The idea for this program came to me a few years ago over breakfast one morning. The gentle, rational voices of NPR’s morning announcers couldn’t disguise the sheer cruelty and greed detailed in the day’s news. My antipathy to the word “tweet” was ballooning and my blood pressure spiking. I needed a quick mental vacation, a fantasy trip to the seashore. And I soon realized I was not alone—everyone I knew needed a break, a reminder of the things that make life worth living. Bingo! A perfect program idea: we’d evoke the thrill of romance, the fascination of dreams. The deep pleasure of song could transport us to the beauty of summertime at the shore.
As the day wore on, I realized that there are other pleasures equally important, if less socially acceptable: guilty compulsions, louche love affairs we can’t tell anyone about, gratifications that fall outside the norm. However taboo, these pleasure have proved to be catnip to composers. They add a welcome touch of vinegar and salt to the sweetness and light. The smorgasbord was complete.
Today’s repertoire is a typical NYFOS mash-up of art song, operetta, musical theater, and folk music. Some of the composers are well-known masters who need only a bit of annotation to put them in context. Franz Lehár, who wrote the Merry Widow, gives us a sexy tango from his last operetta, Giuditta; Leonard Bernstein offers a rarity, a recently discovered torch song from the 1940s called “It’s Got to Be Bad to Be Good”; the iconic American satirist Tom Lehrer brings us the cheerful “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”; Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson and Delilah, The Carnival of the Animals) stops time with one of his most beautiful art songs, “Aimons-nous”; and Johannes Brahms makes an all-too-rare NYFOS appearance with a breathtaking lullaby from Die schöne Magelone. While Brahms never wrote an opera, this massive narrative cycle, comprised of 15 aria-length songs plus narration, is as close as he ever came to a theatrical work.
We also hear from two icons of the late-Romantic era. The one-hit wonder Ruggiero Leoncavallo (of I Pagliacci fame) serves up a bracing jig en français whose tune is a guaranteed earworm, the enchanting “Sérénade napolitaine.” And there is a masterwork by Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Dream,” a hymn to the movie screen we visit every night in our sleep. I think it his most beautiful work for voice and piano (a very high bar), and it was among the last songs he ever wrote. After he emigrated to America in 1917, his only new vocal work was a set of three Russian folk song arrangements for chorus in 1927.
The other composers might be somewhat less well known, so I offer a footnote or two. Catalan music is one of my passions, and we have art songs by two of Catalonia’s leading musicians, Eduardo Toldrà and Xavier Montsalvatge. Given Catalonia’s proximity to southern France, it was natural for Barcelona’s musicians to temper Spanish passion with the gentle sensuality of French Impressionism. The result was a uniquely atmospheric musical language. Montsalvatge was one of Catalonia’s most adventurous artists, boldly drawing on lyrical and avant-garde elements from both sides of the Atlantic over the span of a 65-year career. I think of him as the Picasso of Spanish music, constantly experimenting and absorbing new ideas. Eduardo Toldrà is a more typical Catalan voice: elegant, yielding, and wistful. While more conservative than Montsalvatge, he is capable of casting a musical spell which you’ll hear in his magical songs “Maig” and “Canço de grumet.” Even at his tenderest (as in “Canço amorosa”), Montsalvatge shows off his swarthy masculinity, while Toldrá (even at his most aggressive) always affirms the patrician power of sweetness.
Francesco Paolo Tosti was the king of the salon song back when live after-dinner entertainment was de rigueur in the best houses. He came from a humble background, but from a young age he developed a knack for finding patrons of wealth and influence. His catchy tunes ultimately ingratiated him to Queen Victoria, and in 1880 he was hired as the resident singing master to the Royal Family. He rapidly became a European superstar. “Marechiare,” a jaunty hymn to a seaside neighborhood in Naples, celebrates the town where Tosti attended conservatory.
Leading off the section called “The Down-Low” is a song by the English composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959). His operas are making their way into the American repertory, particularly his airport dramedy Flight. Dove’s music embraces a broad spectrum of styles. He’s got a wicked sense of humor and the timing of a Broadway pro, as evidenced by his comic opera The Enchanted Pig. But his palette also includes minimalism and romanticism, rhythmic drive and stark stasis. For today’s concert we’re presenting the first of his Five Am’rous Sighs, in which a piano ostinato provides a hypnotic background for a secret confession of lesbian attraction.
Dove’s sweetly ecstatic song gives way to Bernstein’s down-and-dirty blues in praise of kinky sex, a song he tossed off in the early 1940s which has only recently seen the light of day. And since we’re talking about kinks, how about a song by…The Kinks? This iconic rock group flourished in the mid-‘60s, peaked in the early ‘70s, and managed to remained active well into the ‘90s. Few rock ’n roll songs are suitable to the recital format—they’re usually guitar-oriented, noisy, and sweatily in-your-face. When baritone Johnathan McCullough suggested this song for an earlier version of this program, I admit I was skeptical. But “Lola” turned out to have a well-written lyric that told a good story, and chord progressions that fell graciously under my hands. Blessings on McCullough for introducing me to a song everyone but me already knew—although few seemed to have understood what it was actually about.
It’s just a hop, skip, and jump from bedroom kinks to behavioral aberrations of an obsessive nature. We’ve paired Tom Lehrer’s evergreen classic “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” with two more American songs in praise of compulsion. “Humphrey Bogart,” the first of them, is by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, best known for the rock ‘n roll hits they wrote in the 1950s—“Love Potion #9,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” and a host of others. In the mid-1970s the songwriting duo began to write arty cabaret-style material, often with a political message. Peggy Lee’s 1975 album Mirrors was devoted entirely to these Kurt Weill-ish songs, and soon after that William Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris released their own piano-and-voice LP with more Leiber and Stoller gems. That is where I first heard “Humphrey Bogart,” which we include as a tribute to a modern vice: binge-watching.
The NYFOS audience may remember Gabriel Kahane’s Craiglistlieder from our 2010 program The Newest Deal. Kahane’s 2007 song cycle became his calling card—indeed, I first met him when a mutual friend, Charlotte Dobbs, brought Gabe over to my place where he sat down at my piano and performed the entire 20-minute work for me. I was bowled over by his pianistic skills, his vocal acrobatics, and his sheer chuztpah. It’s no surprise that Craigslistlieder, whose lyrics are lifted from personal ads on the Internet, has become an instant classic since its premiere. It functions on so many levels simultaneously: the songs are LOL funny but also strangely touching, completely modern in their texts while hewing closely to the values of great songwriters of the past. In the cycle’s finale, “Opera Scene,” Gabe honors—and parodies—Bernstein, Stravinsky, Wolf, Handel, and Rossini, transforming them into a unique brew of ironic beauty and serious comedy.
I’ve reserved the deepest pleasures for last: the warmth of love, the life-giving energy of faith, and the power of song to lead us out of darkness. Saint-Saëns’ pristine “Aimons-nous et dormons” is a prelude to a song by Michael John LaChiusa, “Heaven,” originally written for an unproduced musical by this prolific composer/lyricist. LaChiusa has written a slew of off-Broadway shows, including “First Lady Suite,” “Hello Again,” and “Queen of the Mist,” as well as two that played on the Great White Way, “Marie Christine” and “Wild Party.” His work might be a bit too arty for the tourist crowd, but he is prized by some of our greatest exponents of musical theater including Audra McDonald and Mary Testa. It was the latter who brought me today’s song. Programming a recent gala in celebration of NYFOS’ 30th anniversary, I asked Mary to sing a modern song that she thought would still be sung in 30 years. “Heaven” was her suggestion, and I fell for it instantly. I shall play my part in keeping it alive for the next three decades.
The show ends with an American classic, as arranged by Broadway’s premiere orchestrator David Krane. I had always assumed that “How Can I Keep from Singing” was a traditional Quaker tune, since it appears in hymnals and has become associated with Quaker services. But the melody is actually the handiwork of the nineteenth-century Baptist minister and hymn-composer Robert Lowry. (He didn’t claim credit for the lyrics, which seem to go farther back in history.) Pete Seeger was the first to bring this song to a mass audience during the folk music boom of the 1960s. He toned down some of the overtly religious imagery of the original, and he also included a modern verse written by his friend Doris Plenn—“When tyrants tremble, sick with fear…” This was a reference to the recent McCarthy trials where Seeger had been found guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail. Saved by a legal technicality, he never had to serve his time.
I am not naïve enough to think that song alone can protect us from tyrants, madmen, or tweeting narcissists. But it can coalesce us into meaningful action. It can give us comfort. It can provide a respite of beauty, a reminder of our shared humanity, and support for our appetites. The vibration of song is a ripple that can become a wave. May we all meet again in sweeter times, propelled and buoyed up by music!
Program notes for Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem
Thursday, December 12 at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
“The World’s Most Glamorous Atmosphere. Why, it is just like the Arabian Nights!”—Duke Ellington, on first seeing Harlem in 1923
The idea for tonight’s show came to me a few years ago as I was listening to my favorite music anthology, The Sound of Harlem, with its superb song selection and photographs from the matchless collection of Frank Driggs. Every track in this three-LP set rewards repeated listening, but on that occasion one in particular popped out: “Red Beans and Rice,” sung and played by Gladys Bentley. I knew she was the most famous lesbian entertainer of the Jazz Era. I doubted an entire show could be built around her. Consulting Brian Rust’s recording compendium Jazz Records, 1897-1942 confirmed that she hadn’t made a lot of recordings, and I doubted there was an archive of her papers or any manuscripts (though she wrote a memoir that has not been found). A lot has been written about her as a historical figure. I was pretty certain that no one had written about her as a creative artist, as opposed to a funny little fat woman dressed up as a man. Truth be told, I had no idea whether or not I could find any evidence of her creative work. But we had those few records, and that was a start.
My next keystone was Porter Grainger. He was one of the most prolific piano accompanists on records in the 1920s. I had written an encyclopedia entry on Grainger and knew he had written (actually partly adapted from folk materials) the 1920s standards “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues” (a variant of the more commercially successful “St. James Infirmary”). Also a popular 1920s Jazz instrumental, “In Harlem’s Araby.” He had recorded that one, with its rarely sung lyrics, with co-composer Fats Waller at the piano. Grainger added in a clearly gay verse that is not in the published sheet music. We do two of his three aforementioned pieces in tonight’s show, plus his “He Just Don’t Appeal To Me,” a nice comic song that was recorded by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1929.
Grainger was in Pittsburgh and Chicago in the second decade of the 20th Century, and married a woman named Alies Keith (or Raeth, both names appear, in different documents. He moved to Harlem by 1920, and married singer Ethel Finnie. They had a daughter, Portia, but Porter and Ethel were separated by 1930, and she was living in New Orleans with their child. Grainger remained in New York, very busy making music pursuing his own projects. He was living with one Frederick Johnson in 1925. A more important professional (and probably personal) relationship was with fellow-musician Bob Ricketts, with whom he shared an apartment as well as a music publishing office as of 1924. In 1926, the two published a short book, How to Play and Sing the Blues Like the Phonograph and Stage Artists. It is a wonderful tutorial.
Grainger’s personal life is more reminiscent of the blues women of the era. As the 1920s show dancer Maude Russell Rutherford, nearing 100 recalled, “I guess we were bisexual, that’s what you would call it today.” Another source claimed that all the great show singers were gay or bisexual: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, all of them. The men in their professional lives, such as producers, were sexually demanding but showed no tenderness, and the showgirls roomed together. They risked being mocked as “bulldaggers,” but lesbianism was so common in that era it was almost accepted: for gay men, it was far, far worse. Some of the blues divas had written very good songs. I added them into the mix, and now I had a near-complete show. All we needed now were some Billy Strayhorn masterworks to add stylistic variety to the show and work in a second male composer to balance the blues women. Steve Blier really knows his Strayhorn; the hard part was selecting only a few of his works. Strayhorn would cover the swing era for us (along with a 1940 Alberta Hunter song). My main task was to cover the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes claimed, began in 1919 with the return to New York of the 369th Regiment Hell Fighters (with their peerless band led by James Reese Europe) and ended with the full onset of the Great Depression in 1930. That was certainly when the funding diminished for high art creators like Hughes. Commercial enterprises were another matter. In 1920, few would have predicted that Harlem was on its way to becoming the capital of Black America. Other cities saw larger population migrations from the south in the World War I era. Among these was Chicago, to which the Illinois Central Railroad funneled masses of Black people straight north from New Orleans and Mississippi. This fueled a vital jazz scene in Chicago in the early 1920s, with the arrival from New Orleans of such major talents as King Oliver and his protege Louis Armstrong. Early published (“commercial”) blues spread to Chicago from Memphis before New York. But New York had multiple other factors going for it, including the nation’s largest population and its increasing dominance in the theatrical, publishing, and recording industries.
Though today we think of it in terms of jazz, Harlem had a musical community as rich in variety as that of the larger white city to its south. The churches rang with hymns old and new, spirituals, and larger scale anthems and other classical works. The greatest spirituals arranger, Harry Burleigh, was also writing arrangements for the European publishing house of Ricordi, and was much in demand as a baritone soloist in churches and synagogues. (J. P. Morgan specified that Burleigh sing at his funeral.) There were fine Harlem organists such as Melville Charlton and a boy wonder named Fats Waller. Orchestra and chamber music flourished, with prominent violinists such as Allie Ross and cellist Marion Cumbo performing string quartets as well as in the pit bands for the hit show Shuffle Along. There were music conservatories, and the New Amsterdam Musical Association (founded in 1904 and still extant).
More famed were the many clubs, cabarets, and ballrooms in the area. Some admitted only white customers, but there were also numerous “black and tans” and one renowned club, Small’s Paradise, owned and strictly operated by and for black people. There was the Lafayette Theater, high-toned and black-owned and operated, and the New York Age, whose columnists kept their fingers on the pulse of Black community affairs and acted as arbiters of taste. Harlem had its louche side, but was also rich in decent citizens and self-respect. “Big old, good-looking, easy-going, proud-walking Harlem,” as W.C. Handy called it.
In the blues craze of the 1920s, one figure was acknowledged as the great blues progenitor, particularly throughout the south, which was more central to the music’s development than racial identity. Folklorist/ poet Sterling Brown names two Missouri towns at the beginning of his moving poem about Rainey. Ma claimed she had first heard blues in Missouri in 1902:
When Ma Rainey Comes to Town
Folks from anyplace, miles around
From Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff
Flocks in to hear Ma Strut Her Stuff
If she heard blues that early she wasn’t performing them. In her young years her repertoire, and Bessie Smith’s, consisted of the most popular vocal style of the day, “coon songs,” with old minstrel stereotypes set to up-to-date ragtime. Blues may not predate around 1907; there are very few surviving references to blues prior to W.C. Handy’s issuing his “Memphis Blues” in 1912. It can’t be proved that either Rainey or Smith sang blues before 1914.
