctive sounds of American music. (He did a pretty good job of it, too, judging from the sound of Rhapsody in Blue, one of his most famous pieces.)
Porgy and Bess represented the most ambitious expression of Gershwin’s aim. He retained many of the features of opera; the musical arrangements were densely orchestrated and all of the lines were delivered as recitatives—that is, they were sung rather than spoken. Yet the opera’s music was shaped by American genres: jazz from his native New York; spirituals and gospel from the South. To ensure the authenticity of the music, Gershwin spent time in South Carolina, listening to the music that filled African American churches, festivals, and clubs.