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.
Today’s program combines a narrow focus on a single culture — the British Isles — with the wide-angle lens on four centuries of song, thereby ranging across practically the entire span of Western classical music. The purity of the Renaissance gradually gives way to the warmth of the Romantic era; doughty Victorianism yields first to the intimacy of Edwardian times and then to the possibilities of the jazz age and modernism. Through it all, something of Britain’s essential musical DNA remains intact: transparent textures, the harmonies of church music, the modes of folk songs, and an enduring respect for English verse, one of the glories of Western culture.
British Musical Tradition
In truth, for many centuries Britain’s literary tradition ran far deeper than its musical one. Her iconic playwrights (Shakespeare, Congreve, Sheridan), poets (Donne, Milton, Marvell), and novelists (Fielding, Richardson, Sterne) remain in our curriculums and on our nightstands to this day. But England’s musical tradition was slower to launch itself. For one thing, the British public (like the rest of Europe and Russia) was mad for Italian opera, nearly to the point of addiction. Other countries — notably Spain — were able to replicate some of those musical thrills in their own language, but that kind of vocal narcissism was more foreign to English composers. Britain’s musical culture was constantly overshadowed by that of Germany, where many of her composers went to study. And eighteenth-century London was also colonized by two visiting musical giants from overseas, George Frederick Handel and Joseph Haydn. Mid-nineteenth century England seemed relegated to the formulas of the parlor ballad, which would never attain the heights of Schubert or Schumann.
The tradition of the piano-and-voice art song may have taken its time to arrive. But England did have a Renaissance song tradition with some notable exponents. The strophic lute song flourished in Britain under the hands of John Dowland, Wiliam Byrd, and Thomas Campion (1567-1620). They created a repertoire of delicate “ayres” which are capable of bearing surprising emotional weight, given their slender means. Campion was as gifted a lyricist as he was a composer — and a great wit, as you’ll hear in his sly, R-rated “Beauty, since you so much desire.”
The theater was the other venue for much of England’s early, non-religious song. That is where the lion’s share of Henry Purcell’s solo songs was first heard. Considered to be the father of English classical music, Purcell (1659-1695) was an innovator, a composer of depth and invention, as eloquent as he is daring. The psychological complexities of his music have inspired composers from Elgar to Adès.
British Musical Theater
But after Purcell’s death British music seemed to falter. Of course, there were promising composers in the realm of ballad-opera, the eighteenth-century version of music theater. William Shield was a wonderful tunesmith, as was Thomas Linley the Elder (1733-1795), whose lovely “Think not my love” retains its fresh purity 225 years after it was written. Then, tragedy ensued. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, three young composers emerged who seemed as if they might carry the torch into the nineteenth century: George Frederick Pinto, Thomas Linley the Younger, and Stephen Storace. All of them died very young, through illness or fatal accident. It was as if their passing cast a shroud over England’s musical development. Stephen Storace (1762-1796) was perhaps the most promising of all. He was a student of Mozart, and his sister Nancy created the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. You can hear the “Mozart Effect” in Storace’s grand aria “Be Mine, Tender Passion,” clearly modeled on Fiordiligi’s second-act aria from Cosí fan tutte, “Per pietà.” Storace began his career in Vienna and continued it in London, rising up the ranks of its theater composers through his skill with music, lyrics, dialogue, and backstage politics. His death at 33, after a brief illness, is one of the unsung tragedies in music.
Musical theater remained alive and well in London, and the team of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan quickly rose to the top of a crowded field. Books have been written about the peculiar alchemy of the dour, sexually repressed Gilbert and the exuberant, hedonistic Sullivan. But no one has captured the character of these men and their working methods more vividly than Mike Leigh in Topsy-Turvy, one of the greatest movies about music. That film centers around the creation of The Mikado. But for me, the most anti-gravitational of all their operettas is Iolanthe, which I first saw when I was seven years old, and which seems to have formed (some might say “warped”) my worldview ever since. Today we offer you my single favorite scene in the entire G&S canon: the Act II confrontation between the hero, Strephon, and his lady-love Phyllis, in which a veneer of elegance and innocence covers a tissue of desire, jealousy, and enthusiastic self-deception.
The English Renaissance
English song — and, some would say, English classical music — was brought out of its doldrums by two composers in the late nineteenth century: Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Charles Villiers Stanford. Both were responsible for what used to be called “The English Renaissance.” It is a title that now seems somewhat ironic. Neither wrote music that survived the test of time, neither had the compositional inspiration of the masters that were to follow. Yet their operas, oratorios, and symphonies had their day. And they successfully began the tradition of English art song that was to rise to even greater heights in the decades that followed. I took a shine to Parry’s “No longer mourn for me” when I heard it playing on Sirius Radio after a live Met broadcast. The opera was over and somehow Sirius’ algorithm picked Parry’s song out of their pile of ten zillion CD cuts. As it wafted into the room on my telephone (of all things), I was transfixed by the passion of the music, with its echoes of “Ruckblick” from Schubert’s Winterreise.
The Golden Age of British Song
Parry is our gateway to the Golden Age of British song, written by composers more familiar to concert-goers. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) are iconic English voices, famous for the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance (Elgar), and The Lark Ascending and Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams). We’ll hear one of Elgar’s most famous songs, “Where Corals Lie,” the fourth movement of his Sea Pictures. This simple ballad never fails to move me. To represent Vaughan Williams, I bypassed his more famous cycles (The House of Life and Songs of Travel) in favor of one of the folk songs he collected in the English countryside, “Rolling in the Dew.” The British folk song tradition is a vital component of her musical vocabulary, and this tune is a charmer.
In his short troubled life, Peter Warlock (1894-1930) wrote a prodigious number of songs whose wide variety of moods and styles make it difficult to classify him in any traditional way. He had no formal schooling in music, but he did have two great mentors: Frederick Delius and the Belgian composer Bernard Van Dieren. Delius’s pastoral radiance and Van Dieren’s austere complexity forged the young man’s musical identity. Warlock’s real name was Philip Heseltine. He adopted his wizardly pseudonym at age 25. In truth, his dual personality needed two names. Heseltine represented the introspective, scholarly part of his nature, passionately devoted to the study and transcription of Elizabethan music. Warlock was the sardonic iconoclast composing in a highly personal, unpredictable mix of styles, often quite dark. His songs range from the expressionistic to the playful. Warlock/Heseltine was an unstable personality, drawn to the occult and prone to violent quarrels. Some have mistakenly characterized him as schizophrenic, though the true diagnosis might be closer to bi-polar. He was a composer of genius, with little genius for a successful life. In his thirties, he became increasingly prone to deep depression, and his early death was probably a suicide. To represent Warlock, we offer “My Own Country,” an arrestingly beautiful hymn to England.