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886. She was on the stage at 14, and at 18 married William “Pa” Rainey, a comedian, singer and dancer. The pair were constantly in motion across a broad territory in the south and up into West Virginia for small-town off-season tours in the summers. By1906, they were traveling in vaudeville as a double act, with such leading New Orleans-based shows as Tolliver’s Circus. By 1915, Rainey and Rainey were being billed as the “assassinators of the blues,” though only Ma was singing this new music. The Raineys’ marriage was primarily a business arrangement: little is known about Pa, but Ma was a lesbian whose lovers included the younger Bessie Smith. She would chase away men who made advances to Smith. Pa Rainey was often too sick to perform, and he died in 1919.
Ma Rainey had an intense rapport with her audiences, comparable only to that of such top comedians as Butler “String Beans” May and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. All three engaged in outrageous material, in Ma’s case including a scatological routine; in one of her songs she brags of killing three women before the police found out. Rappers of recent decades like to pose as tough guys; Ma Rainey would have picked her teeth with them. The record companies were wary of her, though they fell all over themselves trying to sign up “blues” singers following the success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920: Ethel Waters, Lucille Hegamin, Alberta Hunter, Katie Crippen, Clara Smith, Edith Wilson, and a slew of others went into the studios. Some of these women were pretty, and most were in their early 20s—I knew one of them, Isabel Washington Powell, when she was in her 90s. She was 14 when Black Swan recorded her, and they sang negligible pop songs. What little blues the “blues divas” had they owed in part to Rainey and Bessie Smith, the two greatest exponents of the blues. Smith was finally recorded at the beginning of 1923; Ma Rainey had to wait till the end of the year, by which time she was 37. As she told a young admirer, “I thought they forgot about this old lady.”
Rainey was in her heyday primarily an itinerant performer in black vaudeville, working the “chitlin’ circuit” through much of the south and Midwest up to Chicago. Some sources claim she only visited New York once, but she actually appeared there repeatedly, generally at the capacious Lincoln Theatre. She probably also played less-publicized Harlem venues when she recorded in New York in 1924 and 1925, with Louis Armstrong and Don Redman, among other giants of Jazz. By 1926, she was riding high. Her stage show included five lovely chorines. Her six-piece band was a who’s who of Jazz: Big Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, the greatest tenor sax man in Jazz, doubled on bass sax; Fletcher Henderson, a founder of the big band genre, was at the piano. Also in the show was Ma’s adoptive son Danny, whose routines included female impersonation.
Rainey’s career sank at the end of the 1920s, along with those of all of the “classic blues singers” even Bessie Smith, who had been the biggest star Columbia Records had. Ma’s old fans never forgot the short, squat woman in her 50 pounds of beaded dress, diamonds in her teeth, who came to town, sometimes with Thomas “Long Boy” Dorsey at the piano, and they whomped those blues like nobody else:
O Ma Rainey,
Li’l an’ low;
Sing us ’bout de hard luck
Roun’ our do’;
Sing us ’bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go. . . .
I talked to a fellow, an’ the fellow say,
She jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway. . .
Rainey’s songs were remarkably explicit about her personal life, as we hear tonight in “Prove It On Me” and “Sissy Man Blues”: her audience loved her candor. But in 1928, her recording contract was terminated; a Paramount Records executive later claimed that her style of rough blues had simply gone out of fashion.
Bessie Smith was born sometime between 1892 and 1895. She first gained press notice in 1909 and worked briefly with the Raineys the following year. Though she has been described as a protege of Ma Rainey’s, the two were close contemporaries and there is nothing to support the claim that Smith learned her stuff from Rainey. Smith was already celebrated by 1910. The cliched image of Smith as a lugubrious singer of mournful blues is only part of the story. Her contemporary Perry “Mule” Bradford recalled her as a fine “flatfoot dancer.” Her pretty composition “It Makes My Love Come Down” dates from 1929, near the end of her heyday. It is but one of many surviving testaments to her creative power and the great range of her work.
The recording industry had, even before the Great Depression, gone through multiple downturns, including one in 1928. This was a bad moment for the 1920s blues divas: they were going out of fashion by 1933, when Bessie Smith was called into the studios one final time to record with an up-to-date band including clarinetist Benny Goodman.
Four years later Smith was killed in a car smash-up outside the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. The impresario John Hammond puffed up her death into a sermon on racism, fooling, among others, Edward Albee (who later based a short play on the episode). Smith was treated at the accident scene by a good local white doctor. Her injuries would have killed her today, let alone in 1937: while the doctor performed first aid till the ambulance came, another car plowed into the accident scene on that dark country road. Smith’s demise was part of a larger generational die-off: Ma Rainey died in obscurity in 1939, listed on her death certificate as a housekeeper. The great trumpeter King Oliver, mentor to Louis Armstrong, died in 1938, an attendant at a pool hall. Had they lived till 1945, they would have been swept up in a tremendous wave of nostalgia for early jazz.
Porter Grainger was still in some demand in this period: he contributed material used in Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s revues at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and at Robinson’s Mimo Club, and he had a studio as a teacher and vocal coach in the theater district. He was engaged as a pianist and organist on recordings as late as 1945, but his era was over; when he died in 1949 he was living in obscurity in Pittsburgh, in a hotel managed by his uncle.
Two outliers get their own moments in the sun on tonight’s program. Tony Jackson was the king of New Orleans brothel pianists in the early twentieth century and a good composer of ragtime as well as pop songs. He was openly gay and some of his songs supposedly had lyrics specifically alluding to his longtime lover, but the original lyrics are unfortunately lost. He is best remembered for his pop song “Pretty Baby,” a perennial hit and the title of a famous Louis Malle film. According to his fan Jelly Roll Morton, Jackson ultimately found it too hard to live as a gay man in New Orleans and moved to Chicago. But the historical Negro press shows him repeatedly moving between the Crescent City and the north.
J. Berni Barbour straddled the worlds of classical and popular music for decades. Early in his career he had a music publishing house with the brass bandleader and educator N. Clark Smith and was a virtuoso classical pianist. Barbour migrated to New York from Chicago, along with much of the Midwest center’s black artistic population, around 1919 (the year of an awful race riot in Chicago). He became a demonstration pianist in the offices of Pace and Handy in Times Square. Flo Ziegfeld employed him to select the Black cast members for the original production of Show Boat in 1927. In addition to pop music, he wrote in longer forms, including an opera Ethiopia, but these more ambitious works are lost. His most famous composition is “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll,” which was a hit in the early Jazz era. It has as many verses as there are singers, and some of the unpublished ones are delightfully explicit.
Changes in taste explain some of the decline of the 1920s blues stars: with the onset of the Swing Era in the 1930s mere sidemen like Benny Goodman were becoming stars, along with young singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Bebop emerged in the early-mid 1940s, and even the traditional jazz revival of the period did not help the classic blues singers: only the few that were still living in the 1960s enjoyed the interest of a new crop of young people.
Gladys Bentley was the most renowned gay entertainer of the 1920s. Little is known of her life in Harlem prior to 1928, though she claimed to have moved there from her native Philadelphia in 1923 (she was 16 that year). She hit the big time in Harlem in 1928 and soon was the star attraction at a club called the Clam House, then also at the Mad House and other venues. She quickly adopted her signature outfit of white tuxedo, hair slicked back, and sang in a husky low tenor. Her recordings of this period, such as her composition “Ground Hog Blues” and Bob Fuller’s “Red Beans and Rice,” were standard blues of the period, and they contained no explicit lesbian content. Later in the 1920s, as the blues fad began to wane, she increasingly added ordinary pop songs to her repertoire, but laced them with double entendres, then outright smut; I won’t reprint an example here, as it would burn your eyeballs. In 1931, she claimed to have married a white woman, a fellow singer, in a civil ceremony in New Jersey. Her career was nearing its peak: she was appearing at a midtown Manhattan club called the King’s Terrace, and owned her own club in Harlem. She was in demand at exclusive parties, including ones held by New York mayor Jimmy Walker, and she moved into a fine Park Avenue apartment with servants.
Then it all came down. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 brought the Roaring ‘20s to a halt. Bentley moved her act back to Harlem, but soon had to go on the road, playing further and further west, finally settling in Hollywood. The gay club scene on the West Coast was more tenacious than in the east, and she found work at such lesbian establishments as Mona’s 400 Club in San Francisco. But her star had fallen, as clubs now segregated by proclivity replaced those for mixed patrons. The latter would lose their liquor licenses, even be padlocked, if a single gay person could be identified in them. And Bentley was now under the basilisk eye of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which viewed interracial marriage, let alone same-sex marriage, as subversive. Though Bentley continued to perform, the HUAC persecution took its toll, and she took drastic actions to support herself and her mother. A 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a feature article entitled “I Am a Woman Again,” in which Bentley wrote of her rehabilitation as a heterosexual woman, thanks to hormone treatments and the gentle attentions of a man identified only as Don. By the time the article came out she had married a theater columnist named J.T. Gipson, who soon shuffled off this mortal coil. Her final marriage was to Los Angeles cook Charles Robert. They broke up fairly quickly, and he denied ever having married her. She then went back to her “sinner” life while living with and caring for her mother. Bentley made one final mainstream appearance, on Groucho Marx’s wonderful TV show You Bet Your Life. Dressed as a woman, Bentley sings and plays the pop song “Them There Eyes.” Catch this on YouTube: Bentley is terrific.
Bentley’s afterlife was largely in her fan’s recollections. Eventually a buildup of historical attention began, first with general histories of Harlem. With the rise of gay studies Bentley has become an object of fascination. In January 2019, she was featured in the New York Times’s “Overlooked”obituary series, in a profile by Giovanni Russonello. By the time I finished my Harlem research for this concert, an immense photo of Bentley was visible from the 125th Street 6 Train platform, fluttering over the sidewalk. In September 2019, avant-garde Jazz musician Allen Lowe released a recording entitled “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow Suite/I Am a Woman Again (Gladys Bentley Suite)”: the Bentley suite is in 17 movements. Wherever she is, she must be enjoying all the attention.
The Harlem of the 1920s is falling victim to demolition, especially the old theaters: the Lafayette Theatre and the Renaissance Casino, to name just two recently lost. But behind the garish façade of the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 135th Street is the virtually intact interior of the 1915 Lincoln Theatre, one of the great Harlem Renaissance showplaces. This was Ma Rainey’s Harlem venue of choice. It was also graced by Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, the legendary showgirl Florence Mills, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Duke Ellington, and the comedy team of Butterbeans and Susie. If you sit in the beautiful wood balconies and close your eyes, you might even hear a Harlem teenager named Fats Waller start up the pipe organ as a silent film begins to unspool under the great proscenium arch.
Two texts were particularly helpful in this study: Moira Mahoney Church’s unpublished masters thesis “If This Be Sin: Gladys Bentley And the Performance of Identity” and David Freeland’s “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville.”
Three Magi also attended on the show’s birth: Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress Music Division (retired) opened the magic box of government copyright deposits in offsite storage; James Wintle of the same library’s Music Division rendered similar assistance; and pianist/scholar/collector Alex Hassan was also very helpful. God bless them, every one.
Program notes for Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem
Thursday, December 12 at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
My first awareness of Harlem’s gay subculture came from an unlikely source: a Cole Porter song I heard decades ago called “The Happy Heaven of Harlem.” In it, Porter extols the pleasures of a place where “all you do is eat, sleep, and make love.” Of course, in the final lyric Porter reveals that this paradise of sexual abandon is Paris, not Lenox Avenue. Porter’s 1929 song has recently come under criticism for its wealthy, white Upper East Sider’s vision of Harlem as a place to indulge in erotic fantasies that had to be hidden at home. But while “Happy Heaven” may not be P.C., it remains a heartfelt love song to two of Porter’s gay meccas: Harlem and Paris, equated as twin pleasure domes.
As the years have rolled by I have learned more and more about Harlem’s hearty gay subculture. In the early 20th century, Greenwich Village became a hub for men and women “in the life,” but the scene in Harlem grew even livelier and more audacious. At its height, it was home to more night clubs and speakeasies than Broadway. To the world at large, the Village was known for its same-sex denizens, while Harlem was most famous as an enclave for African-Americans. For insiders, it was a different story. There the gay clubs stayed open all night, and all comers were welcome. Some of the chi-chi nightclubs featured black performers and white-only audiences, but many of the neighborhood places played to mixed or exclusively black audiences.
For the gay people who lived there, Harlem was not always a “happy heaven.” They were threatened by the Irish cops who patrolled the streets and regularly hauled in the legions of drag queens who frequented the neighborhood. And gays also came under period attack from their neighborhood churches. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. (1865-1953), the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street (and father to the famous civil rights advocate), led a powerful campaign against Harlem’s gays and lesbians—even against unmarried women. All were seen as disrupting the unifying force of the family.
Yet gay men and women flocked to Harlem during the Great Migration. The percentage of unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45 was three times higher than the national average. Some gay people were flamboyant, some were quietly out, some led double lives with straight spouses and semi-secret gay lovers, and some kept their sexual preferences a secret for their entire lives. Life could be volatile in Harlem. But it was active, and daring, and aspirational. One example: for many years there was an annual drag ball at Hamilton Lodge in Harlem where both black and white performers vied for First Prize. It was a huge social event, covered by most of the neighborhood’s newspapers. Suffice it to say that it had no counterpart on Park Avenue. Harlem bestowed an odd combination of persecution and celebration on its gay men and women, whose reactions ran the expected gamut from fear to defiance and pride.
Many of the composers and performers we’re honoring tonight were familiar to me, but the only one I knew as a gay artist was Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). He lived an extraordinary life, and a courageous one—it took guts to be an uncloseted black jazz musician in mid-century America. As a child, his mother protected him from his abusive father, encouraging his artistic and intellectual nature to flourish. Strayhorn’s grandmother taught him to play the piano when he was a boy, and he then continued his extensive musical education on his own. He first rose to fame in high school when he wrote a musical revue (Fantastic Rhythm) of near-professional quality. It became so successful that the troupe toured for several years in black theaters as far as western Pennsylvania. They were sometimes joined by big-name performers like Billy Eckstine and Errol Garner—heady stuff for a self-taught youngster.
When Strayhorn was 23, he attended a Duke Ellington concert in Pittsburgh and managed to go backstage to meet his idol. Ellington was intrigued and asked Strayhorn to play a little something for him. The rest is history. That dazzling impromptu audition led to a 29-year association with Ellington as composer, arranger, and sometime orchestra manager. He ushered in Ellington’s greatest years of creativity, co-writing the musical Jump for Joy and the jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige, as well as the Shakespeare compendium Such Sweet Thunder.
