Songs of Love
from the American Songbook
This anthology of American songs includes some much loved and also some lesser-known songs, including two première recordings. Whilst this selection shows the variation in compositional language during the latter twentieth century, it also portrays the stylistic aesthetics and values of American song in the context of today’s musical panorama. American song (also known as “art song”, as distinct from many other categories of song), developed in the mid- and late- 19th C. in private homes (or ‘parlors’) and concert halls alike, alongside the already much-loved European Lieder and songs, usually translated and published in English.
Among the composers whose songs were performed across the continent were Stephen Foster, Charles Griffes, Charles Ives, Amy Beach, and many others. For example, they contained folk material from the deep south, or that of Irish immigrants. In the early 20th century jazz and swing gained huge popularity, and ragtime-style pieces were influencing classical European composers such as Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Darius Milhaud. The arrival of musicians fleeing Europe in the 1930s added further enrichment to American music. On Broadway and in the fast-developing Hollywood, the world of musicals was revolutionized by Kurt Weill, paving the way for great songwriters to come. Gershwin and Bernstein were modern, far from the second Viennese school or Darmstadt influences. The experimental works of John Cage and Morton Feldman co-existed, but the overridingly popular American music style had its own voice, melodious and free.
The selected songs have several points in common, above all how accessible the genre is to the listener, while remaining distinctive. As Scott Wheeler explains, a characteristic of American song composers, as different as Ives, Bernstein, and Bolcom, is that in general they have a connection to popular culture. “We are all aware of jazz, and we don’t despise music’s role in entertainment, though we like to push the bounds with intricate rhythms and harmonies”. This anthology also underlines the role of poetry in the genesis of song, as inspiration to composers to set the words in music. Hence as a form of ‘sung verse’, song is an intimate form of communication, appropriate for expressing the evergreen theme of love.
Writer and composer Ned Rorem wrote much orchestral and chamber music, operas, and several hundred songs. Rorem’s published diaries are as enjoyable as invaluable to the understanding of music and songwriting across the changing twentieth century landscape. His style in song stems from a parsimonious use of harmony, definitely with a French flavor, as heard in the opening song Do I love you more than a day? (to a poem by Jack Larson). Indeed, the melody forming the theme of the song Love (poem by Thomas Lodge) uses Claude Debussy’s note pattern from the opening of the prelude La Fille aux cheveux de lin. Both pieces represent youthful innocence and sensuality, perhaps a homage to the French composer. The Nightingale (anon. traditional) evokes an English folksong, its lovesick minor notes modulating yearningly in search for requited love, but in vain. Then follow two highly contrasting poems by Walt Whitman. O you whom I often, is saucily flirtatious and lasts barely a minute, in contrast with Look down fair moon, a haunting description of the horror and bloodshed of the American Civil War. The piano’s harsh chords and bare fifths stand out like the stiff limbs of the dead in this powerful song of a single page.
The three songs by Samuel Barber include his very first song, written when he was aged 15. The touching lullaby, Slumber song of the Madonna (to a poem by Alfred Noyes) mingles humility and fear with strong maternal love. The song already reveals Barber’s characteristic harmonic texture and intensity, which we again find in Solitary Hotel, to words from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here the sense of drama is no surprise and a theatrical dimension is created. Barber studied with and was the lifelong partner of Italian opera composer Giancarlo Menotti. His output included songs and operas, many written for Leontyne Price. The voice in Solitary Hotel delivers simple comments or abbreviated phrases, accompanying the piano’s obsessive, passionate tango which mirrors a broken love story. Meanwhile, in The Monk and his Cat, the two protagonists have found their ideal reciprocal love match! From the song cycle The Hermit Songs, to words originally in old Irish Gaelic, the monk is serenely bemused by the antics of his feline companion, Pangur. The song’s final measures are purringly tender.