It seems everyone has at least one good song in him. William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1857), a mid-nineteenth century journeyman composer, may not have possessed anything like the darkly chaotic talent of Peter Warlock. But he was gifted enough to impress both Mendelssohn and Schumann when he went to study in Germany. His early promise did not lead to a life of creative innovation, but the man had craftsmanship and grace. His charming madrigal “Come live with me” is an irresistible tribute to the part-singing traditions of the past. It always lifts my heart.
Today’s tribute to Scotland comes, ironically, from a British composer, Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946). He became an influential figure in London’s music scene by vigorously promoting the contemporary composers of his own day — including Delius and the pioneering duo of Parry and Stanford. Bantock’s own compositions showed his penchant for the exotic — works like the Pagan Symphony and the choral epic Omar Khayyám. He was especially drawn to the sounds of the Hebrides, that rugged archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland. This is the world he evokes so eloquently in “Song to the Seals,” an instant classic originally written for the tenor John McCormack.
Finzi, Bridge, and Britten
The great explosion of British song — indeed, of British classical music — arrived in the middle years of twentieth century. We have time to hear from three iconic composers: Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge, and Benjamin Britten.
Finzi (1901-1956) isn’t exactly a marquee name, but if you teach at a music school, you are going to get to know him pretty well. Bass-baritones gravitate to his graceful Shakespeare cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, and tenors will ply you with his less graceful A Young Man’s Exhortation. The introspective Finzi created a haven for himself in the countryside with his wife, the artist Joyce Black. Although non-observant, he was of Jewish heritage. His ancestors had immigrated to England from Italy in the mid-1700s. But no one sounds more quintessentially English than Finzi, with his modal harmonies, his gently un-climactic structures, and his emotional reserve. He took his inspiration from eighteenth-century English music, which he collected and helped to publish in scholarly editions. His voice is unostentatious, but at his best he had a gift for linking even the most famous texts to melodies that seem inevitably right. Exhibit A: “It was a lover and his lass,” as buoyant and open as a puppy.
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is probably best remembered for two reasons: he was the teacher of Benjamin Britten, and the composer of the rousingly effective song “Love Went A-Riding,” written in 1914. These two facts have tended to obscure his originality and importance as a composer (Britten was, in fact, his sole composition student), as well as his command of the violin and his skill as a conductor. Though his early works were crafted for the prevailing tastes of his audience, he broke away from his Brahms-drenched Victorian training after the First World War to discover a more radical voice, making free use of dissonance, chromaticism, and a shifting sense of tonality. Most of his songs were written in those early years, and there are treasures to be found — among them the delicate “Goldenhair,” set to a poem by James Joyce. After the war, Finzi became fascinated with the newest European musical developments, especially the ideas of Alban Berg. He wrote only one song in his later style, “Dweller in my deathless dreams” (1926), a fascinating blend of Ravel’s sensuality and the Second Viennese School’s morbidity. Alas, the more he developed his new voice, the less enthusiastic the public was. He was marginalized for many years, until his centennial brought him triumphantly back into the public eye.
American concertgoers need no detailed introduction to Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whose stage works such as Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Death in Venice, and Billy Budd have finally found a home in the Metropolitan Opera House. A man of great talent and great resourcefulness, he not only created a vast repertoire of music for the stage and the concert hall but also worked to bring music to a wide audience in England. He successfully fended off the prevailing tide towards academic obscurity that raged through classical composition in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, he relied on his own unique, complex musical personality, at once intensely intellectual and immediately communicative. Britten made an enormous contribution to the literature for piano and voice, much of it written for his companion, tenor Peter Pears.
Britten had all the necessary ingredients to become a great songwriter: deep literary culture, peerless compositional craft, and a gift for piano writing that very few have possessed. He was one of the greatest collaborative pianists I’ve ever heard, and not just in his own music. Hearing him accompany songs by Schubert or Tchaikovsky or Rossini, I am torn between inspiration (“I want to play like that!”) and despair (“I never will!”). If there is one piece that encapsulates the musical world of this artist, I’d nominate “Midnight on the Great Western” from the 1953 cycle Winter Words with its eerie Doppler effect in the piano writing, its sense of foreboding, and its typical theme of innocence journeying through a dangerously corrupt world.
Contemporary English Song
English song is alive and well, and we have a couple of pieces to prove it. The first is by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), a prolific composer whose operas and songs are increasingly making their way into American theaters. He is a composer with a wide range: he’s got a wicked sense of humor, as evidenced by his opera The Enchanted Pig, a palette that includes minimalism (his opera Flight) and romanticism (Flight again), rhythmic drive (his Tennyson Songs), and stark stasis (Tennyson Songs again). Dove’s music is often quite complex to master. When Juilliard put on Flight, I would routinely see groups of students in the hallways working together in impromptu study sessions. Waving their arms and nodding their heads in rhythm, they could be heard to curse as they tried to master the very tricky ensembles. I find myself very attracted to his music and am happy to offer the first of his Five Am’rous Sighs. The shimmering piano ostinato provides a sensuous background to an ardent love-song from one woman to another woman.
Welshman Huw Watkins (b. 1976) is a consummate craftsman. His hallmark seems to be a kind of elegiac lyricism, but his music also gathers a healthy, passionate surge when he needs it. Watkins emerges from the romantic tradition, a language he peppers with a shifting sense of tonality, spiced with dissonance. At first glance, he is less confrontational than Dove, who has a bad-boy’s impudence. But the song we chose tonight, Watkins’ setting of Auden’s “At last the secret is out,” is spiky, off-balance, and theatrical (rather Dove-like) — while the Dove song, “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” is seductive and sexy (a touch Watkins-esque).
The Post-Modern Era
We end the concert with song by three of England’s great popular song composers: the Beatles, John Dankworth, and Noël Coward. Choosing a single Lennon-McCartney song was one of the tougher tasks I faced when programming this concert, but I narrowed it down to four or five that I thought were conducive to the forces at hand. I let the boys vote, and “Ticket to Ride” won unanimously (it was my front-runner too).