Strayhorn demonstrated his unique value to Ellington early on in their association. In 1940, there was a royalties dispute between ASCAP and the broadcast industry. ASCAP led a strike, barring all of its members’ songs from the radio. It would have been ruinous for Ellington to lose the crucial income from broadcasts, especially with a live radio show in Los Angeles just a few days away. Strayhorn came to the rescue on two fronts: he was not an ASCAP member, which exempted his songs from the ban. And he worked day and night on the train to California writing new songs and arrangements for the upcoming performance. Among them was the iconic “Take the A Train,” soon to become a theme song for Ellington. Though he saved the day, Strayhorn’s name was not listed on the sheet music of the songs he’d written and co-written—just Ellington’s. It is only now that Billy Strayhorn is receiving the recognition he longed for during his life.
Ellington always expressed gratitude to Strayhorn, but he remained the front man, the star. And perhaps Strayhorn was somewhat conflicted about the limelight—he was a man warring with many inner demons. By the 1950s Strayhorn began to chafe, and he started to look for ways to strike out on his own. Last April, NYFOS featured a song from one of those projects, the 1953 off-Broadway production of Lorca’s The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden. Lorca’s story of an impossible love gave Strayhorn a chance to make what he called “a black-gay statement” at a time when Lorca’s shocking death at the hands of Spanish Fascists made him a gay martyr for many people.
Strayhorn had a unique musical thumbprint. He brought a long-lined bel canto spirit to mid-century jazz, which was so often built on nervous, darting rhythms—the ants in your pants that make you dance. Strayhorn is the Vincenzo Bellini of the Big Band era, with arching melodies that suspend themselves over opulent and surprising harmonies like a long sigh. “Day Dream” gets my nomination for Most Beautiful Chord Progression in an American Popular Song. It’s as opulent and dappled as a Fauré song. As for “Lotus Blossom,” the pianist Don Shirley said, “Of all the things that Billy wrote, ‘Lotus Blossom’ was such an enigma for Duke. It got to a point that I began to realize that it bothered him—in the good sense—trying to figure, how did he do that? It’s that kind of thing. But Billy had that kind of genius.”
Does Billy Strayhorn’s music “sound gay” to me, with its yearning languor? Yeah, it does. But you don’t have to believe me—I am biased. God knows we don’t have a monopoly on unrequited love.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977) belongs in the category of “married with not-entirely-secret same-sex lover.” It was only one of the many dramas in her long life. She was conceived when her mother was raped by a family friend at age 15. Waters grew up in poverty, working at jobs that paid $4.75 a week. She married at age 13 and divorced at 17 (the first of her three short-lived marriages). After her divorce, she sang a couple of songs at a party in Philadelphia where she so charmed the crowd that she landed a professional engagement at a theater in Baltimore. She made her way through vaudeville (where she shared billing with Bessie Smith), to Harlem’s night clubs, and then to Broadway where she was the first black woman to receive star billing on the Great White Way. Ultimately she broke into television and movies—Cabin in the Sky, Member of the Wedding, and Pinky (directed by Elia Kazan).
All of this sounds like a golden staircase to success. But every step along the way was fraught with reversals. Some of them may have been of her own making. Ethel Waters was not an easy personality, and strong black women with a contrarian streak were likely to meet the kind of resistance that only increased their orneriness. Ethel’s stage persona was ingratiating, but she had dimples of iron. Despite many ups and downs, she survived in show business into her 60s, and one of her last gigs, an appearance on the TV show Route 66, earned her an Emmy nomination. It was the first ever awarded to an African-American woman.
In the mid-1920s, as her career in New York was beginning, Ethel Waters was a prominent habituée of Harlem’s lesbian circles. She lived with her girlfriend, a dancer named Ethel Williams, and they were known as “The Two Ethels.” They often appeared onstage together. But as she ascended, she learned to keep her sexuality private. Being out would have relegated her to the sidelines, and Ethel Waters had no intention of being on the sidelines. By the end of her life, when she’d become a disciple of Billy Graham, she probably would have bridled at being included in tonight’s concert. But her twenty-five year old self might have rejoiced at the opportunity. We’ll hear one of the iconic hits from the early years of Ethel Waters’ career, “Dinah”—a love song to a woman.
I have decades-old ties to two more composers on today’s program: Alberta Hunter and Hall Johnson. I didn’t know Hall Johnson (1888-1970) was gay when I first encountered his music; on the other hand I didn’t know I was gay either. When I was a bar mitzvah bocher I bought a copy of Shirley Verrett—Carnegie Hall Recital, an RCA record commemorating her New York recital debut. I was fascinated by the three spirituals on Side 2, delivered with an irresistible combination of sass and fervor. The arrangements were by a guy named Hall Johnson.
Johnson had an illustrious musical resumé. He trained at Juilliard and was in the original orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along. He played under James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, two black superstars of early 20th century music. But Johnson grew increasingly interested in choral writing and formed the Hall Johnson Choir. The group became tremendously successful, appearing on over 30 Hollywood soundtracks including the original Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They also appeared on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning show Green Pastures.
Johnson made himself available as a voice coach and worked with an impressive roster of colleagues, including both Marian Anderson and Verrett. It was no doubt at the instigation of the singers in his studio that he turned his hand to piano-and-voice arrangements of Negro spirituals. He was building on the legacy of Harry T. Burleigh, the first to write down and publish these songs. Burleigh’s arrangements, written in the late 1890s, are austere and straightforward, like clerical vestments. Hall Johnson took the spiritual from black-and-white to color, adding sexy jazz harmonies and gospel drive into the mix. They are tremendously effective realizations.
Hall Johnson’s music is filled with nobility, but his life was plagued with frequent falls from grace. He was an alcoholic, capable of showing up drunk at official functions. His marriage didn’t seem to stop him from gay (and straight) dalliances. He was easily exploited—a few of Johnson’s male paramours made serious inroads on his bank account. He attempted to keep his LGBTQ exploits on the down-low, which only seems to have made his amorous attachments all the more agonizing. In spite of all his emotional and physical tangles, he survived to live a long life, leaving behind an array of art songs and sacred music that continue to stir the soul.
I knew about Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) because of her celebrated late-career stint at a Village club called The Cookery. Alas, I didn’t have the wit to go hear her at the time, fearing that her raucous blues belting would violate my tender sensibilities. (I gravitated to Mabel Mercer’s lady-like restraint in those years.) Thank God for the videos from those appearances—Hunter was a pistol, as vibrant in her eighties, I imagine, as she was in her twenties when her career began.
Her story parallels that of Ethel Waters: very humble beginnings, a menial job at a boardinghouse, and then a very early start as a singer. By 15 she was singing in a bordello, and from there she moved up quickly—to bars, then restaurants, then upscale clubs, and finally the exclusive Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago. She was not only a fine singer. Hunter could tailor her improvised blues lyrics to the proclivities of her audiences, and she had an uncanny instinct for comic timing. By the age of 22 she was touring in Europe, where she was treated like a star. In 1928, she played opposite Paul Robeson in the London production of Showboat. Her recording career cemented her fame, and she counted Bricktop and Louis Armstrong among her colleagues.
When her mother died, Alberta Hunter retired from singing. She was 62, and rock ‘n roll was taking over the world. “I figured I’d gone to the top,” she said—and that the rest would be downhill. Looking for something meaningful to do, she decided on a degree in nursing. Hunter forged a high school diploma and got into a grad program. She landed a job at a hospital on Roosevelt Island and worked there until the management forced her to retire at 70. They’d already extended their usual deadline by five years since she was a valued member of their team. It was probably time. She’d lied about her age: she was actually 82. At that ripe age, she relaunched her singing career. Her bold contralto with its fast vibrato had morphed into a diseuse’s rasp, but her life-force was unabated. The public was delighted to rediscover her. So were her longtime co-workers at the hospital—they had no idea she’d been a world-renowned singer.
Alberta Hunter was molested as a child, and she was mistrustful of men for most of her life. She had a long-term affair with a woman named Lotte Tyler, the niece of the famous comedian Bert Williams. But she kept her sexuality under wraps. Hunter was appalled by the love-spats Ethel Waters had in public with her girlfriend. Still, Hunter’s Sapphic nature was not a secret to those in the know. And we’ve been chuckling all week at the lyrics to her theme song, “My Castle’s Rockin’.” Heard in the cold light of 2019, it sounds like a lesbian anthem.
There are many other voices on tonight’s program, including the magisterial (and bisexual) Bessie Smith, her pianist Porter Grainger, and Gladys Bentley, the cross-dressing blues singer with a voice of Wagnerian force. Delving into their repertoire and taking ownership of their songs has been a profound experience for all of us involved. I’ll let Elliott Hurwitt tell their stories in his own essay, after I express my thanks to him for guiding us through the research and preparation for tonight’s performance. Tain’t Nobody’s Business was his brainchild, and his decades of involvement with early blues and jazz gave birth to our concert. Some of our “music” is nothing but a few scribbles on a piece of yellow paper Elliott unearthed in a library, along with a faint copy of some typed lyrics. But what a genie lies hidden in that improbable, magical bottle!
Special thanks to George Chauncey, whose book Gay New York provided an invaluable foundation of historical information and insight. His portrait of Harlem in the 20s and 30s brings the era indelibly to life, and helped place the songs within their cultural milieu.
The New York Festival of Song opened its doors for business 32 years ago. Bolstered by a great passion for song, the generous good will of our friends, and a thousand-dollar gift from our first benefactor Joe Machlis, Michael Barrett and I mounted our first season in the fall of 1988. Tonight NYFOS is reviving the program that inaugurated the festival—in a spiffier, updated format. After all, one does learn a thing or two over the course of three decades.
We have gotten used to seeing Shakespeare’s plays in modernized productions—1970s hippies populating the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, a pop-top beer can used as a prop in Measure for Measure, dirty cops and an outlaw biker gang in Cymbeline. But we expect our directors to adhere to the original texts, which we hold sacrosanct. Eighteenth and early-nineteenth century audiences were not similarly respectful. Nahum Tate’s famous 1681 adaptation of King Lear gave the play a happy ending, with Cordelia marrying Edgar and Lear regaining both his sanity and his throne. It held the stage until 1838—when William Macready’s London production expunged Tate’s “corrections” and restored Lear’s Fool after an absence of more than 150 years.
The Age of Reason wanted to neaten up the beautiful chaos of the Bard’s plays, but the sweeping, sometimes messy freedom of Shakespeare’s original texts resonated perfectly with the sensibility of the Romantic era. In the mid-nineteenth century, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Richard II swept through Europe, with Germany leading the way. Since the rediscovery of Shakespeare coincided with the first flourishing of European art song, serious composers rushed to set the poet’s verses for piano and voice.
Tonight’s program gathers a squad of composers from five countries, including a quintet of his countrymen. For many of us, the words “Shakespeare song” instantly evoke the folky, plaintive warmth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Quilter, and Gerald Finzi. The first two of these were leading voices of Britain’s second generation of composers, arriving in the wake of Edward Elgar, Arthur Sullivan, and Hubert Parry (who had led the way). These days Quilter seems like a quintessentially English voice, sighing delicate feelings in perfectly crafted, parlor-sized art songs. To his contemporaries, though, he was a member of the renegade Frankfurt Group, a clan of British and Australian musicians who trained at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany. (Percy Grainger was Quilter’s classmate.) They disdained the prevailing conservative English nationalism, opting for a more emotional, personal approach to composition, and sometimes ruffling the feathers of those who craved the doughtiness of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams also headed to the Continent, finishing his studies in the studios of Ravel and Bruch. His 50-year career as a composer outdistanced Quilter’s by decades, and his oeuvre of symphonies and operas was something that the miniaturist Quilter never attempted. No matter the scale of his work, the modes and cadences of English folk song remain omnipresent in Vaughan Williams’ music. As does Shakespeare: Vaughan Williams wrote settings of Shakespeare lyrics, incidental music for the plays, and an entire opera based on The Merry Wives of Windsor called Sir John in Love. Vaughan Williams composed two settings of “Orpheus with his Lute.” The one we’re hearing tonight is the first, an early piece written in 1901. It’s a ravishing hymn to music itself, composed in a style I’d call “pastoral bel canto.”
Gerald Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring (1940) has become almost a rite of passage for conservatory-student basses and baritones. In this cycle Finzi is at his best—radiant, pure, tuneful. I’ve always been especially fond of “It was a lover and his lass,” whose rhythmic lift and surprising slips of harmony function like a buoyant play of light and shadow. An introverted, reclusive man, Finzi was among the leaders of a third generation of British composers that emerged between the wars. Many of his pieces are elegiac, even bleak in tone. Early in his life he lost his father and all three of his brothers, and there is a thread of mournfulness that runs through many of his compositions. The Shakespeare cycle provides a rare moment of sparkle in Finzi’s music, and it will keep his name on recital programs and CDs for the foreseeable future.
Britain’s most celebrated composer continues to be Benjamin Britten, whose Shakespeare opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare song, “Fancie,” were both written in the early 1960s. The song shares the opera’s style—spiky and fantastical, like the shimmering music Britten wrote for Oberon, Titania, and Puck. “Fancie” is a prickly response to Shakespeare’s meditation on sexual attraction, quite unlike the melting song Francis Poulenc wrote to the same poem. Both pieces were composed the same year (1964), and both at the request of Marion, Countess of Harewood. She was assembling an anthology called Classical Songs for Children, and she invited three contemporary stars, Poulenc, Britten, and Zoltán Kódaly, to contribute. Poulenc was the first to turn in his assignment. Since he was unsure about English prosody he asked his companion and colleague Pierre Bernac to guide him. Despite his best intentions Poulenc still managed to make a few charming mistakes in his setting, like putting the stress of the word “engendered” on the first syllable.
The fifth British composer on tonight’s program is John Dankworth, whose three songs come from a collection he wrote for his wife, the jazz singer Cleo Laine. I went through a serious Cleo Laine phase in my early 20s—I worshipped her, and still have a dozen of her LPs on my shelf. She captured me with her smoky alto voice, her dazzling scat singing, and her extended range—all the way up to an octave above high C. (I do like a high note.) Dankworth’s “If music be the food of love” has a be-bop feel, with a driving rhythm and a section for improvisation. But his setting of Sonnet 18 has the poise and depth of an art song, flavored with the gestures and chords of jazz. It is tightly composed, so the music doesn’t allow for much alteration of harmony or melody. It is that rare jazz tune that a singer and pianist can perform pretty much straight from the score and still sound stylish.