Lee Hoiby, also a pupil of Menotti, wrote several successful operas and over one hundred songs. As a pianist and a composer, he nurtured a special love for Schubert’s Lieder, which in turn influenced his songwriting style and his care in writing for the voice. An Immorality (poem by Ezra Pound) affirms the wisdom of privileging true love to vain ‘high deeds’, expressed through simple but rich tonal harmony and almost Brahmsian melody. In Summer Song, (to a poem by John Fandel), time itself is suspended, whilst Hoiby’s ecstatically soaring phrases are stylistically reminiscent of songs by Hugo Wolf.
Born in 1924, George Crumb once described music as “a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse”. Within his easily accessible music, he is known for his experimentation with timbre, using extreme dynamic ranges, and unusual sonorities. Crumb dismissively described the Three Early Songs as sins of his youth, despite their powerful beauty. Often with subtle echoes of Debussy, the parallel open fifths paint the dramatic night sky, whilst in Crumb’s second song, hypnotic repeated chords accompany the acceptance of past grief, pinched with underlying pain. In the final song, the mellifluous flow of the wind through the sown fields at each new season offers cathartic solace.
The connecting thread of this anthology was initially inspired by the title of the song cycle Mostly about Love, written in 1959 by the composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1889). The whimsical and tender poems are by the New York poet, Kenneth Koch. These songs are written mostly in a simple, impeccable manner, at times in a stylized pastiche of baroque or liturgical music. Each with its own endearing charm, they form one of Thomson’s most successful vocal works. From the very opening of Love Song, we are treated to cascades of surreal metaphors of how to say ‘I love you’. This is followed by Down at the docks, Let’s take a walk, and finally the Prayer to St. Catherine of Siena; Saint Catherine is of course the only saint in Siena capable of curing heartache and shyness.
The pianist and composer John Musto is particularly appreciated for his concert performances of Bach and of jazz. This speaks a lot about his compositions too, where fugue-like or polyphonic style accompaniments alternate with features of ragtime, jazz, or blues. The song Litany (from the cycle Shadow of the Blues), to a poem by Langston Hughes (originally entitled Prayer) is not a religious song, but rather is about offering pity and love to the suffering and forsaken. Although our love may suggest hope (in the high note on “Love”), the piano’s postlude chords indicate a sense of futility and resignation. In Epithalamium (poetry by Denise Lanctot), a woman wistfully relives her first taste of passionate love (which took place ‘in my father’s orchard’), but in Rome: in the Café (poem by James Laughlin) we witness the tragic scene of a fading love affair, as observed by perhaps a new lover. The piano interweaves melodic Bach-like threads, creating a sense of detachment and poignancy.
In You came as a thought, to James Laughlin’s lines, the sung phrases are poised between three static non-resolving chords, but resolve finally in a luminous major chord to the words “You were my evening star”.
Scott Wheeler is a composer with a wide-ranging musical background, shifting stylistically with ease yet always distinctive, and in these four songs one feels the subtle influence of musical theater or film music.
Equinox (to a poem by the late Erika Mumford), reveals the subdued fervor of expectation, where wisps of smoke, twittering sparrows, and hazy swarms of bees are depicted by the piano. In the final bars, a burst of bright clusters hails the spring and its promise of love. Recuerdo, from the song cycle Wasting the Night to poems by Edna St.Vincent Millay, is a bluesy, dreamy account of two lovers who spend all night on the ferry, warmed by the fire of their love, whilst the intimacy and wisdom of The Betrothal, from the same song cycle, unwind in a gentle folk idiom to slightly jazzy harmonies.
I will always be on your side was written to be sung by film actor Marc Tissot, but was never performed. The lyrics were by actor and writer Jack Larson.
In Ophelia’s Song and Spring, from Jake Heggie’s cycle Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia, we are drawn into the perception of the world of a woman, manipulated and dominated by men, to whom love and life are denied. Ophelia’s melancholy reflections become vibrant and dramatic in the words of Heggie and St.Vincent Millay, as her supposed madness and suicide, remain an unanswered question, hence the finale with an edgy,
The anthology finishes turning to Leonard Bernstein’s song A little bit in love (from the 1953 musical, Wonderful Town). Bernstein conveys his characteristic sense of boundless enthusiasm and uniquely contagious joie de vivre translated into music and song.
