Song is a metaphor of the imagination; it is poetic thought encapsulated in music. It is born of the fusion of those Walt Whitmanthoughts in spoken rhythms, framed with melodies and harmonies. The recreation of those myriad inspirations arriving from the world of the humanities acts simultaneously as a prism of creation and a door to the imagination. Its performance depends on a partnership between singer and pianist. This experience for artist and listener alike permits the close examination of life’s successive moments for the reflection of one’s fuller existence. Our great national poet Walt Whitman chanted the SONG OF MYSELF, but as he well knew that Self was both singular and collective. Whitman once said that the proof of the poet or the songmaker was that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it. American song has been, in many ways, the mirror of our nation.
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
Song-singing-sound and words – these are the primary impulses of LEAVES OF GRASS, the book of verse which Walt Whitman first published in 1855 and which grew with him throughout his life. For America’s Bard of Democracy, the voice – spoken or sung – was emblematic of the soul of a nation. And America, he believed, was a land in need of “a race of singers and poems differing from all others. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he declared – one which “awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.” Telling our story with the largeness our sprawling nation demands has always challenged America’s creative voices, not the least among these, our songmakers who, by transforming deeds into words and enhancing text with music, have fashioned a diary of our unique consciousness-a straightforward, purposefully naive, sometimes eccentric, ever eclectic history.
The earliest stirrings of the concert song actually occurred at the time of the Revolution when Francis Hopkinson, a colleague of George Washington and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, penned the first American art songs. But it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the first recognizably American voice emerged out of the chorus of cultures that sang across the land.
In 1855 Stephen Collins Foster’s songs were on the lips of virtually every American. In the over 200 songs he wrote are to be found the beginnings of our popular songs, the seeds of jazz, and the roots of the American sentimental ballad that soon became a staple in American home life. One of the chief ingredients of Foster’s genius lay in his ability to hear the heart and humor in the longings and aspirations of those around him and to voice them with a soothing nostalgia . While Foster was deeply influenced by the Irish poet-balladeer, Thomas Moore he also wrote early minstrel songs and later “plantation” songs. Though we now recognize these as northern white impressions of southern slavery, Foster’s music must also be credited for having formed an early bridge between the world of the white and the African-American peoples, not just in his observation but in his direct sympathy for the exile and ostracism of blacks in America.
Stephen Foster was a link not only between black and white, but between a folk tradition which grew into an art song tradition. Here on the soil of a new continent indigenous and European roots intertwined to produce a distinctive new voice of richness and diversity. Music in the new land at first consisted primarily of the hymns and work songs brought by the European settlers of In the woodsthis nation, but soon these imported sounds began to intermingle with the songs of Africa sung by black slaves to produce the rich tradition of spirituals. Eventually these spirituals would develop a secular side that was first seen in minstrels, later became vaudeville, and is now recognized as containing the vocal and instrumental roots of blues and jazz, respectively. These strains cross-bred and produced other branches on the tree of music that extended the resources of songwriters and further blurred the lines between the folk, the popular, the ballad, and the art song.
From Foster until the end of the 19th century, America produced literally dozens of song composers who caroled with rich diversity. Some of their songs won immediate acceptance, though many were lost in the frenetic pace our nation of pioneers set for itself: clearing our land & extending our frontiers. A climate conducive to intellectual and artistic exploration needed to be nurtured. In the mid 1800’s, in the more established towns of the Eastern seaboard, a confluence of men and women – poets, philosophers, and artists – began to challenge the dominance of industry and progress with matters of the spirit and the mind… The American Renaissance and its prime movers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, Thomas Cole and the Hudson River Painters – were all deeply influenced by European Romanticism, most especially by the Anglo-German traditions.
“We have listened too long to the courtly Muses of Europe,” wrote Emerson, exhorting his fellow Americans to become American Romantics, rooted in known traditions but, metaphorically speaking, wandering in search of the self-expression that would bear them new forms of their art. Yet listening and looking proved inspirational for mid-late19th century American artists. Thomas Cole’s and Asher B. Durand’s shimmering landscapes, while they captured the topography of the Hudson Valley, owed much to the atmosphere of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Whitman and Dickinson, for all their aggressive individualism, were spiritual kin to William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, while Emerson and Thoreau acknowledged a debt to Thomas Carlyle. The poetry of the Transcendentalists, the paintings of the naturalists, and the music of composers like Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Edward MacDowell all reflect the assimilation and transformation of European values into distinctly American voices.