Shakespeare made inroads on the burgeoning repertoire of German Lieder. But the Brahms songs we’re hearing tonight were not written for the recital stage. They came from an 1873 production of Hamlet in Prague. A popular Viennese actor named Josef Lewinsky commissioned his friend Brahms to write songs for his fiancée, the actress Olga Preicheisen who’d been cast as Ophelia. She was not a trained singer, so Brahms created simple, unaccompanied folk-like melodies appropriate to her vocal skills. They stem from the traditional Romantic nineteenth century view of Ophelia as a pathetic, innocent child. They were Brahms’ only songs written on commission, and he never published them. They remained lost among his papers for 61 years before finding the light of day.
While Brahms kept his Ophelia-Lieder simple for practical reasons, Strauss did exactly the opposite when he wrote his Ophelia-Lieder in 1918. They were written in a spirit of revenge. In 1906, the composer had promised his next song cycle to his publishers, Bote & Bock. But he got into a bitter struggle with them over performing rights to his work, and renounced songwriting altogether. Though Lieder had been one of his most joyous endeavors in his early career, he refused to allow any more of his music to be published under the Bote & Bock imprimatur. Finally, in 1918, the courts decreed that the renowned composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos had to meet his obligation to his old publisher.
Strauss, now cornered, fastened on the idea of a collaboration with the critic Alfred Kerr. They wrote Krämerspiegel (“The Shop-Keeper’s Mirror”), a scurrilous satire on the music publishing business, using the firms’ names (including, of course Bote & Bock) in a series of vicious puns. B&B not only refused to print the cycle but got another court injunction to force Strauss to write an acceptable piece. The publishers no doubt still hoped the composer would produce songs like his early crowd-pleasers “Zueignung” and “Morgen.” Instead, Strauss vented his anger by composing six songs calculated to offend, three settings each of Goethe and Shakespeare. The Goethe poems are studies in bad temper, from the Büchern des Unmuts (“The Book of Annoyance”). The Shakespeare poems are studies in insanity—the Ophelia-Lieder.
Singers rarely trot out the Goethe settings. They are truly unpleasant, and you’ll only hear them when some brave soul is doing a complete traversal of Strauss’ Lieder. The Shakespeare songs, on the other hand, have attained a certain popularity on recital programs. Strauss’ Ophelia comes from the post-Freudian generation, and the composer observes her like a clinician. The repetitive motifs of the first song suggest she is obsessive-compulsive; the chattering energy of the second marks her as an hysteric; and the doleful tread of the third suggests a diagnosis of depression, punctuated by inappropriate affect and violent mood swings. Moments of rich harmony and impressionistic dissonance alternate with violent outbursts and neutral anomie. Brahms’ Ophelia is mad. Strauss’ is what we’d call “mentally ill.”
While the songs from Shakespeare’s plays have been set to music over and over again, his sonnets are relative newcomers to the concert stage. Hubert Parry earnestly tackled them in the late nineteenth century, but their poetic complexity and ambiguous eroticism attracted more composers in the modern era, notably Ned Rorem, Hanns Eisler and Dmitri Shostakovich. The sonnets were barely known in Russia until Samuel Marshak’s translations popularized them in the early 1950s. Among those who discovered their beauties was the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky who set ten of them to music in 1953-54.
Kabalevsky played an active part in Russian musical politics. He was influential as a writer and speaker on Soviet musical policy, and he always steered close to the government’s artistic guidelines. In 1948 a party decree called for music written in a lyrical style; it also encouraged composers to incorporate Russian folk themes. Ever the good party member, Kabalevsky wrote his Shakespeare Sonnets in an unapologetically old-fashioned manner reminiscent of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. But if these songs don’t break new musical ground, they make a good case for traditional virtues: drama, variety, color, and especially melody. Kabalevsky creates a rich, songful landscape for Marshak’s Shakespeare.
The translations, one must admit, don’t recreate the Bard’s denseness of imagery and emotional complexity. Marshak (1887-1964) is plain-spoken and straightforward. But he had a tremendous devotion to English literature and brought the writings of Blake, Burns, T. S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Shelley, A. A Milne, and many other important writers to the Russian public. Rendering Marshak back into English is a study in how language defines culture—and culture defines language. Through this Slavic interpreter, Shakespeare’s multifaceted “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly/Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy” comes out bluntly as “You are music, but you listen to music with incomprehensible misery.” What Marshak misses, Kabalevsky supplies—in a lush, late-Romantic way. Written for a bass voice, Shakespeare’s love poetry takes on an autumnal warmth.
The American songs on tonight’s show range from the square to the hip. Virgil Thomson is the leader of the square brigade with a selection from his 1957 Six Shakespeare Songs. Thomson favored a faux-naïf style, intentionally limiting his harmony to the chords of church hymns. His aim was to force the listener’s attention onto the declamation and the rhythmic elements—a very early form of minimalism. In “Sigh no more, ladies,” the composer escalates the rapidity of the melody and accompaniment, starting with the transparent texture of a spaced-out square dance and ending with a sort of Protestant fandango.
Equally spare but less square is Stephen Sondheim’s setting of “Fear No More,” which was first heard in a 1973 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. This updated version was originally staged in, yes, in the Yale University swimming pool, and starred Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Chris Durang. In Act II, George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare are in the underworld, fiercely competing for permission to return to earth. With this lovely song, Shakespeare wins the trial. Shaw can only speak, but Shakespeare can sing.
The iconic Dick Hyman is a musical dynamo who plays the piano in every style known to man, plus a few other ones too. His regular appearances at the 92nd Street Y made him a fixture on the New York concert scene, and his soundtracks for Woody Allen’s movies brought him to international fame. Given his polymorphous musicianship, it stands to reason that his Ten Shakespeare Songs (1957) mold themselves to the needs of many different performers. The original idea came from Hyman’s publisher who wanted them as a vehicle for Johnny Nash. The 17-year-old Nash had just triumphed on “The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts,” a TV show where Hyman was music director. But the songs didn’t seem to attract Nash, who later became best known for mega-hits like “Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” Instead, the first recording was made by Earl Wrightson, in a Marlboro-man baritone backed by a Mitch Miller-ish male chorus and TV orchestrations. Later, Maxine Sullivan made a popular recording of them, swinging the rhythms over cool jazz arrangements. I first heard them on an LP by the operatic basso Giorgio Tozzi, unembellished, hearty, straight off the sheet music—and fabulous.
In 1988, I was fascinated by the way this one writer could inspire composers of so many eras, temperaments, and nationalities, and my wonder has only grown over time. Shakespeare was my muse at college—my senior thesis was a discussion of his comedies—and he has clearly been a muse to centuries of musicians as well. It strikes me that music, if done well, can indeed be the food of love—and on Shakespeare’s advice NYFOS shall play on, as we open our 32nd season.
Everyone involved with classical song eventually falls under the spell of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), simply because so many composers have set his poetry to music. His writing is a fascinating combination of opposites: elusive and open, austere and emotional, somber and bursting with color. The more I read about this great Spanish artist the more astonishing I find him. His neatly bound volumes of poetry and his famous stage works (Yerma, Blood Wedding) don’t give the full picture of Lorca’s chaotic creativity, his unique mix of sophistication and naivety, his long-frustrated sensuality, and his complex heart. He came from wealth, but he was deeply drawn to gypsy culture. He possessed a brilliant mind, but was a poor student and needed years to finish his college degree. (At his oral exams, he demonstrated only the most cursory familiarity with the law, and the University of Madrid granted him a mercy degree to terminate his near-decade of scholastic indolence.) At once a fountain of vitality and a death-haunted soul, he longed for the one thing Spain was unwilling to give him: a man he could love without shame or punishment.
For many of us, Lorca’s death—early and violent—has come to overshadow Lorca’s life. It seems that the very first thing I knew about him was that he had been assassinated at the age of 38 by Franco’s fascist goons. Lorca had been open about his socialist views, a hazardous position in a country where the rule of law was rapidly crumbling. There are still many mysteries about Lorca’s death. His body has never been found. Some claim that it was the result of a clash between two warring right-wing factions. Others see it as a gay hate crime. One thing is sure: at that moment in Spanish history it was dangerous to be gay. It was dangerous to be anti-fascist. And therefore it was extremely dangerous to be Lorca.
Lorca died tragically. But he lived a life filled with passion and zest. He was a theatrical visionary and a poet of seemingly endless invention. Charismatic and exuberant, he thrived on attention. Tonight we examine many facets of this great artist: the Andalusian outsider who loved the wild cadences of flamenco, the visionary poet, the child-man who longed to be a father himself, and the high-profile, sexually hungry gay man negotiating the terrain of an increasingly homophobic Spain.
We’ll begin in Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain where Lorca was born. When he was a young man Lorca struck up a deep friendship with Manuel de Falla who was 22 years older than the poet. Their personalities were diametric opposites—de Falla was conservative, austere, and solitary, while Lorca was generous, effusive, and gregarious. But they shared a deep love of music and a fierce commitment to Andalusian culture. They may also have recognized that they were both gay, though de Falla remained deeply closeted for his whole life. The two men cemented their friendship by going off into the countryside and collecting folksongs. In this they were following in the footsteps of composers Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams who had also ventured out to record the traditional songs of their countries. De Falla had already published his own collection of folksong arrangements in 1915, and his Seven Popular Spanish Songs frequently turn up on recital programs—popular indeed.
Lorca studied piano in his early years and at first he seemed destined for a life in music. But his piano teacher, Antonio Segura, died when Lorca was 16, and that career path ended when his parents refused to allow him to travel to Paris to continue his studies. He turned his creative energies to poetry and drama, but music always remained central to his life. De Falla became a second mentor to him. One of the fruits of their comradeship was a volume of 13 Andalusian songs arranged by Lorca with simple accompaniments for piano or guitar. The melodies and poems are traditional, but it is possible that Lorca gave the lyrics a bit of his own magic touch. In the early 1930s, he recorded them with the singer known as La Argentinita, and it is the only extant recording of Lorca at the piano—a tantalizing sound portrait of the professional musician he might have become.
“Most of the art song composers set Lorca’s poems about children,” said Lorca scholar Jonathan Mayhew, with a shrug I could hear over our long-distance line. I had been referred to him by NYFOS’ co-founder Michael Barrett—in a flash of serendipity Jonathan is Michael’s first cousin. Mayhew has written several books on Lorca already, and is embarked on another about musical settings of the poems. And he was not off the mark: most of the best-known Lorca-based song cycles are some variation of Canciones para niños. But that doesn’t mean they are lightweight or trivial. Everything Lorca touched had its shadows and depths. This is not Robert Louis Stevenson’s rosy world of children, but a landscape of mystery and dark dreams.
Lorca was devoted to children and related to them with a kind of joyous intensity. Perhaps this was because he himself had a childlike nature which he learned to wield as an adult’s magnetism. He also knew that as a gay man he would never have children of his own, and the theme of sterility runs through his plays (Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba) and poems (“The Song of the Barren Orange Tree”). His inescapable infertility caused him a great deal of sadness. Perhaps this is why he created such a trove of poems about childhood.
Two of tonight’s songs come from the Catalan master Xavier Montsalvatge, whose 1953 work, Canciones para niños, locates both the exuberance and melancholy of Lorca’s poems. Another comes from a charming cycle by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who wrote both these songs and an extended orchestral piece as a tribute to the poet in the aftermath of his death. We’ll also get to sample a dark, evocative excerpt from Lorca’s play Blood Wedding in a gorgeous setting by the Spanish composer Antón Gabriel Abril, a musician most famous for his film scores. Abril is a master of atmosphere, and he is able to evoke a sense of maternal warmth and foreboding in the three short minutes of “Nana, niño, nana.”
The Catalan master Federico Mompou never published his setting of El niño mudo (“The mute child”) during his lifetime. He wrote the piece for the ballet adaptation of a Lorca play in 1956, when Franco was at the height of his power in Spain. Lorca was still controversial twenty years after his death—revered by the left, reviled by the right. Mompou and his co-composer Xavier Montsalvatge concealed the source of their ballet by amending the original title, and they left Lorca’s name off the credits. The piece had a successful run at the Liceu in Barcelona, but it soon disappeared from the repertoire. Mompou did not have the courage to go public with this song or include it in later anthologies. It finally appeared in print in 2006, 19 years after Mompou died. Like much of this composer’s work, it is spare, lyrical, and prickly—a delicate watercolor painted with needles.
We’ll next focus on Lorca’s friendship with Manuel de Falla, which extended well beyond their early excursions in search of folk songs. They embarked on several large projects together: a 1922 festival in honor of cante jondo, the “deep song” of the Andalusian gypsies, with its Moorish and Indian cadences; a number of theatrical works, some of them completed, some not; and a year-long tricentennial celebration of the Renaissance poet Luis de Góngora, a tremendous gathering of Spain’s finest poets and musicians. De Falla’s contribution was the majestic setting of Soneto a Córdoba, an ode to the city where Góngora lived and died. De Falla’s music is a fascinating blend of pre-baroque harmony, with almost all the chords in root position—flavored with surprising touches of jazzy dissonance. It serves as a portrait of the austere and innovative de Falla himself, a bold and uncompromising man.
For modern readers, the issue of Lorca’s sexuality, like the drama of his assassination, has threatened to overwhelm other important aspects of his vast creativity. The early efforts of his family to suppress references to his gayness (as well as his homoerotic play The Public) have ultimately contributed to the spotlight on his love life. From the beginning, Lorca’s literary legacy has been a pressure cooker. For decades scholars were forced to obfuscate references to Lorca’s lovers to placate the poet’s family. Even after the Spanish Fascists lifted the ban on Lorca’s writing in 1954, it was published in redacted form. Sonnets of a Dark Love became the bland Love Sonnets. And make no mistake: homophobia was not only a problem of the Right Wing. It was a national taboo–many leftists did not want to see their slaughtered national poet come out of the closet posthumously. It wasn’t till the late 1980s that Lorca’s sexual orientation became widespread public knowledge.
After that, Lorca’s gayness began to colonize the interpretation of his poetry and plays. His most recent biographer, Ian Gibson, wrote: “I discovered an anguished, tortured – gay – love … All his poetry turns around frustrated love. His tormented characters who can’t live the life they want are precisely the metaphor for his sorrow. He was a genius who turned his suffering into art.” It is poignantly clear for, example, in Es verdad—
It is such a lot of work
to love you as I love you!
Oh, because of your love the air hurts me,
even my hat.
