Books & Manuscripts

George Gershwin's Promised Land

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's Fine Books and Manuscripts Online sale features a rare music manuscript of "Leavin’ for de Promise’ Lan’" from the opera "Porgy and Bess," Act One Scene Two, bearing composer George Gershwin's autograph. The sale runs from 7 - 21 June, online only.

"P orgy and Bess," is widely considered to be the greatest American opera and George Gershwin's masterpiece, to which he devoted two years of his life. This sketch contains music for one of the main protagonists, the beautiful but dissolute Bess (soprano). It is one of the most substantial known sketchleaves for "Porgy and Bess": while nearly all those that survive are only one or two pages long, the present lot comprises four pages.

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George Gershwin, Autograph music manuscript of "Leavin’ for de Promise’ Lan’" from the opera Porgy and Bess, Act One Scene Two. Estimate $25,000 – 35,000.


The history of these particular sketchleaves is equally unique: as noted by a brown paper wrapper, the pages were gifted to the actress and socialite Salka Viertel by the composer's brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. The inscription reads:

"For Salka Viertel, Mms [Music manuscript] George Gershwin. Pencil sketch of 'Headin' Fo' De Promise' Lan'' (Train Song) from the 1st Act Finale of 'Porgy and Bess' / Attached is an autograph which can be pasted on to mms. This autograph (signature rather) cut from a cancelled bank check. / I.G."
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Presentation inscription by composer's brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin.

Viertel (1889–1978) was the actress and screenwriter for Greta Garbo; her famous soirées in Hollywood were attended by Gershwin, Schoenberg, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Chaplin, Eisenstein and others, as described in her book The Kindness of Strangers (1969). The sketchleaves were acquired from Viertel, evidently at an early date, by Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899–1981), the financier, art collector, and benefactor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and subsequently descended in the family to the present owner.

At Ira states, Gershwin's signature was clipped from a bank check and pasted onto the first page.

George Gershwin's Autograph
A close-up of George Gershwin's signature, which was clipped from a bank check and pasted onto the first page.

"Porgy and Bess" is the greatest American opera and Gershwin's masterpiece, to which he devoted two years of his life.

Titled by Gershwin "Train" and "Promise Lan'" above the music, this draft includes a hitherto-unknown instruction for "Hand Clapping" (the rhythms written in the top margin on a hand-drawn 3-line stave).

Bess's solo on this sketchleaf introduces the final part of Act One, Scene Two, following Serena's lament for her recently murdered husband Robbins. Bess was formerly the mistress of Crown, Robbins's murderer, but is now romantically entwined with Porgy. She jumps up and urges the denizens of Catfish Row to rise up and travel to the Promised Land: "Oh the train is at the station an' you better get on board."

"Porgy and Bess" is a substantial (and sometimes controversial) opera, replete with arias, duets and ensembles, and furnished with the sophisticated orchestral textures that set Gershwin apart from contemporary American songwriters. Gershwin's musical language is infused with the melodies and harmonies of blues and jazz, which had attracted him throughout his life, and which he here brings to a grand-scale operatic climax. Gershwin always intended the work to be sung by an all-black cast, which eventually led to it being premiered on Broadway rather than at the Metropolitan Opera House. The few minor white characters are accorded nothing to sing at all. The controversies surrounding the racial aspects, the portrayal of the Gullah community of South Carolina by a white Jewish New Yorker, some of the language in the original libretto, unauthorized performances in "black-face" and other such considerations have continued to affect the fortunes of "Porgy and Bess" over eight decades. Although best known for songs such as "Summertime" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now," the work as a whole is generally regarded as a major contribution to opera rather than as a Broadway musical. In this light, the present number constitutes the heroine's introduction to a classic First Act Finale, which, as with so many Romantic operas, culminates in a general ensemble.

The "George and Ira Gershwin Collection" in the Library of Congress contains another four-page sketch for this number (in Box-Folder 132/5), which includes an earlier compositional stage of the music found here. The Library of Congress sketch is written out in the note values found in the final version and printed score (rather than halved values as here), but the music itself is still in a more primitive state than is achieved in the present manuscript. However, the two sources could well be close in date, since both form part of the same creative process.

Sotheby's is pleased to acknowledge the help and advice of Wayne Shirley, the editor of the forthcoming critical edition of Porgy and Bess, in preparing the catalogue description for this lot.

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