“And we live because we love”
Lorna Windsor © 2021
GIAN FRANCESCO AMOROSO
The Italian pianist Gian Francesco Amoroso is also a harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist. His studies include participation in the Lieder class at the Mozarteum Academy of Salzburg, and a Bachelor’s degree in Musicology, specializing in musical dramaturgy, at the Università degli Studi in Milan.
His concert career is intense and varied. He has accompanied singers in chamber music repertoire, from the romantic Lied to twentieth century songs. He recently recorded the liriche da camera by Vittore Veneziani (Tactus), and has also recorded early 20th century Italian repertoire (Kicco Music). Amongst his numerous publications are a two-volume piano method, edited by Ricordi BMG, a biography of the baritone Cesare Melzi (1833-1904) published by Piacenza Arte, and a presentation and compilation of hitherto unpublished piano studies by Emmanuele Borgatta (1809-1883) plus a quartet, also unpublished, by Antonio Bonazzi (1754-1802), for Sillabe Editions.
He works in musical education at varying levels, including courses and conferences in Italy, and currently as professor of the History of Music at the European Centre of Musical Studies and Acoustics in Lugano, Switzerland.
The eclectic career of soprano Lorna Windsor is a journey into the exploration of vocal repertoire from the period of ancient, trobador and medieval song, baroque music and 18thC Neapolitan opera through to contemporary operas. She has also given première performances in Italy's major theatres.
As a child, already a pianist and violist, she sang in major orchestral works, then majored in vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Winner of various Lieder prizes, she studied further in Vienna and Paris. She made her opera début as Rosalinde (Die Fledermaus), Euridice (Théâtre du Châtelet), Donna Anna (Glyndebourne), Despina (Piccolo Teatro di Milano, China, Russia), M. Laurencin in The Banquet (Genoa, Rome, Florence, San Carlo), The Merry Widow (Marseilles), Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera), Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier) and performed Offenbach operettas in Paris with J. Savary, but also Monteverdi, Bach cantatas (with Gustav Leonhardt), Salieri (with Frans Bruggen), Così fan tutte (with Claudio Abbado), Rossini (with Sir Andrew Davies), Trouble in Tahiti and West Side Story at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées (with G. Gelmetti) in Paris. Her concert career covers repertoire from Lieder and Song recitals to performances of works by many of today’s composers, such as Bussotti, Kagel, Kurtág, De Pablo, Andriessen, Berio, Crumb, Battiato, Adams. She also adores giving recitals of songs by Weill and Porter, and recently added to her engagements Walton’s Façade. Her recordings include Four Walls (John Cage), Debussy Mélodies (double album), Vox Sola, contemporary works for solo voice, plus recordings of Casella, Respighi, Ghedini, Togni, Pizzetti, song repertoire by Cuban and Spanish composers, and songs by Amy Beach. For many years she has sung in duo with the famed Italian pianist, Antonio Ballista, as well as with other musical partners Mario Brunello, Elena Casoli, Bruno Canino. Lorna lives in Italy, where she teaches and gives masterclasses.
George Crumb (b Charleston, WV, 24 Oct 1929). American composer. Born to accomplished musical parents, he participated in domestic music-making from an early age, an experience that instilled in him a lifelong empathy with the Classical and Romantic repertory. He studied at Mason College (1947–50), the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (MM 1953), the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (Fulbright Fellow, 1955–6), where he was a student of Boris Blacher, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (DMA 1959), where his teachers included Ross Lee Finney. In 1959 he accepted a teaching position at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After receiving a Rockefeller grant in 1964, he became composer-in-residence at the Buffalo Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. His first mature works, composed during these years, include Five Pieces for Piano (1962), Night Music I (1963) and Four Nocturnes (1964), in which delicate timbral effects combine with a Webernesque pointillism and echoes of a Virginian folk heritage to create the atmospheric chiaroscuro that became a trademark of his style.