We’ll hear this poem tonight in a setting by Roberto Bañuelas. Born in Mexico, he had a prolific career as both a composer and an operatic baritone working on the international scene in the 1960s and 70s. New Yorkers could even have caught him during his two seasons at New York City Opera (1968-69). Bañuelas may have flown just beneath the radar but he has an impressive resumé: he worked with von Karajan and Zeffirelli, published novels and short stories, and in the early 2000s saw the premieres of his operatic trilogy based on the Oresteia.
Lorca mostly wrote obliquely about his sexuality using symbolic stories and unisex pronouns. But there are exceptions, like the explicit Canción del mariquita (“The song of the sissy”). We meet an extremely effeminate man who arranges his curls and adorns himself with a lily before sashaying into the world. The “mariquita” was the most obvious manifestation of homosexuality in Lorca’s world. He is the man Lorca feared he might be—or become. But he is also the proud, unafraid gay man Lorca wanted to be. The neighbors know him for what he is, yet they smile. They do not laugh. But while the “mariquitas” of Andalusia sing their truth from the rooftops, they were not the role model Lorca sought. He would ultimately find that when he came to New York and discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman in 1930.
I do not know why the Jewish-Moroccan-French-Spanish composer Maurice Ohana chose the fairly obscure Canción del mariquita for his “Huit chansons espagnoles.” But it cannot have been an accident. He changed the title to conform to his setting—“Tango del mariquita”—and lifted this very special poem into the spotlight, creating a drag tango, a dance both flouncy and languorous. And let us not forget that the tango was originally a dance for two men.
Lorca was deeply tied to his Andalusian roots, and they were a source of his lifelong fascination with cante jondo (“deep song”), the hypnotic, wailing music of the Gypsies. It is the unvarnished, primeval cousin of flamenco, which was festooned with more rhythmic drive and cosmopolitan appeal—“cante jondo for tourists,” in Lorca’s words. Cante jondo embraces many cultures: Jewish, Byzantine, Moorish, Indian. Some of the songs are bitter reflections on hunger and poverty. But Lorca was more fascinated by the natural imagery of cante jondo—wind, sea, earth, and moon, the locus classicus of his poetry. The groundbreaking 1922 cante jondo festival Lorca organized under Manuel de Falla’s direction was only one of his many artistic ventures based around Gypsy culture—his 1928 Gypsy Ballads attained instant popularity and launched him into the spotlight.
Recordings of cante jondo are of course in plentiful supply. But it is almost impossible to find songs in this style appropriate for the recital stage and classically trained singers. They aren’t built to replicate the sound of flamenco, which is as rough, wide-open, and unmediated as rock ’n’ roll—a scream of pain. Blessings on William Bolcom who filled the bill when he set a Lorca poem, Soneto de la dulce queja (“Sonnet of the sweet complaint”) to the cadences of cante jondo, complete with wild bravura vocal flourishes accompanied by an ostinato guitar pattern. Bolcom wrote his nine-movement Lorca cycle in 2006 at the request of tenor Plácido Domingo, who also picked out most of the poetry for the cycle. Said the composer, “I spoke nothing but subway Spanish. But I studied, steeped myself in it. And I listened to flamenco, that raw, almost terrifying outpouring of soul. I heard the rhythm of flamenco in Lorca’s poetry. And that way the tones inherent in the words began to emerge.”
The magic of this song is the three-part nature of the score: a wailing, plaintive vocal line, a hangdog guitar lick rising and falling like the sigh of a man unhappily smitten with love, and the surrealistic chords in the piano.
We’re pairing Bolcom’s song with one by Carlos Surinach: the middle movement of his Morals and Maxims of Saint Teresa. It too draws on the Arab melismas and full-throated outcry of flamenco, though the latter is light years away from Catholic doctrine. What St. Teresa and flamenco have in common is a quality of visionary transport. In this section Saint Teresa describes the power of prayer, which God returns to the supplicant as a flame in our hearts—a bonfire of mercy. Surinach’s music blazes with the voice in full cry over a strumming piano. The composer was born in Barcelona, did some early studies with Richard Strauss, and eventually emigrated to the States where he created three ballets with Martha Graham. He also seems to have understood vocal writing well. Morals and Maxims may be more flamenco—heroic and driving—than cante jondo—seething and wounded. But it captures Lorca’s love for the pageantry of Catholicism, which he described as a kind of national theater offered every week to the Spanish populace.
After his death in 1936 Lorca became a symbol of political resistance for writers throughout the Americas and beyond. His poems and plays took on heightened significance, a trend that continues to this very day. I was recently at Repertorio Español to see Lorca: Alma Presente, an evening of excerpts from the writer’s plays offered as a fundraiser for Venezuelan children in need. The end of Maria Pineda, with its cries of “¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!,” moved me—and everyone in the house—to tears.
I’ve no doubt that Paul Bowles was drawn to Lorca because of their shared political views—and who knows, perhaps their shared sexuality. But Lorca’s surrealistic imagery was certainly a large part of his appeal. Bowles first wrote a theater piece on a Lorca text, The Wind Remains, and this zarzuela (as he called it) remained his favorite of his works. He then began plans for something more ambitious: an opera based on Lorca’s masterpiece Yerma. That never came to pass, but he did toss off a short cycle of Four Lorca Songs in 1944. They remained unpublished for 40 years, and when they appeared in a 1984 Bowles anthology they showed up as handwritten scores, still not typeset. Their rough-hewn appearance on the page is appropriate to Bowles’ quirky, angular music, a perfect foil for Lorca’s poetry.
Billy Strayhorn also found a kindred spirit in Lorca when he got involved in a ground- breaking off-Broadway collective called Artists Theater. The roster of participants included giants like Tennessee Williams, John Ashbery, and Larry Rivers, all at the beginnings of their career. Strayhorn longed to make “a black-gay statement,” which was an act of tremendous courage in 1953. He signed on to write music for a production of Lorca’s The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden. The play was one of the poet’s early works, a romance about an impossible love. “Of course,” said the costume designer Bernard Oshei, “everybody thought of Lorca as the great gay martyr.”
The production had a short run at the old Amato Opera Theater where it played to packed houses. Strayhorn contributed three pieces of incidental music that wove through the 50-minute duration of the show. He also wrote a song, “The Flowers Die of Love.” It takes a gifted composer to create magic with only the barest of means—an incantatory melody, a flick from major to minor, a single pedal-point in the bass for the entire song. Strayhorn was the man for the job—a brilliant tunesmith and a deep soul.
It’s not surprising that Lorca was one of Leonard Cohen’s favorite poets. While the gravel-voiced, lugubrious Canadian and the mercurial, charismatic Andalusian may have been diametric opposites as personas, their art shared a deep sensuality and a sense of longing. Very different types of men, with very similar blood in their veins. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lorca’s death in 1986, Cohen translated Lorca’s Pequeño vals vienés(“Little Viennese Waltz”) and set it to music. The resulting song, “Take This Waltz,” strikes me as a miraculous adaptation: a lyric of stunning, extravagant beauty, and a haunting tune that crests with leisurely grace. Its words and music work on me like a drug, or a dream—a world I need hours to leave behind.
We can’t rewrite the end of Lorca’s life. The senseless horror of it haunts me to this day. But we can end our tribute with a burst of joy: a setting of Son de los negros en Cuba (“The son of the black men in Cuba”). The poet spent a season as a student at Columbia University in 1929. His seeming inability to learn English kept him isolated for much of his time here, and he came to hate the bustle, materialism, and poverty he saw in New York. He was witness to the stock market crash and its devastating effect. At the end of his time here he landed a few lectures in Cuba and sailed off to Havana. There he encountered the warm welcome of a relaxed, Spanish-speaking culture. He also found himself in a non-homophobic environment for the first time. He’d been gay for his whole life, but there he could finally glory in it. We’d call it “coming out,” although those terms didn’t exist in those days.
There are several good settings of “Son de los negros en Cuba,” including a stunning version by William Bolcom. But we went with the one by Spanish pop diva Ana Belén, who set Lorca’s jubilant poem as a true son—an Afro-Cuban dance music based on African bantu tradition, powered by rhythm rather than by melody. It typically has a call-and-response section and is usually accompanied by a raft of percussion: claves, bongos, cowbell, and shaker. We’ll have them all on hand tonight to recall Lorca at the happiest moment of his life, bathed in admiration, with a line of handsome male suitors snaking down the hallway outside his hotel room. This will be our gift to the poet we’ve come to love: a celebration of everything he stood for.
—Thanks are due to five people who provided invaluable help with tonight’s program: Dorothy Potter Snyder, who tirelessly assisted me with translations and helped me “dance with the shadows” of Lorca’s poetry; Jonathan Mayhew, who guided me to some of the repertoire on tonight’s show including my newest favorite song, “Take This Waltz”; the kind and generous Pablo Zinger, who provided wisdom as well as the scores for the Revueltas and Surinach pieces; James Russell, who (along with Ms. Snyder) painstakingly edited the program notes; and Carlos Capacho who created the sheet music for the unpublished final number. I could not have done this project without them.
This program takes its inspiration from an opera — Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte — and a movie, Max Ophuls’ La ronde, which was based on the hugely controversial play by Arthur Schnitzler, Reigen. Both works are about the disruptive interplay of love and lust, fidelity and libido, id and superego. In our concert two couples meet and fall in love, but the honeymoon fades. Soon the guys feel trapped and the women feel betrayed, and then all hell breaks loose. The men experiment (including a fling with one another), while the girls drop all inhibitions and indulge their sexual whims. Wild oats sown, the four come warily back together with more experience, more wisdom, more doubts — and fuller hearts.
Each of the four chapters demanded its own language and musical genre. The couples fall in love to French romantic art song, which evokes that wonderful moment of infatuation when life sparkles with promise, the spirit shimmers, and the words lovers exchange are perhaps more beautiful for the way they sound than for what they actually mean. But when that moment wears off and reality sets in, things suddenly get more literal. “But you said,” “But I never meant,” “I just can’t stand…!” Suddenly we go from wings of song to the language of negotiation, recrimination, and comedy: English. English is also the best language for Act III, “Philandering.” After all, you don’t want to miss any of the juicy details. But German song seemed right for the closing section. Lieder offered the most beautiful, complex examples of mature love tinged with loneliness and betrayal. For a reflective coda, I drew on a Spanish song by the Catalan composer Manuel Oltra set to a Lorca poem. Once again life vibrates with possibilities— and memories.
Tonight’s playlist careens from the sublime to the ridiculous. Love is at once the highest expression of humanity and an unruly biological urge, a blissful merging and a litigious, daily negotiation. All of our composers and lyricists are exposing the exalted, messy truth about love — Schubert and Irving Berlin, Fauré and Jason Robert Brown, Brahms and Ed Kleban. A few of the composers, classical icons like Saint-Saëns and Strauss, won’t require biographical sketches for experienced concert-goers. But there are a some lesser-known pieces in the program about which you may be curious. Below: a quick guide to those recherché numbers.
The two Stephen Sondheim songs are comparative rarities from this often-sung composer. “Two Fairy Tales” was written for the two ingénues in A Little Night Music, Hendrik and Anne. Its dazzling wit shed a bit of light on their characters, but it did nothing to advance the story in Act II when the action needs the most velocity. Sondheim slyly recycled “Two Fairy Tales” as an instrumental piece: it became the tedious piano exercise played by Desirée’s daughter Frederika.
“Country House” comes from the 1987 London production of Follies. Sondheim and his book writer William Goldman made a conscious attempt to add more comedy to their brilliant but problematic musical. To that end they tweaked the libretto and added three new songs including “Country House,” sung by the wealthy, unhappily married Phyllis and Ben. In the 1971 Broadway script they had dialogue scenes but they never sang together. Sondheim and Goldman eventually withdrew the London version of Follies as a failed experiment, preferring the disquieting original. Still, this song is prime Sondheim. Smart, psychologically astute, and ultimately quite touching, “Country House” shows us a side of Phyllis and Ben Stone that makes them more sympathetic and vulnerable. And only Hugo Wolf can match Sondheim for turning perfectly inflected line-readings into melody.
Vernon Duke’s brilliance as a songwriter was matched by his bad luck and bad judgment in the theater. The Gershwin brothers took Duke, then a Russian emigré named Vladimir Dukelsky, under their wing in the 1930s, and his early projects went well. “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” were instant classics, and his 1940 Broadway show Cabin in the Sky was a rousing success. But thereafter his luck turned, and he produced a string of failures — the last of them, Sweet Bye and Bye never even made it out of Philadelphia previews, and was such an out-and-out disaster that Duke vowed to leave the theater forever. He eventually returned to Broadway in 1952 with Two’s Company, a revue starring Bette Davis and choreographed by the brilliant, tyrannical Jerome Robbins. Duke recycled a few of the best songs from Sweet Bye and Bye, including “Just Like a Man.” Duke’s vast songwriting skills are on full display: a patrician ability to evoke sophisticated world-weariness, and a harmonic inventiveness that begins in the song’s verse, an opportunity most other composers throw away.
Alas, Duke was defeated once again. The fly in the ointment was the show’s star, Bette Davis, a breathtakingly unmusical performer. Her grim, leaden rendition of the opening number, “Turn Me Loose on Broadway,” gives new meaning to the phrase “two left feet.” (You can check it out on YouTube if you’re brave.) She claimed illness during the run of the show — her croaking rendition of “Just Like a Man” on the original cast album certainly doesn’t sound healthy. Good or bad, Bette Davis was a huge box office draw, and when she left Two’s Company after three months the show closed.
Marc Blitzstein is most famous for his left-wing agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock, and his classic translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. One doesn’t usually associate this serious artist with froth like “Modest Maid.” The song was written during World War II when Blitzstein was stationed in London working for the United States Army. His job was to promote cultural ties between Britain and the States. What better way to do so than to write a bawdy song for the great English comedienne Beatrice Lillie?
Alas, she never performed it. But twelve years later it became a showstopper for Charlotte Rae, who met Blitzstein when she played Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny at the Theater de Lys. Blitzstein’s lyrics were probably inspired by the opportunities for outdoor sex during the blackouts in wartime London — a boon not just for “modest maids” but gay men like Blitzstein.
Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years had only a short off-Broadway run in 2002, but it has become a beloved work for the current generation of music theater fans and performers. It tells the story of a failed marriage with a unique narrative twist: the heroine’s songs start at the end of the relationship and move backwards to their first date, while the leading man’s plot line starts at the beginning of their love and ends with his leaving his wife. The structure of the musical is a beautiful metaphor for the inability of this young couple to synchronize their lives. Brown’s songs, especially those for his hero, Jamie (a successful writer and clearly a stand-in for Brown himself ) have startlingly vivid lyrics and a lively musical groove. For me, The Last Five Years shows Jason Robert Brown at his very best and “A Miracle Would Happen” is one of my many favorites from this show.
