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Many people know Gershwin’s Summertime as a jazz standard – however, it began life as an aria from his folk opera Porgy and Bess. It is called a ‘folk opera’ because it combines operatic Western art music with many other styles, including jazz and blues, and black American spiritual music.
The piece is in a modified strophic form – the first verse is repeated with some variations, but without a chorus.
The vocal part has an ABAC structure in each verse, with the melody of the third line being the same as that of the first.
Some of the gaps in the vocal part are filled by fragments of the melody in the accompaniment (a kind of imitation, influenced by African music).
The texture of the piece is melody dominated homophony, with some variation added in the second verse by the introduction of the choir, and a counter-melody on the violin.
Harmony and Tonality
The very opening of the piece is in G major – however, this is more of a linking section from the previous piece than an actual part of the song. The main key of the piece is B minor (Gershwin uses the melodic, rather than harmonic version of the minor scale, hence the G#s and A#s, as well as the false relations).
The key of B minor is fully established in bar 8, after five bars of dominant pedal.
Extended chords are used almost exclusively throughout the song (examples include Bm6 and C#m6 in bar 8, and Em7 in bar 12).
From bar 40, the accompaniment moves through the circle of fifths under a sustained tonic pedal in the lead vocal (the choir also moves through a descending chromatic sequence in bars 41-44).
The piece makes frequent use of chromaticism and blues notes.
This aria is sung by a solo soprano, accompanied by an orchestra and choir. The choir largely doubles the orchestra, while the orchestra themselves do not use any extended techniques, focusing the attention of the audience on the soloist. The solo vocalist uses some jazz techniques, for example portamento (sliding between notes).
The rhythm of the vocal part is relatively simple, with several long, sustained notes. There are also several aspects of jazz influence in the rhythm, including swung quavers and syncopation.
Melody and Word Setting
The opening of the piece features a series of falling thirds played on the clarinet, which then oscillates between G# and A# (the sixth and seventh degrees of B melodic minor), giving a feeling of rocking, which highlights the song as a lullaby. This oscillation is imitated by the bells on every second beat.
The vocal melody is almost entirely pentatonic, with the exception of the C# sung on the word ‘high’ in the first verse, and ‘sky’ in the second.
A violin counter-melody is added in the second verse, although this is very quiet on the anthology recording, and so it may be difficult to spot in the exam.
The word setting is almost entirely syllabic.
Hope this helps! Please let me know if I’ve missed anything.