One such distinctive voice – quirky, iconoclastic, but possessed of a visionary honesty and soaring moral force – belonged to Concord’s native son, Henry David Thoreau. In 1845 he came
“to the woods to live (as he later wrote) deliberately, to front the essential facts of life and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach and not, when it came time to die, discover that [he] had not lived.”
On a wooded slope above Walden Pond, he built his tiny cabin, planted his bean field, observed his wildlife, meditated on social justice and civil disobedience, and evolved in his journals and poetry a Walden Pondphilosophy of pacifism and pantheistic reverence for all living things. Thoreau’s Walden sojourn, which lasted two years, was but one of the many utopian experiments which grew out of Transcendentalism, a belief in the ability of man to transcend his own senses and attain a higher spiritual and moral understanding of life. Poets like Whitman and Dickinson, writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Harriet Beecher Stowe stood at the vanguard of social change, advocating causes ranging from abolition to women’s suffrage, temperance, and educational reform. Concord, the tiny New England village where the first shots of the American Revolution had been heard round the world and where many of the philosopher-poets lived, became the symbolic and emotional center for liberal free-thought – a place of pilgrimage for successive generations of creative spirits.
Thus it was no surprise that in 1908 to the grassy knoll known as Authors’ Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery came Danbury-born composer Charles Ives and his bride Harmony Twichell to tap the heartbeat of his ancestors’ intellectual life and to listen, as it were, to the vibrations of Thoreau’s lyre…
“His meditations are interrupted only by the faint sound of the Concord bell, a melody as it were, imported into the wilderness. At a distance over the woods the sound acquires a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept…”
wrote Ives in the spoken introduction to his song portrait of the philosopher. It was this quintessentially American lyre that was to reverberate through the composer’s soul, causing eclectic musical memories to coalesce into one of the truly great voices of the American repertoire.
Charles Ives had also fallen under the spell of European music during his years at Yale when he was under the tutelage of the renowned American pedagogue Horatio Parker, But there were even stronger influences on Ives – the innate questioning and searching for Romanticism, the quirky music of his father, a one-time Civil War bandmaster, now organist and music teacher, the Protestant hymns of the Yankee and Revivalist traditions, the melodies of Stephen Foster and folk tunes – and these fused in him to produce songs that in their ruggedness and individuality could only be labeled intrinsically American.
An insurance tycoon by day, for over three decades he composed nights and weekends, creating well over 100 songs as well as numerous instrumental, chamber, and choral works – each pulsing with the spirit of innovation, energy, and eclecticism. Leonard Bernstein, a prominent champion of Ives’ music was fond of calling the Pulitzer-prize-winning Connecticut composer “our Lincoln, our Edison of music.” His songs, in their amazing range and moving splendor serve as an imaginative diary which looks back and again forward over almost a century of American experience. “Do I contradict myself/ Very well then, I contradict myself,” Whitman says in SONG OF MYSELF. The history of American song is full of seeming contradictions – opposing styles and inspirations – which give dynamic tension to our music. Existing simultaneously with the European sensibilities of MacDowell and Griffes and the rough-and-ready experiments and musical excursions of Ives was a homey, more genteel body of American song that owed a debt to English folk songs and British sentimental ballads. These composers of what – for want of a more precise label – might be called the ballad school drew their narrative impulse from the current state of national affairs – from the politics and events and poetry which shaped our vision.
Recovering from the wounds of the Civil War in the later 19th and early 20th century, America focused her energies on expansionist policies – both abroad, where she evoked the 1845 doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and on the home front, where settlers, seeking to tame the primeval wilderness, pushed Westward, shamelessly routing Native Americans from their ancestral lands. At the same time, however, sensing the tragedy which lay in store for the Native American culture, photographers such as Edward Curtis and musicians like Charles Wakefield Cadman, who collected Indian melodies, or Arthur Wa-Wan PressFarwell, who founded the Wa-Wan Press to give voice to the progressive and polycultural inspirations of American song, sought to reclaim the richness of this indigenous artistic heritage and translate it into images and sounds accessible to mainstream settlers. However financially mistreated and ill-fated, Farewell’s Wa-Wan Press was one of the most significant and idealistic efforts in our cultural history – the attempt to encourage our own voices by publishing and disseminating their songs and poetry. Farwell’s and Cadman’s nationalist proclivities were part of a world wide web of growing awareness of and sensitivity to the Folk Tradition as a resource for art song. From Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Stanford in England to Antonin Dvorák in the New World, early 20th century musicians and artists placed an increasing value on directness of emotion and purposeful naiveté of form – all of which lent an intimacy to art song.
