Soon after Samuel Barber was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber to compose a work for her, he stumbled upon a long prose poem by James Agee, published in The Partisan Review. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was a deceptively simple piece that, as its author later said, expressed “a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.” (Agee later claimed to have written it in about 90 minutes, as an experiment in free-form writing.) Barber’s own father was dying at this time, and the composer was overwhelmed by the similarity of his and Agee’s childhood memories and fears. Barber was from Pennsylvania rather than Tennessee, but he and Agee had both been five in 1915. He wrote this rhapsody for soprano and orchestra in three weeks.
Steber was a fearless singer, as adept in Mozart, Verdi and Strauss as she was in Rodgers, Gershwin and Kern. At the Met she sang 427 performances of 34 roles, including the leads in Met premieres of Arabella, Die Entfűhrung aus dem Serail, Wozzeck and Vanessa. She appeared there often and long enough to be taken for granted by Met audiences, but her many recordings attest to the versatility and beauty of her singing. Her home town of Wheeling, West Virginia, is only a few hundred miles from Knoxville, and Steber was close enough in age to both Agee and Barber to understand and share their memories of the joys and terrors of a small town American childhood. She sang the 1948 premiere of “Knoxville” with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; this recording was made two years later, with William Strickland and the Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra.
Lena Horne developed into one of America’s most unique singers, but she didn’t start out that way. From her Cotton Club debut (at the age of 16) through her galley years as one of MGM’s first black stars, Horne was required to be glamorous and unexpressive, a sort of cocoa Dinah Shore. A tough childhood and unrelenting racism also contributed to her desire to repress her feelings in performance, and her refusal to play either servants or prostitutes shortened her Hollywood career. With the help of her second husband, the arranger Lenny Hayton, she eventually developed a kind of toughness in her performances, which became another way to protect her from her emotions and isolate her from her audiences.
In her 60s, after years of industry blacklisting, involvement in the civil rights movement and personal loss, Horne finally found a way to use her anger, bite and humor, to communicate her complex feelings to her audience. In 1981, she opened on Broadway in an autobiographical concert called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It was meant to be a four-week engagement, but ended up playing on Broadway for more than a year, closing on Horne’s 65th birthday. She then taped the show for television, before touring in it for two more years in the US and three months in Europe. One of the show’s highlights was “Yesterday When I was Young,” a song by Charles Aznavour (“Hier encore”), with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. To Horne, this song told the story of her life, and she turned it into a startling and candid public confession.
Shortly after the 1940 Nazi invasion of France, Francis Poulenc was asked to write incidental music for a light drama by Jean Anouilh, Léocadia. It starred the celebrated French actress and singer Yvonne Printemps, and Poulenc took advantage of her presence in the cast to add to his instrumental score a “valse chantée”, called “Les Chemins de l’Amour.” (The play is about a young prince who is obsessed by his memories of a woman whom he knew for three days, and the young woman who is hired to bring him back to reality.) In 1956, when an English version of the play (now called Time Remembered) opened on Broadway with Helen Hayes, Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg, Poulenc’s score was dropped in favor of a new one by Vernon Duke.
Printemps was a great star of French and English theater and film, who appeared in plays, operettas and musicals. She made her Paris debut at the age of 12, achieved her first fame in works by Sasha Guitry (whom she married and divorced) and went on to appear frequently with Pierre Fresnay (whom she may or may not have also married). Printemps’ light, expressive voice inspired several noted composers, including Reynaldo Hahn and Oscar Straus. Although she spoke only French, Noël Coward wrote his operetta Conversation Piece for her, and she enjoyed great success in it in both London and New York, performing the entire role phonetically. In London, Coward appeared opposite her, and long remembered having to repress his onstage giggles whenever Printemps read one line as “a clood has pissed across the sun.”
When Mary Martin died in 1990, the headline of her New York Times obituary called her “the first lady of musicals.” Probably now unknown by anyone younger than 40, Martin was, in her time, one of the most famous performers in the United States, and the creator of two classic Broadway musical roles (Nellie in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music). But her fame was enhanced by her characterization of Peter Pan, in a musical version that she performed on Broadway in 1954, before televising it a number of times. It’s safe to say that nearly every American child of the 1950s and 60s knew that Peter Pan flew, crowed, and was played by an exuberant lady who, like her character, never grew old. Hers was far from the most beautiful or powerful voice on Broadway, she wasn’t a great dancer and was never considered a classic beauty. It was what Martin did with the talents she did possess—her enormous personal charm, warmth and an innate understanding of what made a song tick—that conquered her audiences.
Martin’s greatest stage success was in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 hit, South Pacific. Until recently, the only evidence of that performance was the very fine original cast recording. But in 1952, when Martin repeated the role in London, someone had the foresight to film that production’s final dress rehearsal, and that film has recently come to light. Her Broadway co-star, Ezio Pinza, had long ago left the show (replaced in London by Wilbur Evans), and the surviving film is blurry, with a limited number of close-ups. But it captures not only one of the most celebrated productions in Broadway history, but a legendary performance by its female lead. “A Wonderful Guy”—which begins at 3:43 of this clip—was one of the show’s great hits. By the time of this film, Martin had played the role for more than two years on Broadway, supposedly missing only three performances. But her greatest talent was spontaneity, her ability to recreate every moment as though she were making it up as she went along. The staging of this number is almost startling in its simplicity—Martin just sits downstage and confides her character’s feelings to the audience. The dance that follows is a bit embarrassing—South Pacific was one of the few big musical hits not to have a credited choreographer, and what little dance the show did have was worked out by director Joshua Logan. But as Elia Kazan, who directed Martin in her first starring role on Broadway, wrote, “She was full of the love of being loved.”
Ella Fitzgerald sang the way the rest of us breathe. Her vocal production, phrasing, diction and interpretive choices were so natural and effortless that it’s easy to take her work for granted. A natural talent who had little if any formal musical training, she was blessed with a seamless voice of great beauty, and an instinctive ability to get to the core of both the music and the lyrics of every song she sang. She had collaborators—mostly jazz legends like Chuck Webb, Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington—but I suspect that her interpretations were all hers. (And while she didn’t invent scat-singing, she brought it to an entirely higher plane.) Her composer-by-composer albums , most of which were recorded by Verve Records from 1956 to 1964, established the concept of the American Songbook, while celebrating the treasures of Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Berlin, Kern, Arlen, Mercer and Ellington. Over a sixty-year career, her singing retained its girlishness and its joy.
“Boy Wanted” was a George and Ira Gershwin song from their 1924 London show, Primrose. It was a revised version of a song they’d written a few years earlier for A Dangerous Mind, 1921, which had closed out of town. The ease and good nature with which Fitzgerald lands every musical and lyrical point—even the rhyming of “advertisement” with “flirt is meant”—takes one’s breath away.
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