Everyone knows Ed Kleban’s work, even if they don’t know his name: he wrote the lyrics for the 1975 blockbuster A Chorus Line. He had a number of other musicals in the pipeline but they never came to fruition. Kleban died in 1987 at age 48, leaving a scattering of songs and unfinished projects. One of them was a musical called Warhol, the source for “Do It Yourself.” I first heard this song at a benefit for the Manhattan Theater Club in 1974, when the now-venerable MTC had just finished its second season. Bob Balaban (of Waiting for Guffman fame) was the lead singer, with Kleban and writer/producer Richard Maltby, Jr. filling in as backup chorus. Ed promised to get me a copy but fate intervened. Thirty-three years later his longtime companion, Linda Kline, finally sent me the music for a piece that had haunted my memory for decades.
Even Britten specialists don’t tend to know the duet “Underneath the Abject Willow,” which received a premiere at London’s Wigmore Hall in December 1936. Its poet, W. H. Auden, and its composer, Benjamin Britten, had become artistic collaborators and close friends the year before, and they continued to work on films (through the G.P.O. Film Unit), song cycles (On This Island and Our Hunting Fathers), and operas (Paul Bunyan) for another six years before their paths diverged. Britten was initially somewhat cowed by Auden’s keen, articulate intelligence; it took him some time to feel that he was the intellectual equal of his friend. He was also far less sexually adventurous and experienced than Auden, who wrote “Underneath the Abject Willow” as a way of encouraging the rather repressed Britten to enjoy his youth and accept himself as a gay man. Britten turns Auden’s poem into a breezy three-movement suite of dance tunes that lightly mock and taunt, and ends with Britten’s musical equivalent of a kick in the pants.
The poem for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe comes from a play by Matthäus von Collin, The Death of Duke Frederick the Valiant. As the title character thinks about happier times in his past, he hears this poem sung by two voices passing in the forest. The music probably dates from 1822 — no autograph survives — and is reminiscent of Schubert’s operatic works from that time in his life. Schubert may have lacked the theatrical skills to create successful music drama, but few can match his ability to suggest subtle, shifting gradations of emotion, or portray the human heart in all its strength and vulnerability. In three minutes Schubert evokes love’s healing light and its ability to wound, simply by juxtaposing two contrasting rhythmic patterns, dipping suddenly into the minor mode, dropping briefly into recitative, and returning to the opening theme using overlapping vocal lines that allow the music to flower.
Manuel Oltra is probably the least familiar of tonight’s classical composers. He was a Catalan musician in the lineage of NYFOS favorites Eduardo Toldrà, Frederic Mompou, and Narcís Bonet. Like his fellow Catalan composers, he prized simplicity and lyricism, and shared with them a beautiful sense of musical space. Oltra casts a spell using refined, spare musical materials — a delicate watercolorist of sound.
Eco was the first song I chose for tonight’s concert, even though at that point I really didn’t know exactly what story we would be telling. The music startled me with its beauty, and so did the brief poem by García Lorca. Its nostalgia for a perfect shared moment, bathed in a combination of warmth and coldness, seemed the perfect conclusion to any story about love. The poem became even more resonant as I found out a bit more about the meaning of “nardo,” that mysterious “spikenard plant” mentioned by Lorca. Spikenard is known more commonly in this country as valerian, and is a traditional flower at Mexican weddings. It has large white buds shaped like spheres, which is why Lorca compares them to the moon. “Nard” is also mentioned in the Bible, where it figures in the Song of Solomon, and is used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus. “Nardo” carries with it a sense of deep reverence and the holy consecration of marriage.
I admit it: Cy Coleman and Gabriel Fauré aren’t the kind of artists you’d expect to see on the same musical quilt. Yet all the disparate, brilliant voices in tonight’s program understood the power of love, and each one advances the story in his own way. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the heroines of Cosí fan tutte, sang art songs, I doubt they’d let loose with “Modest Maid,” and I doubt that their swains Ferrando and Guglielmo would be sparring with the “Tennis Duet.” But this is the age of Hamilton. Let’s allow our two modern couples to duke it out with the full psychological and social artillery of the twenty-first century. And afterwards, we can discuss who went home with whom.
In late 2017, Michael and I were busy trying to finalize the 2018–2019 NYFOS season. We had settled on the W. C. Handy project, and we were thinking about celebrating a famous poet on a later evening. (That poet turned out to be García Lorca, featured in our April 24 program.) But the third show remained a mystery. Then I heard the December NYFOS Next concert down at Elebash Hall. That program was devoted to Leonard Bernstein and other composers who had been influenced by him, and it included Daniel Sabzghabaei’s At the Door. I was transfixed by Daniel’s music, filled with the fascinating sonorities in the piano—including the visual frisson of seeing the piano lid raised all the way to 90 degrees, functioning as the barrier between the lovers—and an imaginative, daring use of the human voice. I told Michael, “We have got to bring that music to our mainstage series. Everyone needs to hear Daniel’s—what is it, a cantata?” At first we thought of pairing At the Door with other stories of thwarted lovers, picking up on the work’s story. But we saw a more interesting possibility, something to address our current national quandary about welcoming people of other nationalities into our country. Daniel is Persian-American, and At the Door is set to a poem in Farsi. NYFOS has ventured far afield in its 31-year history—a couple of years ago we did a song in Zulu. But it was time to open our borders even further, and Daniel Sabzghabaei proved to be our passport.
The debate on immigration to America was in the headlines when we first discussed tonight’s program and, as we predicted, the debate has continued with full-blown xenophobia on the extreme right, and conciliatory entry quotas on the other side. America was once proud to be a melting pot. Suddenly we are being told that the national food is to be Wonder Bread. To shed some light on the issue, we decided to celebrate a group of new American citizens and first-generation composers who work and reside in the U.S. Our roster includes professors at distinguished universities and award-winning performers: Brazilian-American, Chinese-American, Persian-American, and Puerto Rican (culturally hyphenated, if not technically). All of them are active in the ongoing development of our nation’s music, character, and ethos. Their musical voices span two generations, and draw deeply from their varied geographic and cultural origins. Tonight we are proud to celebrate their work as we revel in the new sonorities and rhythms they bring to American music. We look forward, with some hope, to a day when artists from everywhere might have the freedom to work wherever they like, and be welcomed with open arms in America.
—Steven Blier, with Michael Barrett
Elementos (Elements) (2010)
Music by Clarice Assad / Text by Daniel Basilio
All the songs in ELEMENTOS were born out of some kind of personal pain: pain that turns into introspection or fuel for change, heartbreak giving way to happiness, or heartache forcing us to make life-decisions. Written between 1998 and 2010 and conceived with an operatic female voice in mind (though I had never met an opera singer when I sketched the first tune), they were just a way of coping with life. I left them in a drawer along with many other pieces, but I was thankful I’d saved them when I met lyricist Daniel Basilio. Basilio, inspired by the stories, wrote words to draw the connections between human emotions and the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.
They do not appear in chronological order. I began humming “Esconderijo,” the finale one day, when I was about 20 years old, when things felt just right after a long dark period. At 26, I wrote “Maré de Água Viva,” the water movement, a painful realization that life was made up of permanent change. “Flor de Lã” and “Fogaréu” I wrote at 32, during a confusing time of loss and fear. Writing the music eventually set things into motion, forcing an imaginary bridge-burning after a wounding experience.
In 2016, the San Antonio-based SOLI ensemble commissioned a chamber version of this piece and invited me to perform with them. It was a great experience and began a beautiful collaboration between us. But tonight— so many years later—will be the first time these songs come to life the way I had first imagined them—for mezzo-soprano and piano.
Three Chinese Love Songs (1988)
Traditional Chinese Folk Poetry / Translation to English by Bright Sheng
Three Chinese Love Songs was requested by Seiji Ozawa as one of the commissioned works for the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 77th birthday at Tanglewood in August 1988. Prior to this, I had just finished a large orchestral work for the New York Chamber Symphony entitled H’un (Lacerations): In Memorium 1966–1976, a work about the “Cultural Revolution” in China. I composed H’un around the interval of the minor second instead of using any kind of melody or tune. Since it is about a tragic period in China, the work sounded harsh and dissonant, creating the drama and expressiveness I wished to evoke.
At the same time, the inevitable call for the search of tonality in my writing, though not necessarily in the sense of triads, was increasing daily. I needed to write something quite different. The Tanglewood commission was an opportunity that enabled me to fulfill this need and to explore other compositional ideas. Setting Chinese folk songs seemed natural and appropriate.
Three Chinese Love Songs was premiered on August 26th, 1988, on a program entitled “Tributes in Song to Leonard Bernstein” at Tanglewood. The performers were Lisa Saffer, soprano, Barton Fine, viola, and Yehudi Wyner, piano.
At The Door (2017)
This setting of Rumi’s Ghazal 436 is an intimate scene for high voice, medium voice, and piano which focuses on the bond between the the Lover and the Belovéd; a tenant which pervades not only much of Rumi’s output, but many of his Sufi contemporaries and is a focal point of Sufism as a whole. In this mystical sect of Islam, the relationship between the Lover and the Belovéd is a deep and extremely personal one for each of us. We, as the Lover, all desire oneness with the Belovéd yet are consistently unable to achieve this true unison of body, spirit, consciousness, psyche, and self. The Belovéd takes on different meanings for each of us; however, what remains consistent is the desire for oneness with that which is unattainable; the Belovéd is the amalgamation of intimacy. In this scene, these two figures converse separated by a door, the Lover requesting entry to the Belovéd’s abode, and the Belovéd questioning the Lovers intentions. While the two consistently come very close to each other, a true unification is never achieved, only brief spurts of fleeting sensuality and passionate intimacy abound, the ever present Door separating the two incessantly, the oneness constantly fleeting into the ether.
—Daniel Reza Sabzghabaei
33 Suenos (33 Dreams) (2018) American Premiere
Music by Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Poetry by Juan Carlos Garvayo / Translation to English by D. P. Snyder
During one of my visits to Spain, Juan Carlos Garvayo, my friend and collaborator of many years, handed me a book titled 33 Sueños with his name inscribed as the poet. For over two decades, he has premiered and performed many of my works but I had no idea he wrote poetry. I took the volume back with me to the USA, and once I had the chance to glance through it, I immediately decided to set all the poems for baritone and piano. Juan Carlos’ poetry immediately spoke to me; the oneiric aspect of the poems connected with my music—a term the often appears in my works is “like a dream”. The writing process was vertiginous, as one poem led to the next, in fact as in a dream.
Choosing a program for NYFOS’s annual residency at Juilliard is usually one of the year’s sweetest dilemmas. No dilemma this time, though. I knew more than a year ago that I would want to revive Kurt Weill’s Berlin as the 2019 project. My singers have strong feelings about today’s politics, and I was sure they’d see the connection between Weimar Berlin and contemporary New York. While Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler are not unknown to today’s crop of young artists, they still had a lot to discover about them. And I knew that they would enjoy the freewheeling sexual politics in the songs by Tucholsky and Hollander.
I could not have anticipated in January of 2017 the mind-boggling clown car of today’s 24-hour news cycles. The material in tonight’s concert is like an eerie portent, a Roaring Twenties prequel to our times. In the middle of a rehearsal of “Caesar’s Death” baritone Greg Feldmann was so startled by the contemporary relevance of the lyrics that he turned to me and blurted out, “Steve, when was this thing written?” I admit that I have been just as gobsmacked by the timeliness of these songs as Greg, even though I’ve known them and played them for decades.
The music we’re hearing tonight actually comes from three different genres: musical theater, political song, and Kabarett. Weill, of course, is a man of the theater. His collaboration with Bertolt Brecht lasted only four years, from 1926 to 1930. But the works they created, including The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, started a revolution in theatrical style. Weill had been a student of Engelbert Humperdinck (of Hansel and Gretel fame). Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Weill had his first big successes in the realm of opera. Der Protagonist launched the young composer’s career in 1925—at opening night there were 35 curtain calls and 10 solo bows for the composer.
But the sweet-and-sour complexity of Threepenny in 1928 was something Germany had never heard before. Weill’s music is tonal, but it is laced with lots of intentional off-key bass notes. The songs don’t always end in the keys in which they began, drunkenly veering off into foreign tonalities. Combining seediness with sophistication, they are in-your-face and confrontational. But they also exhibit a rare sensitivity, exposing his characters’ unstated vulnerabilities. Just one example: in his masterful “Nanna’s Lied,” a used-up prostitute quotes Marx and François Villon as her music veers from accusatory bitterness to sweet, sensitive regret.
We’re giving special focus to two of Weill’s works tonight, Happy End (written with Brecht) and Der Silbersee (written with Georg Kaiser). They each contain some of Weill’s finest songs, and they each were shut down right after their premieres. Happy End, whose plot is startlingly similar to Guys and Dolls, was the much-anticipated follow-up to Threepenny. Weill wrote a sensational score, using a richer musical vocabulary than he had for the previous piece. But on its opening night, the leading lady
(Helene Weigel, soon to be Brecht’s wife) suddenly went off-script and started declaiming from a Communist pamphlet. Riots broke out, the show was panned, the public shunned it, and Happy End closed within a week. A beautiful revival at the Yale Rep in 1972, in Michael Feingold’s translation, finally brought Happy End back to life.
Der Silbersee (Silverlake) was Weill’s final work in Germany. By 1933, the outspoken, left-wing, Jewish Weill was persona non grata in Hitler’s Germany. Opening night managed to go off without a hitch, but the Nazis interrupted the second performance with a demonstration, shutting it down in the middle of the second act. Suddenly the two other German theaters that were set to do productions of Weill’s latest musical cancelled. Weill’s music was banned in Germany, his manuscripts were burned, and within two weeks Weill fled Germany to take up residence in Paris. He never saw his homeland again.
Kurt Weill’s music shares the stage tonight with songs from Berlin’s Kabaretts. While he sometimes professed a certain disdain for Berlin’s nightclubs, it’s obvious that Weill’s scores in the late 1920s borrowed freely from their loose-limbed style. The cabaret scene ran a wide spectrum. Some catered to the city’s intellectuals with political satire; some were geared to the tastes of the wealthy, with elegant settings, witty songs, and fine dining; still others—called Tingel-Tangels—were cheap honky-tonks where both the drinks and the entertainers were for sale. You could find sophisticated literary parody, sentimental celebrations of bourgeois life, left-wing political satire, right-wing rabble-rousing, naked dancing girls, and gay bars. Fads would last a few months or a few years. And some very talented people dished out startlingly vivid material, with clever words and catchy tunes. The songs by Frederick Hollander, Mischa Spoliansky, and Rudolph Nelson are at once ephemeral and timeless. While they weren’t intended to last, more than one of my students have commented, “Oh jeez, this song is about me!”
