Song of America

American songs

Monterey County Herald | June 1st, 2006

A few days ago a man by the name of Albert Imperato left a message on my phone urging me to write about a unique concert taking place in San Jose by Thomas Hampson, the internationally renowned baritone.

Intrigued, I returned the call to learned more about the famed singer’s collaboration with the Library of Congress to celebrate the history of creativity in America.

Described once as tall, charismatic and as square-jawed as the Marlboro man, Hampson possesses a rich, affecting voice and empowers his singing with interpretive depth and intelligence.

Hampson retraces the culture of music in ‘Song of America’

During a recital at the Holland Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, internationally acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson will give listeners a structured overview of the American song.

He will talk about how the song has progressed since the 1700s until the present, touching on everything from Psalms settings to African-American spirituals.
And he will demonstrate.

The program has all the makings of a music history class. But Hampson, a lifelong champion of the American song, says it most definitely is not. There won’t be any preaching, soapboxes or finger-wagging.

“You’re not coming to this concert to be lectured at or told what to think,” Hampson said from New York City, where he is performing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Rather, the concerts on the “Song of America Tour,” which began in November, offer gentle exposure to music that has made America what it is today.

“Song in America is such a huge subject, and a wonderful reflection of our culture,” Hampson said. “Our stories are to be found in our songs.”

The “Song of America Tour” grew out of Hampson’s many hours in the archives at the Library of Congress. Poring over scores by composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland and others, Hampson became increasingly aware of the treasure that was in the library. So he decided – along with Librarian of Congress James H. Billington – that more people should know about it.

At every stop, Hampson has performed recitals – not classes – that take listeners through a series of songs by American poets and composers. Along with the performance, the Library of Congress offers displays of rare objects.

During Hampson’s performance in Omaha, holograph manuscripts of works such as Louis Armstrong’s “Gully Low Blues” and Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” will be exhibited in the Holland Center’s lobby.

“After this experience, (audience members) will hopefully feel better about themselves,” Hampson said, “and clearer about how proud we can all be about what we call this American experience.”

Hampson celebrates the songs of America

He has lived in Austria for years, logs substantial time in London, and for most of the year lives out of a suitcase while appearing on the world’s leading opera stages and concert platforms.

Despite the peripatetic existence and long expatriate status, few artists have done as much for the cause of American song than Thomas Hampson. The celebrated baritone has recorded discs devoted to Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, settings of Whitman poetry and composers ranging from Charles Tomlinson Griffes to Deems Taylor.

In collaboration with the Library of Congress, Hampson is now embarked on an 11-city tour that charts the rich legacy of homegrown vocal music from psalm settings, hymns and spirituals to the present day. His “Song of America” tour comes to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Sunday evening.

Speaking from London, Hampson’s enthusiasm for American song remains palpable as he speaks of the wealth and depth of our vocal heritage. The singer emphasizes that this is not a didactic or academic exercise, but populist in the best sense of the word.

“I don’t see this as a finger-wagging project or condescending,” Hampson said. “I truly believe that this celebration of the American spirit is as much in our poems and in our composers as anything in the popular medium and that they can live very happily side by side.”

The baritone’s take on this vast repertoire has evolved over several years, and he sees it as a “storyboard of American culture.” For Hampson, immersing himself in two centuries of American vocal music has made him view our tradition as a fascinating continuum.

“It’s become very clear to me that looking at American culture and especially American song, it’s more worthwhile looking at periods of development in our history than searching for our Brahms or our Schubert,” Hampson said. “If you slice off American history every 10 or 15 years you’ll be able to tell that story through the poems and through the different kinds of songs that remain.”

Hampson stressed that unlike Europe’s lied tradition, the populist element in American song was embedded in the nation’s cultural fabric from the start. “Drawing a nice clean line between popular song and concert song is just impossible,” he said.

The decade of the 1860s was a time of particular cultural ferment, with the nation headed into Civil War and Stephen Foster’s songs achieving the height of their popularity.