Another contributing factor to that intimacy was the early performance milieu of these compositions. The American concert song, as well as all song, was actually born for personal consumption and nurtured in the home, where virtually every middle-class 19th century parlor had a piano and genteel ladies were taught to accompany themselves in song. So it is not surprising that throughout the history of the genre women have made significant contributions to the repertoire. One of the earliest recognized women composers was Boston-educated Amy Beach. A precocious piano virtuoso, talented recitalist and accompanist, Mrs. H.H. Beach enjoyed a long performing and composing career in which she produced operas, symphonies, chamber works, choral pieces, and songs, whose craftsmanship and success heralded the later compositions of Margaret Bonds, Carrie Bond Jacobs, Peggy Granville Hicks, and Eleanor Remick Warren.
Big operatic love songs like Mrs. Beach’s setting of Robert Browning’s AH, LOVE BUT A DAY! were made famous on the concert platform by American stars like contralto Louise Homer, whose husband was one of our most prolific song composers. Like Beach and John Alden Carpenter, (whose delicious When I bring you colour’d toys from his cycle Gitanjali on texts by the Bengali poet-mystic Rabindrinath Tagore),Sidney Homer relied heavily on soaring stretches of liquid melody,that were wedded effortlessly to the verse, One of Homer’s masterpieces, GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS INTO HEAVEN is a shining example of the genre of “old songs” that continues to enthrall listeners with its compelling narrative, psychological drama, and heart-on-sleeve emotional appeal. Inspired by the mesmerizing incantation of Vachel Lindsay and responding to the sounds of evangelical preachers and camp meetings of the Great Revival’s religious fervor, Homer partners the creation of a powerful tale of the Founder of the Salvation Army’s triumphal entry into heaven.
The spontaneity and syncopation of the jazz rhythms evoked in Lindsay’s poetry proved to be an enduring and irresistible force in American music, reaching out from the halls and clubs of New Orleans, Chicago, Harlem, and St. Louis to the concert stages where art song is performed. Expatriate writer Paul Bowles captured the smoldering anger and raunchy wit of Tennessee Williams in his settings of the poet’s BLUE MOUNTAIN BALLADS. Another of the so-called Jazz Poets, Langston Hughes, joyously gave voice to the flourishing African-American spirit of the 1920’s and 30’s Harlem Renaissance. Along with writers like Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes focused the world’s attention on the beauty and majesty of what poet, historian, and sociologist William E. B. Du Bois called the souls of black folk. According to DuBois, the first of three gifts that African-Americans have bequeathed to their nation has been the gift of story and song–a gift whose reverberations transcend race. They can be felt in GENIUS CHILD, contemporary composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s cycle set to Hughes’ poetry from which the song MY PEOPLE comes.
Finding a voice for the myriad peoples of our nation – a voice which respects both the fierce independence of mind and heart and soul as well as the melting pot ethic – has ever been a feature of American thought and art. In the years between the two global conflicts, in a century of violence and political instability, in an era where ties to Europe had been traumatically shaken, American song came of age. American composers finally felt freer to utilize without apology our own native resources. The fusion of so-called “high art” with a folk art that dominates 20thc century American art song can be seen as the culmination of our quest for national identity – an identity that refuses to see eclecticism as pejorative, that embraces the hybrid roots of our music, and that unabashedly celebrates a dazzlingly high-quality mosaic of thought and sound.
Composers like Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, combed America’s poetic and musical past with a new reverence and understanding. Not only did the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants seek traditional tunes for a collection like his OLD AMERICAN SONGS, but Copland also turned to one of the most individual voices in all American poetry for twelve of his most accomplished art songs. In choosing to set Emily Dickinson, the composer revealed his affinity for Dickinson’s microcosmic world – a world circumscribed physically by her reclusiveness yet liberated spiritually by the visionary fervor of her unbounded mystical imagination.
In much the same way that Dickinson, together with Whitman, Ives, and Copland, charted new musico-poetic territory, so, too, did Samuel Barber, the nephew of Sidney and Louise Homer, prove himself to be one of the most authentically independent and masterful voices of 20th century American music. Barber’s forty-seven songs – (some of which have only recently been published) – demonstrate the composer’s catholic appreciation for fine poetry as well as his stunning ability to create an equipoise between a subtle perfection of classical form and an unrepentant expression of Romantic emotion.