Composer Hanns Eisler and lyricists Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring provide a window into Berlin’s political cabaret. After Brecht and Weill ended their partnership, Eisler (a fervent Marxist) became Brecht’s musician of choice. His music tends to be less juicy, less ear-catching than Weill’s. Eisler’s slightly academic dryness suited Brecht, perhaps because it provided a plainer background for his lyrics. Still, Eisler at his best is capable of humor and passion, and some of his songs have an unforgettable directness—especially “Der Graben,” his moving pacifist anthem.
Mehring was an uncompromising artist, stopping at nothing to startle the public out of its complacency. He invented a rapid-fire rhyming style— I think of it as “Weimar hip-hop.” We’ll get a sample of Mehring’s technique in a song actually written by Hollander, “Tritt mir bloß nicht auf die Schuh,” with its string of tongue-twisting two-syllable rhymes.
Of all the poets and composers on tonight’s program, Kurt Tucholsky is the one I would most like to have known. A committed pacifist, he tried to keep war at bay through essays, newspaper articles, poems, and song lyrics. Tucholsky was an astoundingly perceptive writer, and his psychological acuity has turned him into a hero among today’s younger Germans. Once banned by Hitler, he is now anthologized and lionized.
Der Silbersee offered the German public a much-needed fantasy: at the end, the principal characters escape their pursuers as the lake of the title miraculously freezes. They are able to walk across the ice to safety. Alas, this fantasy did not await many of Germany’s Jews, gay people, and dissidents. All the artists on tonight’s concert survived the ravages of the Third Reich—except Tucholsky. He left Berlin in 1924 when he became the Paris correspondent for a number of Berlin newspapers. But he continued to supply Kabarett lyrics from his Paris apartment. Left-wing cabaret, agitprop theater, pacifist journalism, and Communist demonstrations all proved useless against the rise of Hitler. Tucholsky emigrated to Sweden. But in 1935, unable to obtain Swedish citizenship and already overwhelmed by the Nazi era, he decided he’d seen enough. He took poison and ended his life. Tucholsky’s tombstone quotes from Goethe: “All that passes is but a riddle.
In 1912, when Handy published the “Memphis Blues,” the word blues was used primarily to describe an emotional state—depression, melancholy. Songs specifically about these issues did not come into being until something like 400 years after the first mentions of the “blue devils” appeared in English. Once blues songs emerged, around 1900, they had a single overriding theme: bad luck in love. There were blues about other things—bedbugs, floods, and other irritants and calamities. There were virtually no blues about political matters, not even racial ones, until many years later.
Blues emerged from a societal structure that was African-American, in the Mississippi Delta and to a lesser extent such far-flung places as Texas and New Orleans. In these areas there were significant numbers of black people—in the Delta they outnumbered whites by a very high margin. Preconditions for the emergence of blues included the concentration of these people in sufficient numbers to support entertainment venues, such as the still famous “juke joints,” where part-time musicians supplied entertainment, especially for dancing; also theaters, built specifically for African Americans who had small amounts of pocket money to see traveling entertainers. Among them were such legendary characters as “Ma” Rainey, and the less-well-remembered but important Butler “String Beans” May and a legion of others, most of whom combined musical performance with comic routines or dancing. At harvest time especially, rural people flocked to the theaters in cities all over the south: Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; Macon, Georgia; and especially the Delta market town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, between the vast, fertile Delta and the regional metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee.
Blues fused disparate elements: three-line ballads, often about true-life murders: “Stackalee,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” “Delia”; ragtime; old folk songs, many of British derivation, preserved primarily in Appalachia and other uplands; fiddle tunes, often “reels” such as the one we know today as “Turkey in the Straw.” W. C. Handy was familiar with all of these, and also classical music, hymns, spirituals, and especially brass band music, when he became a composer.
The blues form is commonly understood today to combine, almost by royal decree, a few simple elements including a three-line rhyme scheme, A-A-B, in twelve bars of music, with a close-to-set chord structure and the employment of “blue” notes, unexpectedly flatted, plangent-sounding notes, the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the scale. This is an inadequate formalized structure, but one amenable to memorization and especially publication, using a major/minor key system derived from 19th-century hymns and similar songs. In practice, rural country blues employed a wide variety of slippery elements such as sliding notes or glissandi. These gestures probably derive from African roots and certainly from pre-1900 African-American music such as field hollers and other work songs, and the precursors to the spirituals.
Blues dissemination moved in two directions, rural-urban and black-white, but also the other way around. The bug was transmitted not only by roving troubadours and seasonal crop-pickers but by traveling entertainers. “Authentic” country blues musicians picked up material from men and women who traveled the circuit of theaters, at courthouses that hosted dances, and heard entertainers embedded in minstrel shows, circus troupes, and the like. Later, country bluesmen (mostly men) learned a good deal of material from recordings. Before 1927, almost all blues records were made by cosmopolitan entertainers in the north. Blues came from everywhere and nowhere: Dockery’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta, but also Chicago, Pensacola, Florida, Mobile, Alabama: everywhere.
When William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, nothing remotely like the blues existed. Spirituals, which we regard as ancient, were disdained by many African Americans as new-fangled aspirants to replace the good old hymns. Handy’s father and grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, which vied with more “primitive” denominations such as the Baptists for dominance. Charles Bernard Handy, the composer’s father, was a stern man, averse to popular culture, and forbade secular music in the home, even forcing the young W.C. to return a guitar purchased with his own hard-earned money in exchange for an encyclopedia. Handy’s dad embodies the toughened survivors of the post-Reconstruction era, an extremely bad time to be black in the South; his own father had been a hero of the Underground Railroad, and was shot, though not fatally, during a nighttime escape in Alabama while serving as a lookout. Handy’s mother, Elizabeth Brewer, came from a less-educated family with a musical streak: her father had played fiddle at barn dances before he “got religion.” She liked a good tune herself, but bowed to her husband in all things. Both the Handys and the Brewers were liked and to some degree respected by the whites of Florence.
In elementary school, W.C. Handy benefited greatly from the tutelage of Y.A. Wallace, who was among the first graduating class from Fisk University. He was an inspired music teacher, and Handy got an excellent education in the rudiments of music, which he learned using the old moveable pitch system (do-re-mi); by high school he was singing choral excerpts from the classical standard repertoire, and playing the harmonium (pump organ) in his father’s church. He also felt an irresistible urge to hit the road in show business, running away with a minstrel troupe as a teenager, getting stranded in a faraway town and returning home sadder but not wiser. Dutifully completing school, he got a teacher’s certificate and journeyed to Birmingham to teach, found the salary inadequate, and got work at an iron furnace in the suburb of Bessemer. There he organized a vocal quartet, which took to the road in spring 1893, when the depression coinciding with Grover Cleveland’s second presidential inauguration hit factories nationwide. Handy and his men intended to capitalize on the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, which had been postponed to 1893, then opened still later than expected. Finding the fair still not operational, the quartet moved on to St. Louis, also a lively entertainment center. There, outclassed by less regional talent, they disbanded. Handy was alone, broke, and hungry. He was found on the Eads Bridge by a stable hand who thought he was contemplating suicide, and from there worked his way back up, first by mucking out stalls. He had, as his father predicted, followed music into the gutter.
In St. Louis, Handy found that his gifts as a singing guitarist had some value and he took in the nightlife of Targee Street, which gave him a taste for urban high society. Ever alert to the songs of balladeers and street singers, in 1893 he heard a despondent woman sing “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” It would become the final refrain to his biggest hit, “St. Louis Blues,” over 20 years later. From St. Louis, Handy journeyed east, found a road-paving crew in Evansville, Indiana, got a cornet and work playing it, then found that gigs in Henderson, Kentucky paid better, and traveled between these cities and others throughout the upper South until summer of 1896. He then was summoned to join the brass band of Mahara’s Minstrels, led by three swashbuckling brothers from Iowa. He soon worked his way up to cornet soloist, then bandleader, and finally director of the orchestra as well (these played the troupe’s formal concerts). He began writing arrangements for and experimenting with such novelties as the saxophone. And he constantly self-educated, purchasing books on counterpoint and harmony to improve his composition skills.
Black minstrel troupes such as the one Handy joined specialized in comic routines, including cross-dressing, dancing, animal acts, storytelling, and, of course, music. They were not self-degrading; they represented the insight that black people imitating black people did it better than white people imitating black people. Handy never had to wear blackface like the comedians did; he would have starved before he stooped to that. He had a decent job with Mahara’s Minstrels from 1896 to 1903, seeing much of the United States, and also Canada and Mexico. The troupe visited Havana early in 1900, and there Handy first heard the habanera, which would prove a keystone of his “St. Louis Blues.”
Handy’s family had long disapproved of his decision to go into show business, and his wife Elizabeth Price, who he married in 1898, had a family and friends who did as well. He dutifully spent the academic years 1900-1902 teaching at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, but found the pay and working conditions unattractive, so spent a final year in minstrelsy before taking a job leading the brass band of the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis in 1905, playing for funerals and benevolent society events, then increasingly with his own dance bands. His combos ranged from three-piece string bands (Handy was an able guitarist as well as a fine cornetist) to full-sized concert bands of 20 pieces. Starting out as low man on the totem pole, he dominated local music-making by 1908; by 1918, when he left for New York, he had a territory that ranged from Missouri to the west, Virginia to the northeast, Baton Rouge in the south, and Atlanta in the southeast. He ruled the Mississippi Delta, where he was repeatedly exposed to the blues. Two encounters proved pivotal: the first came in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where one night he heard a guitarist singing about “going where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog,” a reference to Morehead, a major railroad junction. The guitarist used a knife to play bent notes on his guitar, creating what Handy recalled as the “weirdest” music he had ever heard. In the second incident, while playing for a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, his “band of full orchestration” was outdone by a local string trio, poorly clad and monotonous but irresistible, and this alerted Handy to the commercial potential of blues and “roots music.” He was soon arranging such folk tunes as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” for his ensembles and by 1908 was arranging for Memphis music publishers and writing original songs.
The first of these to get attention beyond the Memphis main drag of Beale Street was an infectious little ditty called “Mister Crump,” a topical number dissing that year’s come-from-behind mayoral candidate (in a three-way race), cunningly calling his candidacy to wider attention. This song was rooted in a tradition of songs about how “Mama don’t allow [whatever].” And while Handy’s song was hostile toward the reform element, it has long been credited with helping Crump get elected. He remained the absolute boss of Memphis politics until after World War II. Handy’s 1912 “Memphis Blues,” very loosely based on “Mister Crump,” was a piano rag with a bluesy section. He self-published it, but sold the copyright, for a very inadequate sum, to a canny white publisher who, while visiting Memphis, assured Handy that it was too difficult to play and wouldn’t sell. Handy would never fall for such a ruse again. Yet something wonderful came about when the publisher took the song back to New York and hired lyricist George Norton to add words to it. Norton, who’s contemporaneous “Melancholy Baby” was a smash hit, had the great idea of identifying Handy as the top bandleader of Memphis, the man everyone visiting Memphis should hear. This made Handy instantly famous nationwide; it also made the song a talisman of the city. Traveling salesmen who had passed through Memphis requested the song in New York and Chicago; people visiting Memphis would request the local hit. Handy became a favorite of his adopted town’s chamber of commerce, and a great symbiotic relationship was born.
In 1913, Handy founded the Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company. Harry Herbert Pace, 11 years Handy’s junior, was a graduate of Atlanta University, where he was a protégé of the great Civil Right leader and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Pace was class valedictorian at 16, a good baritone church soloist, fluent in Greek and Latin, a shrewd businessman, and indefatigable. He was in Memphis not long after Handy’s arrival, taught at a Midwestern college, then moved to Atlanta where he became a mainstay of a black insurance company while handling Handy’s business affairs with his other hand. Very light-skinned, Pace could get a bank loan before the officers in charge realized what had happened. He was constantly alert to changes in product popularity, including the value of recordings and piano rolls, which would come to outsell printed sheet music by the 1920s.
While it lasted, his collaboration with Handy was fruitful. Pace even wrote the lyrics for some of Handy’s songs, though none of the good ones. With Pace minding the store, Handy was freed up to roll out a dazzling string of hits in short order, beginning with his masterpiece, “St. Louis Blues,” in 1914. It had everything necessary to make a hit: an intriguing first section in blues form; a second part with a dotted habanera triple rhythm to take advantage of the new international tango craze—a section also written in a minor key, the first in any published blues, and the only one among the many other blues published prior to 1920; and an infectious, final swinging section. (Years later, in the copy of Rhapsody in Blue he gave Handy, George Gershwin wrote “To W.C. Handy, whose ‘St. Louis Blues’ was the father of all my blues.”) There followed Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” an answer song/tribute to his friend Shelton Brooks, whose “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” had been a hit the previous year. Handy followed up with “Joe Turner Blues,” “Hesitating Blues,” the ragtime instrumental “Ole Miss,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Hooking Cow Blues,” “Long Gone (from Bowling Green),” “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” “Harlem Blues,” and “Atlanta Blues,” all between 1914 and 1924. These were quickly taken up by black vaudeville entertainers, then, to Handy’s great economic advantage, white vaudeville entertainers. “Beale Street Blues” was a big hit in an early recording by Earl Fuller, and “Yellow Dog Blues” a smash record for Joseph Smith’s orchestra, featuring a laughing trombone riff by Harry Raderman. Handy was spending a lot of money, but still making some as an exhaustingly busy touring bandleader. But his newer source of revenue raised his company’s activities to an entirely new level. Harry Pace urged him to set aside the lure of the stage to pursue the recording avenue, knowing that records were rapidly replacing sheet music for home entertainment around the piano. He also saw that Handy belonged in Tin Pan Alley in New York’s Times Square, and convinced Handy to move there to open an office, though Handy’s preference was Chicago, where he had many friends and had even moved his family. But for the second half of his long life he would be a New Yorker, part of the Harlem Renaissance, and a major figure in the world’s greatest entertainment center.
Unable to rent his own desk when he arrived in New York, he soon had his own office, and a burgeoning staff of music arrangers and song demonstrators to show off new publications to entertainers who dropped in. The talent that worked in this office was dazzling: William Grant Still, who would become the dean of African-American classical composers, became a house arranger. Fletcher Henderson, soon to launch the big band craze, was there, dropping a promising career as a chemist to go into music full-time. One summer, the great singer/actor/political activist Paul Robeson was on staff.