The career of Noël Coward needs no introduction to people born before 1980, but he’s no longer well known to the current generation. A kid once brought in a Coward song to a master class I was teaching, and I asked the students if they knew who Noël Coward was. Dead silence. Then someone raised his hand and said, “I think he’s a composer of crossover material, right?” It was my turn to stare blankly, until I realized that he only knew these songs because of a CD by art-song icon Ian Bostridge. Coward, of course, sustained a brilliant career as an actor on the West End, on Broadway, and in Hollywood; as a Las Vegas cabaret star; as a playwright; and as a songwriter. He raised the art of brittle wit to Olympian heights in songs like “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” and plays like Private Lives and Present Laughter (which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway last season). His acid sense of humor and his occasionally non-PC humor occasionally rankle, especially nowadays. But I have a tremendous appreciation for “The Master,” as he is known in England. At his best, he certainly earns that title.
John Dankworth (1927-2010) had a distinguished career in British jazz as arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. But he’s best known as the music director for his wife, the jazz diva Cleo Laine. In my college years, I became smitten with Cleo and heard her often in concert, always with Dankworth at her side. They were a classy team — she could scat-sing up to Bb above high C, which would make me faint with pleasure, but she also could spin out a ballad to perfection in her husky, deep-alto range. Dankworth set a number of famous British writers to music for his wife, and their Shakespeare album is a treasure. The jewel in the crown is the Shakespeare sonnet we’re offering tonight, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”
After hearing so many brilliant individual voices, it seems presumptuous to draw blanket conclusions about the national character of English music. Yet there is a special elegance, a sense of restraint covering deep passions, that runs through so many of these songs. Spanish and Italian music explode with emotion; French music melds the logic of a math class with the sensuality of a boudoir. And England? A feeling of the countryside, a distilled, measured eloquence, and sentiment tempered by self-discipline. I used to say of Janet Baker, the iconic British mezzo, that she was like dry ice: so cold that she burned your soul. My bon mot could just as easily be applied to the beautiful music of England — like a Baked Alaska, a delicious blend of cold and hot — and sweet. From the lute song to the post-modern era, an unbeatable combination.
It was just three days after the last election, and I was booked for lunch with my colleague Mary Birnbaum. Our one agenda item was the NYFOS@Juilliard concert in the early spring. Mary showed up looking as if she’d come from a funeral. I’d never seen her in such a state of despair. Her first words to me, after a long silence, were, “What are we gonna do?” and I knew that she wasn’t only referring to the March program. An ardent feminist, passionate about social causes and justice, she seemed to have been kicked in the stomach by recent events.
I wasn’t in much better shape—later that same evening I had a total meltdown on West 67th Street and had to go home and put the lights out early. But I tried to give Mary support and whatever encouragement I could muster, a tactic I learned from my mother. Unfortunately, the program I’d been planning suddenly seemed utterly trivial: 100 Years of Broadway Love, a program of duets. At that moment, it felt as if I were offering “Tea for Two” on the Titanic.
“We have to raise our voices,” she said. And I heard myself answer, “Protest. A program of protest songs.” Within 20 minutes I had sketched out the lion’s share of the playlist, and I knew which students I needed in the cast. It wasn’t a time for open auditions. I all but threw myself at the singers I wanted for the project, and all of them accepted with enthusiasm.
I remember one particular rehearsal in January of 2017. It was the day of the first travel ban, and we were all completely riled up. Amanda Lynn Bottoms (one of the few original cast members whom I had to replace for this outing) showed up in my studio having come from LaGuardia where she’d been in a demonstration. I was not sure she was in any shape to work, so I had the previous student, Jacob Scharfman, stay on and sing his pieces for her. He tore into the “Lavender Song” like a maniac. Up till then, Jacob’s work had been lovely but a bit careful. That day I was blown away by the raw freedom of his performance. I try to teach a simple principle: when you sing, you have to say what you’re saying. Phrased that way, it sounds simple. But bringing a lyric to life takes a huge investment. That day, Jacob bet the farm—and he never looked back.
The fever spread, and the entire process was among the most cathartic I’ve had in recent years. We were able to give two performances at Juilliard, offered only to a smattering of students, faculty, invited guests, and donors. A month later we repeated the show at Henry’s Restaurant as part of NYFOS After Hours. Once again the songs soared and detonated. I resolved that night to bring PROTEST to the NYFOS mainstage so our larger audience could hear it.
Choosing protest songs for a concert is a different matter than choosing protest songs for a rally. For the latter you want simple, direct anthems that invite audience participation—“We Shall Overcome,” “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More,” “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The recital stage is more like the theater, a place for vivid, multi-textured material and musical complexity. I was suddenly living in an America I did not recognize, and I wanted to sing about those most endangered: African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, the gay community, Jews and Muslims, and the earth itself. More than anything, I wanted to strike a blow for thoughtfulness, literacy, and truth—what some people might call culture. Like many other Americans, I was startled to see that a common respect for knowledge, contemplation, and beauty—absolute givens in my youth—was in serious danger.
The songs on the program come from a wide spectrum of genres. But I decided to break with NYFOS’ tradition of rarities-only and include a few iconic pieces that everyone would know. I found that hearing famous tunes like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Political Science,” “Joe Hill,” and “If It’s Magic” in this context gave them a new kind of power, and brought the audience closer to the performers. In the months since we first did PROTEST, these songs have only become more vivid, as the EPA devolves, the embarrassing debate about the relative size of nuclear buttons dribbles on, and the coal controversies continue their foggy course. As to “If It’s Magic”: no, not a protest song in the traditional sense. But it starts the concert with a profound question: if “it” is precious and irreplaceable, why is “it” being treated with cavalier carelessness? And….what is “it”? That is something to discuss over a bottle of wine.
The rest of the playlist hops around the globe—Argentina and Puerto Rico, Palestine, Germany, Italy, plus lots more material from America. Hearing songs from other eras and other countries brings much-needed perspective on our current situation. Resisting oppression is universal; tonight’s wide swath of protest serves as emotional and philosophical ballast, building confidence and chasing paranoia.
The three Argentinean songs cover 40-odd years of South American history, as the country rotated through different variations on fascism. Guastavino’s “Pampamapa,” set to an autobiographical poem by the left-wing poet Hamlet Lima Quintana, is the song of a man being exiled from his own country for political reasons in the 1960s. María Elena Walsh’s 1972 hit, “Como la cigarra,” evokes the quiet strength to survive in the face of ongoing oppression. As her enemies attempt to destroy her, and fail over and over again, the singer survives by going underground—whether metaphorically or actually—“like the cicadas.” “El cambalache,” a classic tango by Enrique Santos Discépolo from the early 1930s, takes a gimlet-eyed view of a world where values have tumbled into the gutter. The translation we are using is by the composer William Bolcom, who wrote the lyrics for his wife Joan Morris. He updated a few of the references, as you’ll see, but otherwise stayed amazingly close to the original Spanish lyric. The three songs are in very different moods, but they share a depth of defiance, an indomitable life-force. And all of them seem utterly contemporary to me, especially as we watch the Latin victims of oppression we once welcomed hounded into exile or hiding.