Lee Hoiby (b Madison, WI, 17 Feb 1926). American composer and pianist. While still in high school, he began studying the piano with Gunnar Johansen, continuing with him at the University of Wisconsin (BM 1947). He went on to study with Egon Petri at Mills College and completed his studies there in 1952. Planning a career as a concert pianist, Hoiby did not consider composition his vocation until Menotti accepted him as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music (1949–52). Following a period of compositional activity, Hoiby revived his career as a pianist, in 1978 giving a début recital at Alice Tully Hall, New York; he has since given recitals throughout the USA.
As a composer Hoiby is a modern Romantic from the lineage of Barber and Menotti. The influence of the former is evident in his warm lyricism, while that of the latter is found in a propensity for light, genial humour. Though much of his music is characterized by a disarming diatonic simplicity, his ambitious works tend towards greater harmonic and textural complexity. Interest in his music has centred chiefly around his operatic, choral and vocal works, which seem to stimulate his most deeply felt efforts. Some of these works – for example Summer and Smoke, Galileo Galilei and The Tempest – achieve an eloquence comparable to the later works of Barber. With greater critical acceptance of more conservative musical styles from the early 1980s onwards, Hoiby’s music has been performed and recorded with increasing frequency.
Ned Rorem (b Richmond, IN, 23 Oct 1923). American composer and writer. He grew up in Chicago, where he studied the piano with Bonds and music theory with Sowerby. His interests focussed early on 20th-century music, especially the works of Stravinsky and the French Impressionists. Billie Holiday, whose artistry he has written about eloquently, also made a lasting impression.
Rorem began studies at Northwestern University in 1940, but left in 1942 to enter the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He found classes at Curtis stultifying, however, and believed his composition teacher, Rosario Scalero, to be too rigid and conservative. In late 1943 he left Curtis and became secretary and music copyist to Virgil Thomson in New York. Though he never studied composition with Thomson, he benefited from his instruction in orchestration and prosody.
Samuel Barber (b West Chester, PA, 9 March 1910; d New York, 23 Jan 1981). American composer. One of the most honoured and most frequently performed American composers in Europe and the Americas during the mid-20th century, Barber pursued, throughout his career, a path marked by a vocally inspired lyricism and a commitment to the tonal language and many of the forms of late 19th-century music. Almost all of his published works – including at least one composition in nearly every genre – entered the repertory soon after he wrote them and many continue to be widely performed today.
Scott Wheeler (b Washington DC, 24 Feb 1952). American composer and conductor. He studied at Amherst College, the New England Conservatory and Brandeis University (PhD 1984); his principal teachers included Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero and Malcolm Peyton. He pursued further study at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Dartington School (with Peter Maxwell Davies) and privately with Virgil Thomson. In 1975 he co-founded Dinosaur Annex, a chamber ensemble devoted to the performance of contemporary music; he became the group's sole artistic director in 1982. The ensemble has given the US premières of works by composers such as Davies, Judith Weir, Philip Grange and Anthony Powers. In 1989 Wheeler joined the music department at Emerson College, Boston, where he has also worked as a music director in the theatre department. His honours include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1988–9) and a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1994).
Wheeler's compositions remain tonally grounded, although polychordal harmonies and elements of modified serialism often run through his works. His writing is also characterized by strong rhythms and lucid textures. His vocal works are distinguished by clear, natural text settings, refined expressivity and wit. The dramatic cantata, The Construction of Boston (1988) reveals a sure theatrical sensibility.
Virgil Thomson (b Kansas City, MO, 25 Nov 1896; d New York, 30 Sept 1989). American composer and critic. He produced a highly original body of diverse music rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony, and controlled by exquisite sensibilities. His collaboration with Gertrude Stein resulted in two extraordinary stage works, and his keen ear, his wit and the elegance of his writing established him as one of the sharpest music critics in the USA.