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George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's "Summertime"
"for those of us interested in the comet called George Gershwin that blazed briefly across American skies, Mr. Rimler is the astronomer of choice."The Wall Street Journal


DuBose Heyward was the sole author of the “Summertime” lyric. Lately, the Gershwin publishers have added the names of Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Heyward to its sheet music. But if you look at the original sheet music, it had only DuBose Heyward’s name. Here is the background.

DuBose Heyward wrote a successful novel entitled Porgy in 1925. George Gershwin read it, loved it, and talked to Heyward about making an opera of it. But that project was shelved, in part because Gershwin decided he was not ready yet to tackle so ambitious a project but also because Dorothy Heyward, DuBose’s wife, a playwright, had been secretly turning the book into a straight dramatic play. She wanted it to be a surprise for her husband. That play, also entitled Porgy, was produced on Broadway and had a very successful run.

In 1933, George Gershwin finally decided he wanted to write the opera, and he and Dubose Heyward got to work. At that point, Ira Gershwin was not involved, although he later joined in and wrote some of the opera’s best lyrics, including “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But he had nothing to do with “Summertime.” And Dorothy had nothing to do with the opera, now called Porgy and Bess.

The names of Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Heyward have been added to the sheet music of “Summertime” because the publishers and the Gershwin family want to extend the copyright of the song. George Gershwin died in 1937 (age 38). DuBose Heyward died in 1940 (age 55). Dorothy Heyward died in 1961 (age 71). Ira Gershwin died in 1983 (age 86). Copyrights are good for a certain number of years after the death of the last co-author of the work. If Ira Gershwin is listed as a co-author, the royalties will keep coming in for many more years.

By the way, “Summertime” is the first song lyric that DuBose Heyward ever wrote. His name is not well known these days. For the above-mentioned reasons, it is being replaced wherever possible by Ira Gershwin’s name. Ira Gershwin would never have approved of this. He was a modest man and never claimed credit for anything he hadn’t done. So let’s not forget DuBose Heyward who became, in writing the libretto and so many of the songs in Porgy and Bess, in Stephen Sondheim’s words, “the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater.”

As for the music: in the first scene of the opera, after the orchestral “Introduction” and the “Jasbo Brown Piano Music,” a portion of the stage is lit showing Clara, who sings “Summertime to her baby. This music is introduced by a gradually de-crescendoing and increasingly restful orchestra, which alights on two minor sixth chords which alternate peacefully, suggesting the rocking of the baby in its mother's arms. The melody is one of those rare ones that can be beautiful a capella. On the other hand, the accompaniment would be beautiful without the tune. Together they are heavenly. There is no verse or release, just sixteen bars. When “Summertime” is repeated, female voices join in, as does a delicate countermelody for solo violin. The peaceful orchestral coda is harmonized like a chorale.