“You have iconoclastic composers like Stephen Foster that embody so much of the Irish, parlor, porch-singing song tradition of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore,” Hampson said.

“But at the same time, Foster sort of plants the root of American song right into the soil. Because with the minstrelsy and with the parlor songs and the ballads, we’re coming out of the English tradition and we’re going into the vaudeville tradition and the musical theater tradition.”

Hampson thinks that America’s cultural traditions are deeper and more profound than is generally credited across the pond and characterized by a firm sense of individuality and Realpolitik.

“If you look at the poets and their stories and you look at the composers and their songs, it’s people thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be in America or be an artist in America. All these things tie together in the song repertoire like in no other culture I know; you don’t find Brahms writing what its like to be a German,” he said.

Though the core of the program is similar, elements are altered for each city and stop. At Kravis, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser will participate in a pre-concert roundtable and Hampson will perform a new work, A Heartland Portrait by Stephen Paulus, set to Kooser’s texts. Hampson said another reason for bringing the recital to Kravis is in part a public thank-you to Palm Beach philanthropist John Kluge, whose financial support of the Library of Congress has been instrumental in this project.

Hampson has always been in the forefront of technology to advocate vocal music and his art, from his own pioneering Web site ( to his ongoing collaborations with the Library of Congress. The singer is helping to create a mass database for the Library of Congress Web site, with American songs, composers and other information extensively cross-referenced. “If it’s in the public domain I think you should be able to just grab it off the Web,” Hampson said. “I think there should be a free listening library, too, and it should be streamed so people can listen and become aware of this music.”

In his view, the Internet has vast untapped potential for re-introducing America’s songs into the home in the same way that sheet music on the parlor piano served to entertain and enlighten families in the 19th century.

“It’s helping people who want to know more simply get into the music and get into the composers,” Hampson said. “When I was growing up, I checked records out of the public library and that’s how I learned about music. I think we’ve left that part of public awareness and accessibility behind. I think that was a mistake and I think new technology can just take us in leaps and bounds back into people’s homes and lives.”

Hampson will present his “Song of America” program at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $15-$80. There will be a pre-concert discussion with Hampson, Kooser and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. Also, Hampson will present the lecture “Creative America” at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Cohen Pavilion of the Kravis Center. Tickets are $25. Contact, 800-572-8471 and 561-832-7469.

Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4708.

Touring on a Double Bill: A Baritone and Uncle Sam

True, it has long presented concerts in its Coolidge Auditorium, but this is something else. On Thursday, the American baritone Thomas Hampson arrives at Carnegie Hall, the next stop (after a performance Tuesday at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul) on his tour “Song of America.” The tour, which began in November in this suburb of Kansas City, Kan., and is presented by the library, is meant to draw attention not only to the extraordinary collection of American music among its vast holdings but also to its flourishing Web site, which registered nearly four billion hits last year.

“We are probably the world’s largest provider of dependable, high-quality educational cultural material on the Internet,” said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress. The site offers free access to more than 10 million documents, books and other items. It will soon include an audio component that will feature a variety of singers performing American songs, and Mr. Hampson is intimately involved with that project as well.

“Tom is not only a great artist,” Dr. Billington said, “but he is a great maven – if that’s the right word – of the collections of the library. Over the years, he has impressed our curators with his curiosity and his interest, and we seemed to hit it off on this idea that maybe we take the song of America and give it back to Americans.”

Mr. Hampson participates in several events in each city. Here, in November, he made a speech and sang unaccompanied at a reception at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Donald J. Hall Sr. (he, the retired chairman of Hallmark Cards).

The next morning, he visited the new home of University Academy, an elementary and high school for urban children (built entirely with private money and so successful that all seniors go on to college). While addressing the students, he demonstrated the power of singing without a microphone with “High Row the Boatman Row,” and the assembly roared its approval. He also observed as dozens of students procured copyrights for sculptures, essays, poems and musical compositions.