“A Julia de Burgos” comes from Leonard Bernstein’s bicentennial cantata Songfest, which we featured in our opening night concert last November. We don’t normally repeat a song in the same season, but we made an exception this time. I know of no greater hymn to the visionary power of women than Julia de Burgos’ manifesto, in which she separates herself from the submissive role she is expected to play in society and creates a version of herself that flies free and unfettered to the heavens. Bernstein matches her passionate lines with a bravura setting, capped by one of the most thrilling climaxes in all of art song. True, the ever-shifting, driving rhythms are perhaps more redolent of Spain than the poet’s native Puerto Rico. Still, it remains one of Bernstein’s greatest vocal works.
Our program includes two iconic songs from Germany: Mischa Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” and Hersch Glick’s “Zog nit keynmol.” The Spoliansky piece is the first known gay anthem, sung in Berlin Kabaretts in 1920. I’ve been fascinated to see the original German text (now clickable online), since I’ve always presented this song in the very fine translation by Jeremy Lawrence (which we’ll be offering tonight). There is feeling of confrontation and outrage in the Berlin original—you can tell that the lyricist Kurt Schwabach is courageously bringing a taboo subject into the open for the first time. But compared to the adaptation it seems just a bit square and intellectual, with just a whiff of a Kinsey Report studiousness. (Kinsey’s book, of course, was still 28 years in the future). Jeremy Lawrence has streamlined the lyric to give us a cri de coeur for our era. We may live in more liberated times, but alas, homophobia seems alive and well in some quarters.
“Zog nit keyn mol” occupies a special place in the hearts of many Jewish people. This stirring song of resistance became an anthem during World War II. Set to a Russian folk melody, its message of hope and defiance gave courage to a generation facing the horrors of the Third Reich. “People sang it in attics, in cellars, and in underground hideouts. They hummed its tune in the presence of German guards, during their slave labor work. The song spread from Vilna to other ghettos, and then to concentration camps,” writes Shoshana Kalish in her songbook Yes, We Sang! The music is a Russian folk tune. But the lyric was the work of a gifted young man named Hirsch Glick (1920-1944) who had begun writing poetry in his early teens. Most of his poems were lost during the war, but a few were smuggled to safety by friends, and another stash of Glick’s writing was later found buried underground in the Vilna ghetto. At age 24 he managed to escape from his fifth concentration camp, only to be killed by Nazi patrols waiting in the forest.
While it seems more impossible than ever to bring the Jews and the Palestinians together, we can at least seat them at the same table in our concert. Our Palestinian ambassador is one of the region’s greatest poets, Fadwa Tuqan. Her verses are memorized by schoolchildren throughout the Arab world. She was able to write eloquently about dispossession and loss, sometimes with dark bitterness, sometimes with transparent simplicity. In 2001, Tuqan showed her Prayer to the New Year to composer Mohammed Fairouz, and it made a deep impression on him: “A Prayer to the New Year expresses hope and aspiration with the same defiance and passion as her darkest poems,” wrote Fairouz. He set it to music for NYFOS in 2012. Momo (as he is known) lived on five continents before settling in New York City. His music reflects his first-hand experience of the world’s cultures and conflicts. When studying this work—NYFOS’ first foray into Arabic—the haunting score reminded me of the Israeli music I’d played and heard. The composer was moved by that thought, and responded, “I’m constantly finding musical proof of our common blood.”
Since this started as a school project, I was glad to share some of my musical passions with my student cast. I fell in love with Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock when I stumbled on the LPs in the New York Public Library during my teen years. Its pro-union, agitprop satire on wealth and power is as timely today as its compassionate portraits of workers struggling to make ends meet in small-town America. It was also a pleasure to reacquaint myself with “Big Brother,” a startlingly up-to-date tune by Stevie Wonder written forty-odd years ago. The singers also heard Fats Waller’s 1929 hit “Black and Blue” for the first time. (The musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ is apparently not on their radar.) It is a song with a fascinating provenance. The notorious New York mobster “Dutch” Schultz decided to back a Broadway revue, and asked lyricist Andy Razaf—at gunpoint—to write a “funny song about how tough it is to be a little colored girl.” Razaf and his musical collaborator Waller came up with what is thought to be one of the first racial protest songs, a subversive, multi-layered lament. When the audience applauded it vociferously on opening night, Schultz tersely nodded his approval at Razaf, who finally knew that he was safe from the mob.
In return the cast also brought me songs they thought I should know. Andrew Munn lobbied successfully for “Bella ciao,” the anthem of the Italian anti-fascists during World War II. The poet is anonymous, the tune is traditional, but the message is eternal: we shall overcome. Once again, our translation brings the song firmly into the modern era. The original text is—unsurprisingly—very Italian in its operatic emotionality, its idealistic embrace of death for a cause, and of course its extravagant “addio” to the singer’s beloved.
It was Dimitri Katotakis who told me about Woody Guthrie’s “Old Man Trump,” an unpublished song that is getting some air play these days. In the early 1950s, Fred Trump (Donald’s father) was Guthrie’s landlord in a Brooklyn apartment complex. Guthrie soon discovered that Trump Sr. intended to bar African-Americans from the neighborhood, and as a longtime defender of America’s endangered citizens he reacted with fury. Three years after Guthrie’s death in 1967, the Justice Department sued the Trumps for discrimination. They eventually reached a settlement—but in typical style, Trump Management went on the record saying that their agreement was not an actual admission of guilt.
A friend of mine recently lamented that today’s resistance movement “doesn’t have any songs, not like we did in the sixties.” Those songs, I suggested, came from a simpler musical era when one human being could speak truth to power backed up by just an acoustic guitar. Popular music these days is too electronically layered, auto-tuned, and processed to expose the human soul in the same way. Hearing music and poetry from all over the world, reaching back almost 100 years, gives me a connection to humanity and to history, assuaging my feelings of rage and helplessness. Generations of right-thinking people stand behind us, and their greatest writers lend us the strength and clarity to fight back. If it’s magic, we deserve nothing less.
