Song is a metaphor of the imagination; it is poetic thought encapsulated in music. The idea of “America” has meant various things to those within and beyond its borders. This “New World” – malleable, alive with a mélange of ideas and ideals – can become, for all of them, as profound and real as they might imagine it to be.

An exploration of Song in America invites one into the psyche of this New World as do few other disciplines. Following the threads of their own national identity, laced with the European origins from which they sprang, American composers have created a distinctive and vibrant musical tradition in song, which has shaped our culture, contributed to the development of the intrinsically American forms of folk, jazz, and musical theater, and, during the last century, increasingly won favor from international musicians and audiences.

Our nation, from whose soil sprung the tree of liberty “watered,” in Jefferson’s words, “with the blood of martyrs,” offered those who won the prize of freedom the means of shaping a new world out of a multitude of old traditions and the raw materials of the last great frontier on earth. From our founders’ promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a unique culture emerged and is still emerging from the seemingly endless resources of its people.

Francis Hopkinson, a signer of this declaration of our independence, is credited with composing the first American art song, My days have been so wondrous free, dated 1759. Though this and subsequent songs published by Hopkinson were strongly influenced by the mid-eighteenth-century English and Italian repertoire, Hopkinson recognized his unique place in American music. In a subsequent volume of his works for harpsichord and forte-piano that also include eight songs, he wrote in his dedication to General George Washington “However small the Reputation may be that I shall derive from this Work, I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition …” He adds a prophetic comment: “if this attempt should not be too severely treated, others may be encouraged to venture in a path, yet untrodden in America, and the Arts in succession will take root and flourish amongst us.” Hopkinson was succeeded by composers such as Benjamin Can, James Hewitt, and Oliver Shaw, who composed songs in the English style, using texts by English writers.

Following the defeat of the British in the War of 1812 and continuing until the Civil War, the American art song shed its English pretensions and began to assimilate genres and indigenous influences that gave birth to a recognizable American style. Stephen Foster, his exemplars being the Irish composer of songs, Thomas Moore and the Scottish poet, Robert Bums, stands out as the most remarkable composer of his era. Foster, who used to great effect in his 200 songs Italian opera and European art song, as well as popular song styles and minstrel tunes of his day, contributed greatly to furthering the genesis of an American melodic idiom. William Treat Upton in Art Song in America called him “the true embodiment of the spirit of our people in spontaneous song.”

Also during this pre-Civil War period, a taste for the German lied crept into the American consciousness, in part due to concerts by the celebrated “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, who scored such a great success in introducing the German song literature to her American audiences that Schumann songs introduced on her tours were published in America in 1850 and 1852.

With the advent of interest in German music, American composers became more ambitious in song composition. Many went to Germany for study and returned to the United States with new ideas gleaned from the German lied and the French melodie. Little of the output from this pioneering group of Americans is known today. However, their work produced the first indications of a separation between what was “popular song” and what was “art song.”

It took another generation for the ideas gleaned across the ocean to meld with the American idioms already known to its young composers. Thus the late nineteenth century spawned such European-trained composers as Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, George W. Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, James H. Rogers, Ethelbert Nevin, Sidney Homer, and Henry F. Gilbert. Foote and Chadwick are the first of this group to raise the status of American song to a high level of personality and workmanship. The songs of MacDowell, equally well crafted, bear the imprint of his German training. Notable also are the works of Harry T. Burleigh, some of them arrangements of spirituals that have received international attention. Burleigh himself performed them for Dvorák.

The influence of French Impressionism during the first two decades of the twentieth century expresses itself in the work of many Americans, including John Alden Carpenter, Charles Loeffler, and Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Early in his short career, Griffes composed settings of both German and French texts, but later abandoned foreign textual material, though not sacrificing his impressionist leanings.

With the cessation of World War I, America freed itself from the bonds of European musical culture and took on the challenge of Dvorák to “go after our folk music.” Arthur Farwell, who founded the Wa-Wan Press in 1902 to publish music of America, began with the serious study of music of the American Indian, as well as ragtime and “Negro” music. His far-reaching interests also encompassed songs of France, Germany, and Russia. Charles Wakefield Cadman wrote over three hundred songs; two of which, derived from Indian tribal melodies, were sung extensively and recorded.

Charles Ives was the first American “original” in music and the first American composer to enjoy international attention. His music is so unique it cannot be forced into the boundaries implied by the word “style.” His was a completely autonomous musical world, but with roots in his New England origins. He developed his own complex techniques and effects that could encompass even parody. His early songs were also written to German and French texts.

During the period between the World Wars, American music established its own identity as a vital cultural force worthy of world recognition. Development of the phonograph and the institution of radio after 1920 and network programming in 1926 brought great artists singing the serious music of American composers to millions of Americans who may never have attended a live performance. Though this period found many American composers interested in working in other genres, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber also wrote importantly for solo voice. Other Americans creating notable art songs during this era include Richard Hageman, Henry Hadley, Louis Campbell Tipton, Elinor Remick Warren, Wintter Watts, A. Walter Kramer, and William Grant Still.

William Treat Upton notes in his book a significant evolution in the development of the American art song at this period in its history: “…it is coming to be more and more recognized that modern song can no longer be regarded as merely text plus music or music plus text; it is rather text multiplied by music, music multiplied by text, text so reacting upon music, music so reacting upon text, that the two elements become indissolubly merged into one another, the one really incomplete without the other. In fact, it seems to me that this might well be our test of the modern song …

Here we also find the American composer relying less on European texts in favor of native voices. There is a fascination with the spiritual idealism of the Transcendentalist poets, and with the American bard, Walt Whitman. Whitman inspired a new, dynamic, and bold democratic speech whose innate musical rhythms translated readily into song, both here and abroad.

Following World War II, new directions in American poetry that had been established earlier by such poets as e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein further solidified the concept of the poet as equal partner with the composer in the creative process. Composers such as Virgil Thomson, John Duke, Marc Blitzstein, Gunther Schuller, and Celius Dougherty benefited from this unique flowering of “new” poetry.

After 1945, two distinct directions emerged in the world of music that deeply affected the American art song: composers who continued within the realm of tonality and those concerned with a very new world of exploratory tonality based on serial techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern. Chief examples of Americans writing in the tonal tradition would be Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem, whose prolific works range over a spectrum of subjects that rival Ives. Theodore Chanler and Paul Bowles wrote memorable songs in a tonal mode. Postwar composers who chose to follow the wider paths of the avant-garde include John Cage, Ruth Crawford, Milton Babbitt, Wallingford Riegger, Ernst Krenek, and George Rochberg.

The twentyfirst century, while still in its infancy, has seen America dealt repeated blows to its institutions. At this pivotal time in history, America’s art song literature provides a means of communicating, in the simple beauty of word and music, the truths of a nation born of an ideology whose language celebrates the individual. This language of heart and mind says everything about the culture that created it. And when we sing our own songs, those who hear us will have experienced the best of what freedom of thought and purpose can achieve in the creation of great art.

(Thomas Hampson, December 2004)

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In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.

Thomas Hampson