Later that day, he gave a master class with four promising singers. He dropped by a Library of Congress seminar for local teachers on how to use the Web site as a resource to encourage creativity, and shared his thoughts on the value of education, exposure to the arts and the importance of understanding our artistic heritage. The concert itself drew a large crowd.
These activities fit right in with Mr. Hampson’s longstanding interest in American vocal music. He has made several recordings of it, including the new companion disc, “Song of America,” from EMI Classics. With his recital programs, he said, he wants to show how “music is one of the great powerhouses of creativity in America.”

“What I want to make sure,” he added, “is that we, say, have a listen to Sam Barber, have a listen to John Duke and to Virgil Thomson; and no, you can still enjoy ‘Shenandoah,’ and it’s O.K. to listen to them in the same hour; and yes, Jerome Kern was a great composer, and Cole Porter was one of the most brilliant Americans who ever walked the face – all those sorts of things.

“The body of this repertoire is about the American experience and the American development, the American psyche,” he continued. “It is always song and storytelling. It is always linked up to a particular school of thought at a particular slice of time in the various epochs and generations that make up the American experience. And you can hear that.”

For all of that, Mr. Hampson is not the tour’s only attraction. The library is also displaying groups of 20 or more treasures from its collection in some cities. Concertgoers here saw manuscript pages by Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Stephen Foster as well as first editions of songs, photographs and letters of historical interest. The range and variety are intentional, and they reflect the nature of Mr. Hampson’s programming.

“My particular expertise is in what I would call the concert song, which I prefer as a phrase to ‘art song,’ because ‘art song’ can be somewhat off-putting,” he said. To him, a concert song is different from – though not necessarily better than – a Jerome Kern song. “The issue is really a poem or a poetic form being willfully set to music,” he explained. “There is a musical interpretation; augmentation; expansion; enlivening, enriching manipulation; distortion of the poem. And the minute that happens, it’s really obviously no longer the poem, nor is it a musical element either. It’s a song.”

The varied carols we hear: A tribute to American song

Baritone Thomas Hampson has often visited Philadelphia with American song on his mind, if not in his throat. So it is with his Sunday Kimmel Center concert, but with much bigger matters on the periphery.

Titled the Library of Congress Song of America Tour, the recital arrives with a kiosk of manuscripts by Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and others from the library’s holdings as well as a preconcert lecture by James H. Billington, the official librarian of Congress. In conjunction with all this, EMI has released Hampson’s compact disc Song of America. Though both concert and CD come with a nod to the nation’s famous repository of some 130 million items, the central idea on Hampson’s mind is preserving the possibility of curiosity.

“We’ve lost our way,” Hampson declared the other day, “by not making music available to the general public and students – as it was when I was starting out.”

That idea falls strangely into a world where duplication of pop-music CDs and free downloads threaten the music industry. But much of what Hampson is referring to hasn’t been mass-market fodder for decades or longer. This music, however, is essential to a cultural identity. His Sunday program ranges from Stephen Foster music written in the 1860s to Charles Tomlinson Griffes songs from 1918.

Few American singers have achieved as much European success and artistic credibility as Hampson. He’s based in Vienna, where he lives with no less than the Countess Andrea Herberstein. Earlier in life, he was among the few Americans to pass muster with the ultra-severe retired soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who teaches German art song as a calling at least as high as the priesthood.

Yet Hampson, 50, doesn’t hesitate to return to “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.” He hasn’t lost his accent from his native Spokane, Wash. – or forgotten all of what happened before he became one of the world’s great Don Giovannis. One key stop on that route was Spokane’s public library; he took home a dozen LPs at a time.

“Where do you do that today? And in what quantities can you do that today? What are the restrictions?” he asks. “I want to make a Web site for American music and poetry… with downloadable musical archives and biographic information. The notes [to the songs] are in the public domain. Why aren’t they available?”

Hampson did fine without resources such as the Library of Congress for some time – mainly through luck. He’s the kind of singer who learned more on his feet than in the conservatory, first earning a political science degree from Eastern Washington University and later studying at UCLA without matriculating.

“If I could do a tour with enough money to get from place to place, I was your man,” he recalls.