Today is an auspicious double anniversary: the New York Festival of Song is thirty years old, and NYFOS’s Founding Advisor Leonard Bernstein is…well, nearly one hundred. He’ll officially round off his century mark on August 25, 2018. But centennial festivities are planned over the span of two full concert seasons, and NYFOS wanted to get in at the very beginning. It seemed appropriate to kick off our Pearl Anniversary by honoring one of our most important mentors. And his rousing bicentennial cantata Songfest is the perfect vehicle—not just to ring in our three-decade mark, but also to celebrate America’s cultural diversity at a critical moment in our history.
For me, Songfest is Bernstein’s greatest vocal work. Compositionally it is a virtuoso turn: every movement is in a different style, a dazzling tribute to the enormous musical vocabulary at Bernstein’s command. It ranges from cool jazz, including a louche, swinging twelve-tone row (“The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El”), to Poulenc in his gamelan-pastiche mode (“Storyette H.M.”), to the smoldering expressionism Bernstein used to bare his soul (“What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”). While there is no narrative through-line, Songfest is a tribute to American creativity, a portrait of the country seen through the eyes of artists, kids, couples, ex-patriates, and outsiders of all stamps. “I, too, am America,” proclaims Langston Hughes. It is a sentiment echoed in Songfest by a gay man, a Latina woman, an urban poet, a pubescent boy, a Muslim, and all the other characters who get to speak their truth over the course of the work’s dozen movements.
Songfest had a successful premiere in 1977 at the Kennedy Center. The first half of the concert featured a collaboration between Bernstein and Mtsislav Rostropovich, who was about to become the music director of the National Symphony. (They were known as the two most uninhibited kissers in the music business. It was a moist evening.) Each of them conducted a Bernstein work, and Rostropovich was also featured as cello soloist in Bernstein’s Three Meditations from Mass. Songfest, under the composer’s baton, filled the second half. A recording soon ensued, followed by further performances around the world. But the work emerged during a dark era in the composer’s life. The troubles began in 1970 when Bernstein and his wife Felicia were skewered in the press after hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers Legal Defense Fund in their apartment. Tom Wolfe’s famous, sardonic write-up of the event made hay of what the journalist called “Radical Chic.” Wolfe’s scathing misinterpretation provided the fledgling writer with a nice career boost, but it proved damaging for the Bernsteins. Their home was picketed, the hate mail flew in, and J. Edgar Hoover may well have danced a jig of glee as both the Black Liberation movement and left-wing Jewish liberals received a public shaming. Felicia Bernstein’s good intentions were to be permanently misunderstood, as was the purpose of the fundraiser. The Black Panthers were stranded in jail because of unjustly inflated bail. They were in desperate need of legal help, and their families also required support. (A post-script: when the Panthers’ case did come to trial it was thrown out of court. The judge found the charges utterly unsubstantiated.)
A year later Bernstein’s Mass opened the Kennedy Center to a mixed response. There are wonderful sections in the work, but the Maestro’s tendency to indulge himself leads to a certain sweaty earnestness, and Mass could certainly have benefitted from some editing. Bernstein’s drive to serve as teacher and moral arbiter for a troubled world, which weighed heavily on Mass, was even more fatal to his next big theatrical project, the Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He and his lyricist Alan Jay Lerner bit off more than they—or anyone else—could possibly chew: they attempted to tell the story of the first hundred years of the White House, with a focus on race relations. 1600’s score is filled with glories, but the presidential pageant never found its way dramatically. The show floundered during a series of hasty rewrites in its Philadelphia tryouts, and flopped after just seven performances on the Great White Way. This was a devastating end to a Broadway career that had included On the Town and West Side Story. Bernstein was so bitter that he refused to give permission for an original cast recording. Fortunately, a few people made some bootlegs of the Broadway performance, which just might be clickable on YouTube. Even more fortunately, the score has been resurrected as a viable concert work, A White House Cantata. We’ll share a few of those numbers tonight.
There was a third upheaval in Bernstein’s life. Though he had had many gay liaisons over the course of his life, his marriage to Felicia had managed to survive his almost compulsive infidelities. But when he met a young man named Tom Cothran in 1973, he fell harder than usual. He determined to leave his marriage, and he even came out publicly—albeit in slightly veiled terms. Two things then transpired: he ultimately found he could not live in harmony with Cothran, and his wife’s cancer recurred. Bernstein had returned to her after the affair with Cothran wound down, but it became clear she would not survive this latest bout. She died in 1978, leaving Bernstein bereft, depressed, and guilt-ridden. Three years later Cothran died too—of AIDS.
Cothran was a voracious reader of poetry, and he collaborated with Bernstein on choosing the poems for Songfest. I wager those evenings were among their happiest and most compatible encounters.
Songfest was originally a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, intended to cap America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976. With all the turmoil in his personal and professional life, Bernstein was not able to honor the commission in time for its deadline. But he clearly remained committed to the new song cycle and previewed four of the songs with the New York Philharmonic in November of 1976. When it was completed, he struggled to name the piece, and his list of possible titles gives us a sense of how he envisioned it: Six Characters in Search of an Opera, Notes Toward an American Opera, The Glorious Fourth, Mortal Melodies, A Secular Service, and Ballet for Voices. He ultimately opted for the simplest name and avoided freighting the work with pomposity or intellectual fanfare.
Songfest demonstrates Bernstein’s genius for putting poetry to music. Blessed with this rare gift, in tandem with his onstage song-collaborations with partners like Jennie Tourel, Christa Ludwig, and Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau, you would imagine he would have been inspired to write an abundance of art songs. But his interest in piano-and-voice works seems to have died out fairly early in his career. A couple of Rilke settings, the charming La Bonne Cuisine, and the kids’ cycle I Hate Music were all written in the 40s, and that was the extent of his published art songs until his very last work, Arias and Barcarolles.
A’s and B’s, as it has come to be known, proved to be hugely important to the early success of New York Festival of Song. Our connection to the legendary maestro started with Michael Barrett, who studied under Bernstein before becoming his assistant conductor. Through their close friendship we got wind of an interesting possibility: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had commissioned a piece from Bernstein in the late 1980s—Arias and Barcarolles, it was called—but after receiving it they dragged their heels about putting it in their season. After a while it became clear that CMSLC was jettisoning the work altogether, and Arias and Barcarolles was looking for a home. Michael already knew the piece–he’d played early drafts of it with Bernstein. We inquired if we could give the American premiere (it had received a preview performance in Tel Aviv). We received permission, and it opened our second season on a double bill with Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.
I admit that I was initially puzzled by A’s and B’s. For one thing, it was written in so many different styles, from Broadway bounce to 12-tone anomie. Like Songfest, it seemed like a compendium of almost every genre Bernstein had tackled in his 40-plus years as a composer. But the texts, mostly by Bernstein himself, were intensely autobiographical and self-referential. Working on A’s and B’s was like entering a maze, and I was frequently lost. Eventually we began to see our way through its many enigmas, and we came to treasure every note, every riddle.
