Bachtrack – “Where time stands still”: Thomas Hampson on the magic of song


“You compose because you want to somehow summarise in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.” Aaron Copland’s quote describes best what first drew the American baritone Thomas Hampson to the art of song: the unique combination of two independent art forms that expresses human emotion in an unbelievably condensed way. With a beautiful snowy landscape glaring through the windows of his Zurich home and into the camera of his laptop, Hampson reflects on the art of American song and the importance of a liberal arts education.

“In whatever language and whatever epoch, poetry is a metaphor of the experience of being alive, and it is that,” Hampson explains enthusiastically, “that inspires composers to match that experience in a musical language. The magic of song is everything that is not being said or heard. It’s a dialogue, describing and emoting feelings, capturing a particular moment in time. In a way, it’s a self reflection.” Hampson and I agree that too many recitals today are about who is singing and where it is being sung, and too little is about the literature itself. “This is what really motivates me!” he exclaims. “There is never a time that I’m not singing songs, studying songs or teaching songs. Song can be a magical moment where time almost stands still.”

Ideally, poetry and music go hand in hand, and it is this dialogue that makes song such a wonder in itself. “It embraces, in fact, it demands that the listener both engages intellectually and emotionally – sometimes in the same proportion, but certainly at the same time. Every poem comes from a Gedankengut (body of thought); every text has a certain function. If you don’t understand that function, you can’t understand the music. If you don’t understand the agogic of Heine, you can’t completely understand Schumann.” Hampson has been living in Austria for years, he sings German Lieder, reads German poetry, and yet his command of the language is so surprisingly meticulous that it takes me few words to realise that he’d switched from English into German. “Schubert war unendlich fasziniert, auf welche Weisen man die menschliche Erfahrung in Worte bringen kann. (Schubert was endlessly fascinated by the different ways human experience can be put into words). Schubert was the first to take this context of extra-musical elements and tried to make them audible to further explore the actual dilemma of the personal relationship.

“The miracle of Schumann – and we should never forget that he wept for a week after Schubert died – is that he took the musical elements to another level.” It was also Schumann who started giving the piano more attention, Hampson continues. “It’s important to understand that the piano is not an accompaniment. The pianist must know the singer and the singer must know the pianist. The period of 1820 to 1840, the period of Schubert and Schumann was unbelievably rich in those metaphors.”

There are not many singers whose operatic career is so interwoven with their career as a song recitalist. I ask how his life on the opera stage has influenced his approach to songs or have they influenced his dramatic singing? “Vice versa. I think every singer would be better on stage had they learned how to articulate song, the immediate expression of an intent, if you will. But whether it is an immediate and intimate relationship of thought and emotion in song or in a larger almost canvas painting characterisation of a character, you have to find the soul of it. I never found it useful to find a Fach, especially as a young singer.”

For the last ten years, Thomas Hampson has been pouring his heart and soul into the project Song of America, a comprehensive archive of American song that “tells the story of our culture and nation, through the eyes of our poets and the ears of our composers”. He has always been interested in his country’s history, studied political science at school and one day asked himself the question: “Who is our Schubert? Who is our Brahms and who is our Tchaikovsky?” He started looking at songs and realised “with the turbulences and velocity of American culture becoming American culture you can almost define the history of it in 10 to 15 years periods. America is a geographical collection of mini cultures, of nationalities and origins. With songs, composers tell that story of that time of America. That narrative, that dialogue, that storytelling is probably more powerful in an American than in a European context. It is so contemporarily driven, it is so story-oriented by the time of when it was written. It isn’t until deep into the 20th century where we find poets somewhat liberated from that Americanism, who show a transcendental poetic effort regardless of their nationality.

“I found so much information in our history through the poets and composers that has made so much sense of what America is to me. It’s very difficult to adequately empathise with a culture that is not your own if you don’t know your own. My passion for American song is first and foremost to America, and second to the world. We don’t know our own stories, we don’t know our own history. The American educational system has almost completely written off liberal arts education which I think is a big mistake. It is unfair to our young children. I don’t want my grandchildren to not know our glorious and tumultuous past.”

Hampson does not only identify differences between American and European song in the texts. “Songs, as direct as they can be in any particular present, take time to solidify mostly in the musical language to be informative to a general public. What’s very positive about American avant-garde song, is that about 20 to 25 years ago, composers were again allowed to write melody. This prolificity of melody became very popular – you can have contrary keys but nevertheless melodic lines that you can follow. That is not necessarily true in Central Europe.”

Charles Ives (“a chronicler of the times he lived in whose songs are like little film vignettes”), Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Jennifer Higdon, George Walker, Richard Danielpour (“with his songs you will have a melodic and harmonic relationship to the ups and downs of the text”), the writers Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke – it is impossible to name all American composers and poets that deserve to be mentioned here. Yet, there is one name that stands out. One poet that shaped American poetry and subsequently American song like no other: Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass, he uses the word “song” 192 times; more than 1200 of his poems have been set to music.

Whitman was born in 1819 into a Quaker family living in Long Island. He received limited formal education, later worked as a printer, schoolteacher and in the publishing industry. “What people don’t realise is that in the 1840s there was an unbelievable amount of opera up and down the East Coast, especially Italian opera, and Whitman was assigned to review these performances. He had a real problem with the actual structure of the seemingly elevated art form and struggled with the idea of this contrivance. But quickly he became completely besotted with two or three singers, especially the contralto Marietta Alboni. He was endlessly fascinated with the kinds of colours of expression she could find in her voice. Through this digestion of how she sang, what she sang and what that meant, he became more familiar with and recognised the central structure between recitative and aria. Fast forward to his own life in the late 1880s when he was about to die and writing his reminiscences, he writes the most astounding thing, ‘But for the opera I could not have written Leaves of Grass’.”

It was by exposure to Italian opera that Whitman fell in love with the genre and started appreciating the universality of the classical music’s language. And it is exposure to music that Hampson cites as the first and foremost element of music education. “Taking music – pop music, opera, folks music, choral music, classical music – out of the classrooms is fateful. You are inhibiting young people from finding their own identification. You are inhibiting our children and grandchildren from the tools they need to form their own recognition of the world around them.” Hampson and I are hundreds of miles away from each other, but his passion – and frustration – about this subject is still tangible. “We have made catastrophic political decisions, from America to Germany to France. If we don’t stop, if we don’t recognise that this belongs to the formation of our human characters, and not just the input of information, we are going to be in terrible shape. When I hear a politician say that classical music is elitist: that is elitist! It is a kind of social engineering that I cannot accept, I will not accept.”

Hampson especially believes that songs could be very accessible to a young audience. “Take Schumann and Heine, or Schubert and Heine. So many texts read like stories in those adolescent magazines boys and girls like to read: these love stories, their “My-Oh-Mys”, she is so in love with him, but he leaves her, they were so in love but one of them turned out to be so shit. So much of their poetry is not from a banal level, but it is dealing with those kind of heartaches.

“I’m not concerned about convincing anyone of anything. For me, singing a Liederabend is such a joy and such a complex task to make so many different thoughts of emotions audible and let them resonate through me as a person. There’s something deeply fulfilling about this bouquet of human experience that I’m allowed to do. Music is the inner tapestry of our emotional, intellectual reflections. It’s fun to show a landscape of mirrors to the public. And maybe somebody doesn’t like these songs as much as I do, that’s fine, that’s life, that’s terrific!” His advice and plea to (not just) the audience? “Be alive! Be engaged!”