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Discriminating Ears: Critical Receptions of Blackness in the Music of George Gershwin and William Grant Still

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At the apex of their careers, composers George Gershwin and William Grant Still produced what they believed were their finest works: respectively, Porgy and Bess (1935), an opera by a white American composer about African American subjects, and Troubled Island (1949), an opera by an African American composer about Haitian subjects. However, both works fared poorly upon their premiere, with critics decrying Porgy and Bess and Troubled Island as “unoperatic.” Besides providing historical context to both operas, this paper argues that the critical rhetoric surrounding them was tinged by racialized notions of what musical “blackness” sounded like, or should sound like, to white ears. This paper focuses on critics’ coinage of “the cheap” or “popular” as a euphemism for music inspired by African American musical traditions like jazz, the blues, and spirituals. The paper concludes that, while the art music canon can be responsive to social justice movements, critics’ scorn of works like Porgy and Bess and Troubled Island contributes to the entrenchment of an implicitly racialized high–low musical dichotomy.


William Grant Still, George Gershwin, music criticism, race, opera

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