That balance of Romantic and “modern” owed much to Barber and other 20th century American composers, poets (James Agee), and artists'(Walker Evans) ability to use irony as a cornerstone for their work. One need only think of the subtle blend of humor an nostalgia in the illustrations of Norman Rockwell or the sharp-edged satire in the paintings of Grant Wood, in order to comprehend how intrinsically wedded are faith and doubt in American art. A composer like John Duke captures this tenuous struggle in his settings of Edwin Arlington Robinson, which mourn the loss of innocence, expose the parochialism of small-town life, and dare to question the American dream. Satire takes on a lighter-hearted tone in the witty cabaret songs of William Bolcom or in the whimsical settings of Gertrude Stein by Virgil Thomson. Thomson, whose music criticism remains a model of the genre – explored in his songs a poetic universe ranging from the mysticism of William Blake to the tender, chiding lyricism of Kenneth Koch. Like Barber’s and Thomson’s, Ned Rorem’s song opus offers a stunning array of themes, styles, and thoughts. Active as a songwriter for over fifty years, Rorem’s prolific and diversified piano-vocal compositions embody the dynamic vitality of the art song in America.
Throughout the course of the 20th century more & more composers have turned their attention to the writing of songs, while more and more singers, beginning with the great American recitalists of the past like David Bispham, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes or John Charles Thomas, have commissioned songs and fought to elevate American works from encore status on the recital platform. Today American song is alive and thriving. All barriers seem removed, and composer and poet dare, as Whitman wished, “to explore that unknown region where all waits undream’d of.”
Perhaps no one more than Leonard Bernstein appreciated the eclecticism at the heart of the American experience. In TO WHAT YOU SAID he chose an unpublished Whitman text, composed most likely as a private “letter” to his friend Anne Gilchrist, but written more importantly to champion “that new American salute” – the bold freedom to revel in difference and find strength in diversity. Walt Whitman issued the injunction that at sunset the door to his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery should be left ajar, so that his spirit could ramble onward on the universal journey.
“I tramp a perpetual journey, come listen all.” Like Whitman each of the poets and composers we hear in I HEAR AMERICA SINGING issued invitations to their countrymen to travel with them – to explore shared thoughts and emotions. Song is, after all, nothing more or less than the soundtrack for the human experience. It is born of historical events and poetic vision, inspired by single moments in thousands of individual itineraries whose paths ultimately intersect and fuse. In the melting pot that is these United States, American songs have provided and will continue to provide the signposts on the road map of our collective journey.
Thomas Hampson will fill in as a guest host for Terrance McKnight on WQXR this Thursday, November 5, beginning at 7 pm ET. During this hour, Thomas will celebrate the song repertoire, featuring works by Schubert, Mahler, Ives, and many others. Tune in and learn more about Hampson’s guest host hour via WQXR.
PENTATONE continues its American Opera Series with Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere recording of Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix (2019), an opera on the life of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist. Da Ponte (1749-1838) was an adventurer, who not only travelled the world, but in a way also through time, living across what seem to be impossible moments of history that never should have aligned in somebody’s life.
The documentary by C Major Entertainment “The Animated Story of Jenny Lind”, in which Thomas Hampson is the narrator, has won this year’s Golden Prague Fesitval’s Performing Arts Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious and acclaimed Performing Arts festival for TV and film, with opera, dance, concerts and documentaries from all over the world. It is also on the Shortlist of potential winners of the Prix Italia.
Thomas Hampson makes his Global Concert Hall debut next month, performing with the Orchester Wiener Akademie under the baton of its founder and musical director Martin Haselböck. The concert, filmed at the Brucknerhouse Linz in August 2020, will be streamed on IDAGIO’s Global Concert Hall on Thursday, October 15, beginning at 8 pm Berlin / 2 pm New York. The concert will be available to stream through October 22.
Thomas Hampson returns to the stage this month, with a concert at the Stiftskirche Millstatt, and two performances at the Salzkammergut Classic Festival. Beginning on August 2 in Millstatt, Hampson will perform lieder by Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms with pianist Christian Koch, and the Carinthia Chor Millstatt will sing Carinthian songs under the direction of Bernhard Zlanabitnig.
For the first time ever, audiences around the world will have a special opportunity to watch the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018 world premiere production of Hadrian, in full, online. On Monday, August 10 at 6:30 p.m. ET, in partnership with Montréal Pride Festival, the COC is hosting a free, one-night-only digital stream of the modern grand opera. The Hadrian Watch Party helps kick off one week of virtual Pride events and will feature a live Q&A session with both the composer and celebrated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor, a giant in Canadian theatre.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.