Then there was that fateful 1982 engagement at the Santa Fe Opera when he stumbled upon three filing cabinets of American music in an Albuquerque antique shop.

“I started pawing through it, and asked what he [the shop owner] would want for the whole lot of them. I gave him a hundred bucks, and you’d think I’d just handed him a house,” he says. “That afternoon I drove back in my little rental car stacked with boxes of sheet music. I had everything from Lou Harrison to David Diamond to early Samuel Barber scores… . ”

Such accidental repositories are vanishing in high-rent cities, which makes the Library of Congress a more crucial resource, at a time when the institution is attempting to change its image as the Fort Knox of libraries (full of riches but hard to penetrate). How that might come together with online access to the music remains to be seen.

Hampson has no lack of Web presence, with and the “I Hear America Singing” site (at However, a significant step is fostering an appreciation for American song that’s lasting and appropriate.

Looking for the American version of Schubert, he says, isn’t the point: “That’s a knee-jerk defensiveness to European culture. What’s fascinating is the prolific-ness of American songwriters. The downside is that there’s such a big risk to fail involved. The disparity in quality in any of our composers can be pretty wide… .”

In other words, the work has to be judged as a collective rather than individual output – and one that was probably more in touch with social and political changes than with European composers. Irving Berlin was the best example; he was a virtual chameleon who embodied dance crazes from ragtime to the twist.

The thought that American songwriters shouldn’t be judged for not attempting greatness at every turn is fairly radical. But even the best American songs require leaps into a distant cultural mind-set – which often means looking beyond heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality.

“I don’t want to run away from that,” says Hampson, “but I think that because of the sentimentality, some of the real messages of these songs are lost. There’s a lot of pain of displacement in those songs. And that’s always made great song material.”

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or
[email protected] Read his recent work at


Dr. James H Billington: My Music

Despite my lack of talent in music – I cannot even carry a tune – I have been deeply affected by it throughout my life. My mother and grandmother filled our house with beautiful piano music; and a great music teacher in my elementary school near Philadelphia, Jean Staples, imparted an infectious enthusiasm for American songs. When I sing in the shower even today, it is usually those songs. My wonderful wife Marjorie, who really can sing, has endured these sounds for 48 years.

No doubting Thomas: an interview with Thomas Hampson

Thomas Hampson is a man with a mission. When the singer speaks during our meeting in New York in mid-November, words just tumble from his mouth in an amazing display of acuity, exuberance, and truly dizzying speed. He speaks with the zeal of a true evangelist.
Hampson has plenty of reason to be keyed up about his latest project. Working alongside the Library of Congress, the silken-voiced 50-year-old is celebrating the achievements of American composers and poets old and new in his ‘Song in America’ initiative. The project’s nucleus is a season-long, 12-city tour of the States, which kicked off with November dates in Kansas City and Fort Worth and continues on to Philadelphia, St Paul, New York, Detroit, West Palm Beach, Oxford (Mississippi), Chicago, Omaha, San Jose, and Denver next spring.

Hampson’s performances only form part of the project’s scope, however. Along the way, he will also offer masterclasses and open rehearsals to local voice students and teachers. And the Library of Congress is mounting exhibitions in each tour-stop city that will include items of local interest.

The Library is coordinating educational programmes for teachers and hosting special events, including document preservation workshops for the public, and screenings of classic American movies. The Library’s Folklife Center will also collect oral histories from notable citizens of each region.
The singer is quick to note that all these activities are not an end in themselves, or the summation of past efforts. ‘This is just the kick-off of something much bigger,’ he proudly forecasts. One of the project’s foremost long-term goals is to get the American public better acquainted with one of the country’s greatest cultural treasures, the Library of Congress.

Taken as a whole, the project fuses together several of the baritone’s deepest personal passions. It combines an examination of the deep intersections of American poetry and music, a study of the place of music within American society, an opportunity to shore up the song recital as a living art-form, the chance to enhance musical and arts education in the US, and – a natural for this gear-head artist – the prospect both to explore and to enhance the possibilities presented by new technology.
Hampson’s live performances will undoubtedly touch upon some of his signature music.