Our premiere was a howling success, the music press turned out in droves to write about it, and NYFOS was suddenly in the spotlight. Our subsequent recording of the work won us a Grammy Award for Best Recording of a New Work. Tonight we offer two of its key moments: the prelude, an enigmatic declaration of love sung emotionlessly over a turbulent, slashing accompaniment; and “Love Song,” in which a feuding couple sing obliquely about their troubled marriage using the metaphor of a song. Breezily hinting at marital infidelities, skirting the issue of love, and making the litany of their problems into a singsong blues, the husband and wife consider what it would feel like to separate from one another. It is one of Bernstein’s most revealing and most mysterious songs.
Most American music-lovers know Bernstein’s legacy so well that it is easy to forget how unusual his achievements were. Besides spearheading the Mahler revival, collaborating with Maria Callas and Luchino Visconti on a landmark production of La sonnambula at La Scala, and composing a majestic oeuvre of orchestral and choral works, he created something no other superstar conductor had done before (or since): a canon of Broadway shows that have achieved the status of classics.
His first show was On the Town, loosely based on the scenario of his ballet piece Fancy Free. Working with the up-and-coming Jerome Robbins and Oliver Smith, the very experienced George Abbott, and then-debutants Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he was at the helm of a smash hit. He was 26 years old. Just months before, he had made a legendary debut with the New York Philharmonic on a few hours’ notice, substituting for Bruno Walter who had taken ill. That same season Bernstein’s first symphony, the Jeremiah, received a premiere in Pittsburgh, and Fancy Free opened just a few months after that. Bernstein was in a fever of creative energy.
His boldness was all the more remarkable because the boundaries between classical and popular music were far stricter at that time than they are now. Musicians who could conduct Schumann’s Overture to Manfred were not supposed to write musical comedies. One of Bernstein’s great artistic contributions was to break down the barrier between so-called “high” and “low” culture. He gave respect to the full range of America’s musical languages. Who can forget his fulsome enthusiasm on television for Janis Ian, the teenaged composer of “Society’s Child”? He gave her hit song the same reverence he would have accorded to Berg’s Wozzeck. I saw that TV show in 1966. And 22 years later, NYFOS was born. The two facts are not unrelated.
Bernstein followed his success on Broadway with more shows in the 1950s: Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story. Even his 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti—a portrait of a failing marriage—began its life on the Great White Way, and proved to be a solid and enduring success. Later on it was folded into its late-period sequel, A Quiet Place (1983), where its musical accessibility alleviated some of the gnarly new opera’s gloom.
But after offering the public the very high-class candy of On the Town and Wonderful Town, Bernstein began to reach just past the Broadway audience’s comfort level—the original production of Candide was not a success and even West Side Story was considered dangerously dark for its time. After that, he began to overestimate even his own creative limits with a series of musicals he was unable to complete. They often foundered on his attempts to combine entertainment with Big Ideas, the nadir of which was the debacle of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is easy to see in retrospect why many of his later theater works had rough births and needed to be reworked later on by intrepid producers before they could enter the mainstream. They were ahead of their time, and they also needed some editing.
Bernstein’s theatrical instincts were not as sure, perhaps, as his musical ones. He was at his best when guided by the strong hand of George Abbott or the iron fist of Jerome Robbins. But we are now at a point where we can revel in the best of Bernstein: the audacity of his artistic vision, his jagged rhythms, his uninhibited emotional force, and his eternal Talmudic questioning of the world around him. Lenny is hot because he is unafraid. And Lenny is cool for the very same reason.
Arias and Barcarolles was Bernstein’s last contribution to the repertoire of vocal music, and it changed my life—and Michael Barrett’s life—forever. But Lenny had been a primary force in our lives since our childhoods, starting with his indispensable Young People’s Concerts, which I saw both on television and live at what was then known as Philharmonic Hall. Bernstein’s shower of gifts continued with the impressive array of his original cast albums—I was practically weaned on Wonderful Town—and LPs of him conducting everything from the overture to Zampa, to Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn, to Verdi’s Falstaff, to the sexiest, slyest Rhapsody in Blue I’ve ever heard. I admit that I was always a bit threatened by Lenny’s gyrations on the podium—should anyone be doing those things in public?—but I secretly aspired to his total lack of inhibition. He embodied the highest potential of human life force, and did so with a kind of flamboyance and extravagance that took our breath away. Whatever the flaws of this extraordinary man, Bernstein was a beacon for all American musicians—indeed, for all Americans, period.
A QUICK GUIDE TO BERNSTEIN’S SONGFEST
We’re presenting Songfest in an arrangement by John Musto, scored for two pianos and two percussion players. Musto whipped this version up for a performance at a summer art song program in Los Angeles, coincidentally also named Songfest. Without question, Bernstein’s original orchestration is a thing of beauty. But it can swamp the lyrics, and the composer was aware of this issue. At one performance he prefaced each song with a reading of the poem (done by two of his three kids) so that the audience could absorb the texts before hearing the music. With the leaner texture of two pianos, Songfest’s extraordinary “libretto” can finally find equal footing with the musical score.
Each movement of this work is a world unto itself, beginning with his grand, declamatory setting of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Poem.” Its broad melody and bursts of percussion are a grand fanfare for the many great and small, unruly, irreplaceable acts of creativity that make up the tapestry of American culture. “The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El” takes us down a totally different path—furtive, confused, abruptly orgasmic. Bernstein’s setting of Ferlinghetti’s 1919 poem merges the cool jazz of Miles Davis with strict twelve-tone compositional techniques. Bernstein was always looking for ways to bring warmth and expression to dodecaphonic music. No wonder Alban Berg’s wife considered engaging him to finish the incomplete third act of her late husband’s opera Lulu. (Legend has it that she needed to consult her Ouija board before making a final offer, as she did before any big decision. She came back to Bernstein the next day with the result: “Alban sagt nein.” By all reports Bernstein was relieved.)
Like Gershwin, Bernstein had an affinity for Latin rhythms. The passionate feminism of Julia de Burgos’ manifesto, “A Julia de Burgos,” gets a bravura setting: constantly shifting, driving rhythms, perhaps more redolent of Spain than the poet’s native Puerto Rico. Bernstein’s forceful music sounds like the West Side Story dances on meth.