The eight years of Harry Pace’s combined business efforts with Handy would prove to be the prime of the latter’s creative success. In 1920, Pace, fed up with his insurance colleagues in Atlanta, moved to New York to take the helm at Pace & Handy full-time. At its peak, the company had an entire building in Times Square. It was fully integrated, a unique situation in entertainment, with black people calling the shots. Several of their traveling song-pluggers were white: chief song demonstrator J. Russel Robinson a gifted ragtime writer from Indiana, worked at Pace & Handy till jumping ship to become pianist with the wildly popular Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were due to travel to Britain when their pianist suddenly died in 1919.
Pace’s fascination with recordings caused a rift in his partnership with Handy; he couldn’t wait to join the new boom. The break-up of their company, in 1921, would send Handy into his biggest crisis of health and confidence. Pace would at first find success in the first black-owned and operated record company, Black Swan, but he would fly too close to the sun. Over expanding and entangling himself with unscrupulous white colleagues, he got into a mess that convinced him to get out of the music business for good in the mid-1920s. And Handy entered the 1920s in a sudden and precipitous decline: his staff had deserted to go with Pace, he was rapidly going broke, and an old dental implant failed, causing a massive facial infection that ruined his playing ability and blinded him. His climb out of the barrel was torturous: he had to depend on immediate family to keep his office going. He depended on his much-younger brother Charles, who worked in a stock room in the Financial District, and Charles’ wife Ruth, a schoolteacher, to join him after hours, answering mail, filling sheet music orders. This touching show of solidarity kept Handy going. Charles had been a stalwart of Pace and Handy since its founding; now, back from his service in World War he was there to reconstitute the firm as Handy Brothers Music Company, still a going concern since the early 1920s. And old friends dropped in to lend a hand. Fellow freemason and saxophonist Big Charlie Thorpe lent money as needed. Another old friend and colleague, his competitor Clarence Williams, stopped by to pay off his debt to Handy, and his wife, blues singer Eva Taylor, got Williams to lend money in Handy’s hour of need.
A couple of lucky things then happened. His songs began to enjoy massive revivals in the late 1920s; and he met Abbe Niles. (Edward) Abbe Niles was an attorney (Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft) who passionately collected sheet music and records, and became an early reviewer of both. He interviewed Handy in 1925 for a human interest story for the Wall Street Journal, and the two quickly became close friends. Both were the sons of preachers (Niles’s grandfather was Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire) and both had an interest in copyright as well as folklore. In 1926, their co-creation Blues, An Anthology, was issued. The first extensive exploration of the blues topic, adorned with numerous songs by Handy and others, it was an immediate success. Niles would remain by Handy’s side for the remainder of the latter’s life, nagging him about renewing his copyrights, attending parties with him, having him over to his Forest Hills home for private film screenings (though blind, Handy loved movies) and swapping bits of old folklore and humor.
Handy’s 1941 memoir Father of the Blues (1941) cemented Handy’s reputation. (Again, Niles was by his side to guarantee its success). His fame was truly global, and he was sometimes called the “most beloved Negro in the United States.” He toured, appeared multiple times on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show and on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person program, and traveled the country giving inspirational talks in black primary schools.
Tonight’s program offers just a sample of Handy’s work as composer, folklorist, and publisher, with 11 works he either wrote or co-wrote or adapted or compiled, and that he also published. In addition to Handy’s own songs, we hear works of several other composers and lyricists.
Among these is the lovelorn song that gave Handy a well-timed push as he arrived on Broadway, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” This was written in 1917 by entertainer Eddie Green (1896-1950), a stage artist who would find success in Hollywood. The only song of Green’s to hit the top, it was much sought-after by white vaudevillians around 1918–20, and it was mail from these stage stars that brought Handy to the attention of his white landlord. The song also caused a bitter dispute over its actual ownership; entertainers in black vaudeville claimed Green had pilfered it from them. Green’s retorts in the black press were fierce.
Lemuel Fowler was another one-hit wonder like Eddie Green, one of many pianist/accompanist/bandleaders of the early 1920s, such as Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams. He had no connections with Handy, though even his career briefly dovetailed with the Memphis master when Fowler recorded “Florida Blues,” published by Handy and written by his sideman the saxophonist William King Phillips. “He May Be Your Man” falls into a subcategory of blues songs sassing or advising women in matters of the heart. Some of these were revived in the folk/blues revival of the 1960s-’70s, most famously in “Woman be Wise (don’t advertise your man), memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt. Fowler wrote “He May Be Your Man” in 1921 and contracted it to a small publisher that defaulted; Fowler’s contract wandered into the hands of Ted Browne Music, a large, aggressive firm in Chicago. Fowler then claimed the copyright in his own name and sold it to Handy’s rival Perry Bradford, who published it with his own small firm. These men had talent, and a great fighting spirit, but little common sense. Bradford and Fowler behaved unethically, and so did their craftier white rival, who created a bewildering array of identities. In the fracas that followed, called to give a sworn affidavit in Fowler’s legal case, Bradford committed perjury, and was given six months in prison by Judge Learned Hand, then nearing the end of his distinguished service in the Southern District of New York (he was elevated to the New York Court of Appeals in 1924). Fowler and their fellow songwriter Spencer Williams were likewise convicted.
Of the other songs on tonight’s program, Handy wrote or co-wrote the wonderful “Beale Street Blues,” a tribute to the center of black musical life in Memphis; The comic escape song “Long Gone (From Bowling Green),” memorably featured by the Willie Bryant band in the 1930s; “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” whose lyric, by bandleader J. Tim Brymn, celebrates the return from France of James Reese Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters band; “Atlanta Blues,” with its refrain taken from the old folk favorite “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor”; “Chantez-Les Bas,” his New Orleans number, featured only by big band great Artie Shaw till its successes in the 1950s; “Negrita,” co-written with Mexican bandleader Al d’Arteaga, leader of an all-girl band during World War II; and “Shine Like a Morning Star,” a then-obscure spiritual that he recalled as his mother’s favorite. He published “Shake it and break it,” by the prolific music arranger H. Qualli Clark, an old friend from the minstrel show days, and Lou Chiha, known as “Frisco,” a successful xylophonist in vaudeville. “Checkin’ on the Freedom Train” is the one overtly political song in our program, documenting the travels of a train car filled with America’s founding documents that toured the nation after World War II. Jim Crow policies in the south caused a scandal; Boss Ed Crump’s insistence on segregating access in Memphis was one of the factors that brought him down to size. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” was written by Handy’s one enemy, Jelly Roll Morton. He finally published it in the late 1930s, decades after he first wrote it, an error typical of his failure to protect his intellectual property due to paranoia about other entertainers stealing his material.
“Success,” the old saw goes, “has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.” W.C. Handy was a great success, establishing a family-owned and operated company that has endured since its founding in Memphis in 1913. He supported a large family for decades, with an income of $50,000 a year for “St. Louis Blues” alone, at a time when that was serious money. Strangers in trouble would look to him for a hot meal, a place to lay their head, maybe a night on the town. One such, in the depths of the Great Depression, was future photographer Gordon Parks; he remembered the Handys’ hospitality, and W.C.’s pretty daughter Elizabeth, for the rest of his life. Handy was open-hearted, fun-filled, and a soft touch. Ultimately his family had to move him out of Harlem and up to Westchester to stop him from staying up all night partying with visitors, so he could go back to his publishing office in the morning to continue licensing out his songs to musicians and movie companies, guard against pirates, and welcome visitors ranging from the spirituals arranger Harry Burleigh and ragtimer Eubie Blake to young reporters and actresses. By this time he’d gone blind for the second time and was over 70 years of age. People like Handy don’t exist anymore, but they should. If his story isn’t inspiring, I don’t know whose is.
For many years, Michael Barrett and I discussed doing a program devoted to the blues, that quintessential American genre. But we were never sure how to tackle such a broad topic. Then our friend, the musicologist and early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt proposed that we devote an evening to W. C. Handy, and this magically opened up the long-sought path. I’d known about Handy—famous as “The Father of the Blues”—since my boyhood. One of his songs was in some anthology I pored over as a child—could it have been The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs? I found his music sweet and old-timey, redolent of straw hats, picnics, bandstands on summer days.
My early impressions of Handy’s music weren’t exactly wrong, but my recent immersion into his life and work has revealed so much more. He emerged out of the minstrel era, a complex entertainment that simultaneously promulgated racial stereotypes (for white audiences) and mocked them (for African-American audiences). Then, when Handy was in the early years of his professional career, ragtime took the world by storm. Its aggressive use of syncopation proved irresistible to listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, a revolution in popular song as significant as rap and hip-hop in recent years.
W. C. Handy was no exception to rag-mania, and you can hear how he embraced it in one of his early pieces, the iconic “Memphis Blues” . He himself labeled the piece “a southern rag.” Over a lazy two-step accompaniment, Handy writes a tune that bobs and weaves, occasionally hitting the strong beat but most often darting off the accented bass notes. A bit later in the song, Handy incorporates one of his two major innovations: the main strain of the piece has a melody of twelve-bars. Ragtime—and indeed almost all of American popular song before and after—typically uses a 16- or 32-bar structure. But a classic blues melody is foreshortened like a Manx cat, and you can hear this now-familiar model when the lyric launches into “They got a fiddler there…” The twelve-bar structure isn’t obvious—I had to get the sheet music out and count the measures—but the tune is indeed four bars shorter than the classic popular song melody.
Still, a modern listener accustomed to BB King, Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters would be hard pressed to identify “The Memphis Blues” as a blues at all. It has more of a sweet Scott Joplin aura. The achier sound that a person might be expecting emerged most notably three years later in Handy’s most famous song, “St. Louis Blues.” For one thing, the twelve-bar structure is more recognizable because it is used in a more traditional way: a twice-repeated lyric followed by an answering line, the gold standard for blues tunes (think “Shake Rattle and Roll”).
But the magic moment comes at the eighth note of the opening melody. That’s where you’ll hear W. C. Handy’s other innovation, the blue note: “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down”—a flatted note that carries the soulful essence of sadness and catharsis intrinsic to this genre. Next to “St. Louis Blues,” Joplin’s rags sound like John Philip Sousa after too much coffee—or maybe Schubert on acid. They jab crazily at the beats of the measure, but their harmonic language is pure and classic.
Handy didn’t invent the blue note, nor did he think up the twelve-bar song form on his own. He took his inspiration from the street musicians and itinerant players he heard in the south. Their twangy, sliding way of bending a tune became part of Handy’s musical vocabulary, and he was able to write down the unique features of their folk melodies and phrases on music paper. Turning these tropes into songs that appealed to Americans across the racial divide, he created—some would say “commercialized”—something new in American music. Forty years later, Elvis Presley would do the same thing, this time from the other side of the tracks.
I respect Handy as much for his business enterprise and his ethical character as I do for his music. Founding his own publishing company, he was able to promote the music of other African-American artists. Later on he focused on arranging spirituals for both choir and solo singer. And he always lent his voice to freedom-fighting causes. He did not always have good business sense, and frequently needed to be bailed out of financial crises. But they were generally born of generosity and an optimistic view of the world. And Handy was blessed by two business partners who managed to pull him back from the edge of fiscal ruin.
While W. C. Handy’s music was all the rage in the first two decades of the century, it can’t be said that he kept pace with the rapid development of jazz. The dizzy whirlwind of improvisation didn’t interest him—he expected his band members to play what was on the page. Clinging to his early blues style, he went from “old school” to “old fashioned” during the second half of his career. Yet he never lost the love and respect of the younger generation. He may not have remained hip and cutting edge, but he was a beloved icon. He lived long enough to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, dignified and soulful, wearing dark glasses to cover his sightless eyes. And ten days after his death, Paramount Pictures released a biopic called St. Louis Blues. Nat King Cole starred as Handy, and Eartha Kitt as “Gogo Germaine” gave the Handy’s uptight on-screen father a piece of her mind before launching into song. (NB: I am quite sure that this snappy confrontation never happened in reality.)
Preparing for tonight’s concert, I was shocked to find out that Handy was no longer a name to reckon with. Even a musician I know who proclaims himself “steeped in the blues” had never heard of W. C. Handy. “Wow. I thought I was familiar with them all, but I guess the earliest blues guys I know are from the 1930s. You say this cat is the ‘father of the blues’?” “Bro, he wrote the ‘St. Louis Blues.’” “He did? No [expletive]!”
How did Handy descend from brand-name status to near-invisibility? I can think of three reasons. The first is the sudden ascent of Scott Joplin to superstardom in the early 1970s. When Nonesuch Records released an album of Joplin rags played by Joshua Rifkin, the LP became their first million-seller. Rifkin went on to make two more albums of Joplin rags, spurring a revival of interest in the genre. Scholars and historians outdid themselves legitimizing this rediscovered repertoire. Finally, when “The Entertainer” was featured in the 1973 blockbuster movie The Sting, Joplin’s music became part of the national soundtrack, played in airports and on wind-up toys. Suddenly everyone knew Joplin, while Handy’s name-recognition began to fade.
The second reason is a famous 1938 article by Jelly Roll Morton published in DownBeat magazine, in which he attacks Handy for assuming the title “Father of the Blues.” “I invented the blues in 1902,” Morton states. He goes on to accuse Handy of appropriating the music he heard in the rural south, turning his theft into a lucrative commercial enterprise. Morton’s writing is filled with equal parts of ethnomusicology and personal rancor—he was well-known to be vituperative and envious. His article greatly upset Handy, who wrote a strong rebuttal tempered with graciousness and respect for his colleague. Privately, though, he threatened to sue Morton.
The matter might have died out there had it not been for the music historian Alan Lomax, who interviewed Jelly Roll Morton and wrote extensively about him. It was Lomax who kept the rivalry of these two indispensable musicians alive into our times. The complex argument began with the origins of the blues. Did it come from the Mississippi Delta or urban centers like Memphis, Handy’s adopted city? Was it a folk medium with a strong political core, created by an exploited underclass, or a valuable African-American contribution to the nation’s popular song machine?
Of course, it is both. Neither Handy nor Morton owned or invented the blues. And we would be impoverished if we lost either of them. But Morton and his historian Lomax may well have tainted Handy’s reputation. I would like to do what I can to bring this significant artist back into the public eye.
In the past few years I have been aghast at the erosion of our country’s core values, and I know I am not alone in this. Hatred, greed, divisiveness, fear-mongering, and mendacity have grabbed the mike and hijacked the discourse. In these insane times, W. C. Handy is beautiful reminder of America’s true meaning. A person of kindness and optimism, Handy overcame tremendous adversity—racism, poverty, and illness—to create a musical empire that embraced both black and white America. He changed the very sound of our country’s music with the sweet and salty tang of the blue note, and the Ur-American cadence of the twelve-bar blues. His music is black, and white, and rural, and urban. It is for all of us—the multi-colored and multi-cultural united states of America.
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