However, he confesses: ‘I haven’t quite finalised the repertoire for each concert.’ Choices will vary from city to city, built on the idea of contextualising and honouring regional contributions.
One highlight, undoubtedly, will be the world premiere in St. Paul of a new song-cycle by Stephen Paulus. The texts are tied into the Library of Congress theme: Paulus has set works by the US Poet Laureate, Nebraska-based Ted Kooser.
‘If someone had said to me, “Tom, make us the great American sampler”,’ Hampson muses, ‘I probably would have thrown myself out the window. There is so much fantastic stuff in our massive output.’ Still, some choices are easier than others, and Hampson’s latest CD release offers clues to this richness. To mark the tour, Hampson’s label, Angel/EMI Classics, has issued a compilation featuring great American songs the baritone has recorded over the past 15 years.
The album encompasses traditional tunes like Shenandoah and The Erie Canal to Stephen Foster’s iconic Hard Times Come Again No More. Not surprisingly, though, Walt Whitman’s poetry takes centre stage, courtesy of a dazzling array of settings by such notables as Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem (not to mention rarities by Elinor Remick Warren and Henry Thacker Burleigh). ‘I can’t imagine this project without Walt Whitman,’ says Hampson.

Both the tour and album provide ample opportunity for Hampson to ‘connect the dots’, as he puts it. ‘I’m not big on questions like “What’s your favourite role?” “What’s the best opera?” “Who’s the most interesting song composer?'” he confides. I’m not convinced that the most interesting focal point of music is to follow a composer and his or her development. I’m not good at pyramids. Instead, what interests me more is the larger process, and to link various eras in our history to other cultural currents, like sociological phenomena and philosophical schools.’

To the singer, that process is also about watching American identity take shape over time. By this, he means not just the answers and conclusions American composers and poets have given in their work, but the questions that they have asked in folk music and art music since the nation’s earliest days: Who are we as a people? Who is that ‘we,’ anyway? Can there ever be a singular ‘we’ in the United States?

‘Part of the reason for asking those questions is of course to work through those questions for ourselves,’ he says. ‘But we ask ourselves about these issues so that others can look at us and understand who the hell we are. That’s part of my life, certainly.’

‘I deal daily with people who have a very perverse notion of what America is’

‘I live a great deal of my life in Europe [he largely divides his time between Washington State and Vienna] and I deal daily with people who have, in my view, a very perverse – even if it’s positive, still a perverse – notion of what America is, and why America is.’
‘Actually, the idea of codifying our national identity interests me more than the question of whether or not our creative minds have gotten the answers right. I love the process. I think that every generation is part of the decision process, and that conversation takes us farther.’

Hampson feels strongly about one goal of this project: to lay claim not just to American music, but also to help ignite passion among singers, pianists, and audiences for the song recital itself.

‘I sing at a lot of non-concert functions, like golf tournaments,’ he says. ‘And those guys love the music! I’ll sing, for example, “Hush you bye, don’t you cry”,’ – the words that start off “The Little Horses,” a lullaby that Copland used in his Old American Songs – and suddenly the guys listening remember that their grandmothers sang them that tune. But the act of singing, and certainly the concert song, doesn’t seem to be as self-understood as we singers take it.’

I suggest that perhaps part of the reason for that dissolution of meaning and memory is because we, as a culture, have largely left song out of the rhythm of our daily contemporary lives. Usually the public is happy to leave singing, whether classical or pop, to the professionals.
‘Absolutely,’ Hampson agrees. ‘But the acute situation is this: the idea of a concert song, the act of having a person sing without a microphone, standing with a piano and giving an almost ballad-like narration, has become pretty strange for people.’

From Hampson’s perspective, though, one of the primary goals of ‘Song in America’ is to create interest in the incredible free resources that the Library of Congress offers, both in terms of what is available online and what hopefully awaits down the road. These resources come not a minute too soon for internet-buff Hampson, whose edifying website ( has been up and running for years.