Bernstein had rarely written about his sexuality. But in Songfest he wrote his first gay manifesto, “To What You Said.” After his public disclosure during the affair with Tom Cothran, it seemed that Bernstein was finally ready to come out of his none-too-well guarded closet through his music. He came across an obscure Walt Whitman text, a piece of prose found among the poet’s papers after his death. The idea of embracing gay pride, especially in a work as official and high-profile as this, was a big step in 1977. Recycling a gorgeous tune from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bernstein created a noble hymn to gay people—fierce, uncompromising, loving—and broadcast it to the nation.
“I, Too, Sing America/Okay Negroes” turns up the temperature as Bernstein contrasts two classic African-American activists from two different eras: the sincere, valiant Langston Hughes in 1926, and the scathing, militant June Jordan in 1974. Langston Hughes sings in the measured voice of oratorio, while June Jordan cuts in with the slashing accents of be-bop, ultimately silencing Hughes’ more temperate voice. The interleaving of these two poems is a masterstroke on Bernstein’s part, evoking the history of black activism more succinctly than any textbook.
Bernstein dials back the energy with “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” The poem is by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). the first American woman to achieve recognition as a poet. Setting her canonic hymn to marriage as a trio for three female voices, he evokes the quartet that ends Act II, scene i of Britten’s Peter Grimes—a work he’d conducted at Tanglewood in 1946. Bernstein puts his singers’ breath control and intonation to the test as he closely intertwines the three voices against a spare orchestration. He then turns the tables with Gertrude Stein’s “Storyette H.M.” Stein’s prose-poem-à–clef was about the philandering Henri Matisse and his wife. But it also captures Bernstein’s own marriage—“One was married to some one. That one was going away to have a good time. The one that was married to that one did not like it very well that the one to whom that one was married then was going off alone to have a good time.” Turning Stein’s run-on prose into a duet, Bernstein paints the self-satisfied husband and the fuming wife with amazing deftness. The uneven, ever-changing rhythms are the musical equivalent of their roller-coaster marriage, clothed in a Poulenc-tinged pentatonic scale spiced with the occasional Gershwin blues note.
Bernstein brings the entire ensemble together again with an e. e. cummings setting, “if you can’t eat you got to.” Emulating the suavity of The Mills Brothers, the cool-jazz vocal sextet alternates a gentle samba beat with sections of pure American blues. Bernstein clears the musical space when he comes to the heart of the poem, and indeed of the whole cycle: “if you can’t sing you’ve got to die.”
Bernstein follows this breezy, comforting ensemble with a mezzo-soprano solo of more emotional weight, “Music I Heard With You.” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegiac poem receives an unusual setting, juxtaposing conventional harmony with brief 12-tone sections, giving the speaker’s grief odd moments of disassociation, the edge of madness. A scherzo movement follows: “Zizi’s Lament,” which clothes Gregory Corso’s ironic poem of sexual longing with faux-Arab tropes like an exotic dance. Every man in the narrator’s family seems to have access to “the laughing sickness”—erotic fulfillment?—but it eludes the singer, driving him mad with longing. It is the companion piece to “The Pennycandy Store Beyond the El”: in the first, the pubescent boy is at the moment when he realizes he might possibly like girls more than he likes candy, but in “Zizi” he’s a teenager in the grips of full hormonal torment.
“What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” is the darkest song in the cycle, and it was also Bernstein’s favorite movement. Set to the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, it finds the composer in full Mahler/Berg mode, weighty and attenuated, bleak with regret. Bernstein drew on the classic A-A-B-A form of a popular song, but you’d scarcely realize this without analyzing the score. The jagged themes, slow tempo, and crushing emotional depth completely obscure the old-fashioned, traditional skeleton of the composition. Significantly, he uses a musical motif he went on to develop in “The Love of My Life,” As and Bs’ fourth song. The two pieces are also on a similar subject: aching memories of past loves. But the As and Bs song, written on the composer’s own text, is filled with manic energy, a desperate, semi-comic attempt to avoid facing the truth. Here, he confronts his demons and his doubts face-on. I cannot in good faith claim that “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” was intended to be autobiographical. But I do know that it was written around the time of Bernstein’s most serious gay affair after a life of promiscuity, and that it coincided with Felicia’s second bout of cancer. In this song I hear him wrestling with his very soul.
The joyous anthem “Israfel” closes the cycle. Israfel is one of the four Islamic archangels. Like Uriel in the Christian tradition, Israfel is poised to blow the trumpet in Jerusalem to herald the Day of Resurrection. He is a master of music, singing praise to God in a thousand languages. What better way to end this cycle—and our opening night—than this exuberant, complex hymn? Like Israfel—like Bernstein—NYFOS “despises an unimpassioned song.” As we belt out the last high C of the evening, we trumpet the power of song, the energy of live music, the community of artists and audiences we have built in our first thirty years—and look forward to the next.
NOTES ON THE PROGRAM
I always used to joke that one of the important things Michael Barrett and I had in common was that we both came from islands: Michael was born in Guam, and I was born in Manhattan. This quip could always be counted on to bring down the house at a NYFOS concert. In recent years, though, I have started to wonder if there wasn’t some truth underlying my flippant remark. Island dwellers, whether urban or tropical, all seem to develop certain traits. We crave the proximity of water, which provides us with a comforting aquatic buffer from the rest of the world. We see ourselves as fundamentally different from (and superior to) our landlocked neighbors. We are often under attack from outside enemies, and must learn to protect ourselves from invasion.
Michael and I have talked about exploring the idea of island songs for some years. As everyone waits impatiently for spring to arrive, what could be more enticing than to take a cruise around the world and hear the songs of its islands? Sailing from Ireland to Cuba and thence to Madagascar, we’ll finally dock in Manhattan, my island of choice.
The Irish speak in music. Anyone who has visited the Emerald Isle knows that the lilt of the Irish accent turns the most prosaic utterance—“Would you like butter on that scone?”—into something resembling song. Irish music, like African-American music, was that of an oppressed people. It has ancient roots, drawing on haunting modes including the five-note pentatonic scale and the ethereal sound of the Irish harp.
We’ll start with a pair of traditional Irish tunes: “The Palatine’s Daughter” and “Siúl a Ghrá,” which marks NYFOS’s very first foray into Gaelic. The first of these is a sprightly jig with a long pedigree. Like many Irish folk songs, it is based on an old tune, a hornpipe called “Garden of Daisies.” It is a story of assimilation: the Palatines were a Northern European, German-speaking population forced out of their country, the Palatinate, by war in the early eighteenth century. England offered them asylum, and in 1711 three hundred Palatine families arrived in Dublin, eventually forming enclaves throughout Ireland. As you can see, some of them did quite well in their new homeland.
