Preview: Baritone Thomas Hampson is dedicated to a genre that remains essentially unknown in America

By Andrew Druckenbrod / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson has as compelling a voice in the discussion about songs as he does singing them.

And, yes, there has been a discussion within classical music about how to differentiate the music of composers writing in tradition of art music and that of commercially viable (successful or not at the moment) songwriters in the pop realm. The issue is not that one is better than the other, but that the difference is substantial enough to warrant a distinction, just like the difference between, say punk and R&B.

“People have been trying to define art song for so long,” says Hampson, 56. The preeminent artist who has been booked at every major opera house and orchestra over his long career, the American singer also writes and lectures frequently about vocal music. While he asserts that “any effort to retell human existence is art,” he feels strongly that, “We owe it to the creators of any different epoch to couch their art in the context they were in.” And that also applies to composers of today.

Most composers view art song as the lineage of Franz Schubert and the others of different nationality who treated shorter songs in the same manner as they would a symphony. Some, in fact, substituted the orchestra for the piano. Case in point is Richard Strauss’ orchestral song output, some of which Mr. Hampson will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this weekend at Heinz Hall. But finding a description of that tradition’s contemporary iteration can be a biased or outright pejorative discourse. Take the Harvard Dictionary of Music’s definition of art song: “A song of serious artistic intent written by a trained composer, as distinct from a folksong.” Stated as if no pop, R&B, country, you name it, artist has ever done so.

Few today would assert that conservatory training is a requirement for art of any type. And few would deny that many pop artists create art through their songs, commercially successful or not, yet you don’t find Bob Dylan or Paul Simon listed among the composers such as William Bolcom in Mr. Hampson’s important “Song of America Project.” The reasoning is the same. It is to give some distinction, not to exclude or to create a false dichotomy of high and low. For Mr. Hampson, there is a much more concrete and satisfying definition of art song: “poetry set to music,” he says. In other words, what sets off the two broad types is that composers usually write music to fit for a preexisting poem, while pop songwriters set lyrics that have been written specifically to be accompanied by music.

“Lyrics and poetry are two different things,” he emphasizes. “A poem being set to music does not come from the same technique as pop song. It is the metaphor of words translated through the metaphor of music.”

Mr. Hampson isn’t crusading to prop-up semantics, but to bringing attention to a genre of music that remains essentially unknown in America. “I am not trying to define what American song is,” he says. “I am trying to make available this amazing literature of classical song that continues today.”

He has poured his life’s energy into this mission as much as into any performance. His Hampsong Foundation, clever title and all, is both a repository of information and an advocacy organization for vocal music that will never hit the Top 40. It is “dedicated to the support and proliferation of the art of song in America and around the world as a means to foster communication and understanding among cultures.”

“My passion is the dialogue between poet and composer,” he says. “They become the prism through which you see human behavior that is similar across cultures — different wells drilling down to the same river of human behavior.”