Backing the new technologies:
podcasting and the internet can provide
endless educational possibilities,
says Thomas Hampson

‘The Library is the great repository, and one of the last great experiments, that Western civilisation got right,’ Hampson asserts. ‘It is the great descendant of Alexandria, and yet most of the general public doesn’t have a direct connect to it. What the Library can do for any citizen in the world, but especially for an American, most of us don’t know.’
Helping to assemble online resources is a particular pleasure. ‘I love this stuff,’ he enthuses. ‘With podcasting, and video podcasting – not to mention Internet! – the educational possibilities are endless. It’s all just too exciting for words.’

Indeed, he muses that his zeal for all things digital might mean a career change. ‘It may very well be that I just move slowly but surely off the front line of performing and more into the back line of database building.’

‘Give me the money and I’ll turn into the Google of recording!

The database he has in mind is one that would, in a perfect world, fully account for the development of American song, making scores, recordings, and other materials available to performers, students, and the public alike. ‘Give me the money, and I’ll turn into the Google of the recording industry!’ he half-jokes.
In the meantime, though, the singer is doing all he can to fan the flame of interest in American song: ‘I’m keeping the pot boiling. It’s my watch, it’s my time, and I’m not going to let the fire go out.’

The varied carols we hear: A tribute to American song

Philadelphia Inquirer | January 3, 2006

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic

Baritone Thomas Hampson has often visited Philadelphia with American song on his mind, if not in his throat. So it is with his Sunday Kimmel Center concert, but with much bigger matters on the periphery.

Titled the Library of Congress Song of America Tour, the recital arrives with a kiosk of manuscripts by Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and others from the library’s holdings as well as a preconcert lecture by James H. Billington, the official librarian of Congress. In conjunction with all this, EMI has released Hampson’s compact disc Song of America. Though both concert and CD come with a nod to the nation’s famous repository of some 130 million items, the central idea on Hampson’s mind is preserving the possibility of curiosity.

No doubting Thomas: An interview with Thomas Hampson

The GRAMOPHONE | January 2006

One of the great voices of America reveals himself as a zealot … on behalf of song and singing. And he’s taking the message to the nation, he tells Anastasia Tsioulcas

Thomas Hampson is a man with a mission. When the singer speaks during our meeting in New York in mid-November, words just tumble from his mouth in an amazing display of acuity, exuberance, and truly dizzying speed. He speaks with the zeal of a true evangelist.

A Study of the Text and Music for Whitman’s To What You Said

© Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,
Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.

In his 1860 Calamus poems Walt Whitman chose the metaphor of fragile leaves to suggest not only the most naked thoughts which lie beneath his verse, but also the bond of intimacy that links poet to reader. Frail might the leaves have been, but hardy too, for such is the meaning of the calamus image – the grass which stands firmly rooted in earth, blowing freely in the wind, delicate and defiant. The calamus metaphor runs throughout Whitman’s verse from the 1860’s onward and with it the recurring themes of the love of comrades, the bond of male love (both erotic and platonic), the wonders of the human body, and the charge to a young nation to cast off the chains of convention and celebrate the myriad of human experiences.

Thoughts on Song in America

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)

The Very Heartbeat of Song – Thoughts on “I Hear America Singing”

Song is a metaphor of the imagination; it is poetic thought enscapsulated in music. Poetry, while having many forms, is driven by the basic instinct to tell the story of existence. The American poetic tradition is a particularly rich narration of both being a people and becoming a culture; a culture chiseled out of a fierce independence of mind and heart and sould forever grounded in the very myriad of racial histories from which it hearkens.
The Nation “America” has always meant different things to different peoples. The place we call the New World is no less profound or real than the imagination of that New World. So many poems and so much music has been inspired from the journey inward and outward to a land where things could be thought anew. And while perhaps now in the 21st century we speak of “American poetry and music” the real story is to be found when we speak of “poetry and music in America”. The exploration of poetry and song in America invites one into the psyche of the New World, as do few other disciplines. Poets and composers in America have always been as preoccupied with the contemplation of their existence as artists as with their own unique artistic effort in America.
This self-examination is indicative of the far greater collective experience we call the “American Experience,” i.e., the passion for self realization; the challenge of existence of the one among the many; the tolerance of the specific in the context of the greater good; the obsessive love/hate dialogue with form, whether political, social, religious or musical; the confusing preoccupation with “art” vs. “popular” as concepts and certainly, above all, the persistent longing to define “it” as “American.”

It was the great philosopher, poet, preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who challenging the poet and seer to reconstruct the original self from whence “sprang the sun and the moon” and to see the body as the “circumference of the soul,” so inspired Walt Whitman (1819-1892) to burst forth in a new and vibrant and fiercely egalitarian voice as never heard before. “The United States are themselves the greatest poem,” echoing Emerson as he further exerted that “poets and not presidents are the common referees” of a nation. It is they who will absorb the traditions of the past, (of all the pasts of all the peoples) and turn them into something new and distinctly native. This will be found in what Whitman called a language recognized by ist “sonorous strength, breadth and openness.” Alexis de Tocqueville heard this sonority when he with foresight recognized that “poets living in democratic times will prefer the delineation of ideas and passions to that of persons and achievements… this forces the poet below the surface of the external… palpable to the senses… in order to read the inner soul.” It was his recognitiion of this “man alone” separated from the massive structures, both physical and mental, of Europe, gazing at a vast richness and terrifying absence that was the New World to be envisioned, created and realized.

The “Birth of the Modern,” as the historien Paul Johnson so aptly describes the age ushered in by Beaumarchais, Wordsworth, Byron, Heine, and Beaudelaire, found a resonance of personal determination in the distant voices of William Cullen Bryant, Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Longfellow, Dickinson, Thoreau, and Melville.
This intense personal identity that erupted into the 20th century destroying and rebuilding countries and art forms alike has always had a spiritual, even metaphysical insistence about it oft conveyed through what seems to be sentiment and melodrama but in fact is risking the subjective narrative. Poets of this century such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, W.H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, and Paul Goodman hearkening the challenge of Whitman, have embraced their “traditions,” re-hued their “native” and excavated below the surface, recognizing as Wallace Stevens puts it that “the first idea was not our own.” These ideas, now thoughts and words of a new world, have been a great creative impulse for the composers of the last 125 years; music in America reflecting the best of what is spontaneous and by definition eclectic in the arts.
In this episode of “I Hear America Singing,” the ambition is to explore from a distinctly non-American-music frame of mind the poetic narration just described, the composers being all of an inherent European heritage or influence in their artistic development albeit finding that which became for them the New World experience.

Three main groups separate for the sake of argument our composers in this project: The first being that of European composesrs remaining in Europe and from a distance being intrigued, inspired and compelled to set American poetry. These include: Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Paul Hindemith, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Charles Stanford. The second larger group is that of composers born and schooled in Europe but then having chosen America as their new homeland coalesced their musical heritages and disciplines with the thoughts and words of their new world. These composers include: Sam Adler, Jean Berger, Ernest Gold, Kurt Weill, Sergius Kagen, Wilhelm Grosz, and Ruth Schonthal. The final group examines the development of those composers born in America but having found their unique “American” voice from significant studies, domestication and assimilation of foreign languages in Europe. These will include: Ernst Bacon, Charles Griffes, Edward Macdowell, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, and Ned Rorem. And while many more European composers composed in and for America, this project is only about the musical setting of poetry written in America.

Each evening will provide like the turning of a kaleidoscope a myriad of dialogues, impulses, and contradictions of the personal, cultural, racial, political and even academic traditions that are juxtaposed in the creative search to wed word and sound of disparate origins. This seems to me the very heartbeat of song: the ability to suspend life’s successive moments and pulses for the expanded reflection of a greater present allowing for the individual to find the innermost of himself.

Vienna, June 2001

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