For romance, we’ll turn to a pair of folk song settings John Corigliano composed for the Irish/American bard Robert White in 1990. Corigliano accompanies the voice not with piano but with a flute obbligato, exploiting it to evoke a surprisingly wide range of colors. “The Foggy Dew” is not the wry Burl Ives tune most of us know, but a flirtatious story of courtship set to a sensuous pentatonic melody. “She Moved through the Fair,” a classic recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Led Zeppelin, evokes a mysterious nighttime encounter between two lovers.
At the age of 19, the English composer Sir Arnold Bax read W. B. Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin. “The Celt within me stood revealed,” he later wrote. Ireland became his passion, and on his frequent visits he formed close ties to the people and their culture. He chose to “follow the dream,” moved to Dublin for over a decade, and adopted an Irish pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. Under that name, he published poetry, short stories, and plays. One of his most important books was A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems, a response to the Easter Uprising in 1916. Bax had been close to many of the important Irish leaders who were massacred. His passionate recounting of the tragedy was banned in Britain. Bax’s music also “follows the dream,” with its broad, bardic sweep and modal harmony. The darkly brooding song “As I Came Over the Grey, Grey Hills” finds emotional clarity in Joseph Campbell’s opaque words, leading to a climax that is both shimmering and weighty.
“Eileen Óg” is the handiwork of Houston Collisson and Percy French, a hugely successful songwriting team from the late 1890s. They produced a large repertoire of popular songs and operas, including the evergreen “Mountains of Mourne.” Like many Irish ballads of that era, the vocal line of “Eileen Óg” has a more operatic feel than its English or American equivalents. After all, it’s scored for Irish tenor, full of blarney and high notes.
Ever since the runaway success of Buena Vista Social Club, the music of Cuba has become popular and ubiquitous. Who doesn’t love a habanera? But underneath the rhythmic verve lies a darker story of the island’s social and political strife. Racial tensions ran high, just as they did—and do—in our country, and slavery was the fate of the Afro-Cubans until 1886. But as the years rolled by the island’s two cultures gradually began to intermingle. Cuban music was there to document the grafting of Spanish elegance onto the complex throb of African rhythms, to form that unique sound we love today. It evolved slowly. In 1900, white dance bands didn’t use drums, while black street bands relied on all kinds of percussion, most of it homemade. The Spanish elements suppressed, resisted, slowly co-opted, and finally embraced the rhythms of the oppressed Afro-Cubans. Much of this was due to the new popularity of radios, which allowed proper middle-class people to enjoy the animal abandon of criollas and danzones in the privacy of their homes. Soon they even felt comfortable about stepping out onto the dance floor to do the rumba, which had previously been banned as indecent.
If the Spanish component of Cuban music can be called its right wing and the African component its left wing, Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944) was a staunch rightist. He wrote his hit tune “Tú” when he was 18 years old. Fuentes lived long enough to understand that the progress of his country’s music would inevitably include contributions from both parties. Cuba’s music would never be able to remain “racially pure” and free of Afro-Cuban influences as he would have wanted it.
Each of the composers we are hearing is a spokesman for a different part of Cuba’s musical history. Emilio Grenet led the way in blending Cuba’s disparate cultures, setting Afro-Cuban poetry to music of sly sophistication. Sindo Garay, part Spanish and part South American Indian, was a natural talent, illiterate until he was 16, and never able to read music. Yet his gift for trova—lyrical, guitar-accompanied song—earned him an undying place in the Cuban pantheon. His hit tune “Guarina” has the elegance of a bel canto song. Ernesto Lecuona enjoyed the most successful career of all, with a legacy of over four hundred songs, fifty-three theater pieces, eleven film scores, and a huge repertoire of salon pieces for piano. Lecuona’s fusion of the classical and the popular, the African and the Spanish, decisively turned Cuban music a worldwide phenomenon.
Alejandro García Caturla was among the first Cubans to receive recognition in Europe as a classical composer. This is all the more remarkable because he combined his life as a musician with a second career as a judge. While he was a law student, he met Alejo Carpentier, one of Cuba’s greatest writers and activists. Carpentier opened the world of French surrealism to the composer, which gave Caturla the impetus to go to Paris and study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Carpentier was one of the first promoters of Afrocubanismo, and spread the message while he was living in Paris during the late 1920s by promoting Cuban musicians and painters. Middle-class Cubans may have disdained the new wave of Afro-Cuban art, but Parisians had embraced primitivism for over a decade and responded vociferously to the new energy from Latin America and the Caribbean.
While he was attending a festival in Barcelona, Caturla received a wire from Carpentier in Paris commissioning him to set his “Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos” (of which “Juego Santo” is the second song) to music for a concert scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks. Caturla rose to the challenge, and the premiere at Salle Gaveau by soprano Lydia Rivera with Ernesto Lecuona at the piano resulted in superlative reviews. His European career was assured
Alas, it ended too soon. At home Caturla waged a campaign against corruption and became known as a tough fighter. In 1940, at the age of 34, he became involved with a case of spouse abuse. The defendant thought, wrongly, that his case would end up in Caturla’s court. Rather than subject himself to the rigorous implementation of the law, he shot Caturla in the street. One of Cuba’s brightest lights was extinguished.
Cuba’s musical theater began in the 1800s with a proliferation of satirical sainetes—disposable, one-act operettas like sitcoms, in which social and political issues could be aired in a light-hearted way. Starting in the early 1920s, Cuban artists started to give their operettas a grander framework by starting a Cuban zarzuela repertoire, grafting both their dance rhythms and their social concerns onto the popular Spanish light-opera formula. It flowered during one of Cuba’s grimmest political eras, when the island fell under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. Life became increasingly violent, underground groups tried to topple the regime, and the Machadistas retaliated. In this dangerous atmosphere, zarzuelas were at once a popular, tuneful entertainment as well as a safe way to focus on difficult social issues, especially interracial romance. Most of the stories were set in the past, to avoid direct parallels with current events. The plots usually involved a mulata, her faithful black suitor, and her fickle, exploitative white paramour. Such is the case with José Mauri’s La esclava, one of the first in the new genre. The heroine Matilda pours out her heart with the abandon of a Mascagni heroine—and ultimately perishes like one as well.
Irish composers and poets don’t need to work hard to evoke their homeland. The Irish spirit resides in their artistic DNA. But Maurice Ravel had to draw on all his sophisticated craft to create a musical Madagascar in his 1926 vocal chamber work Chansons madécasses. It was commissioned by the formidable American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who funded an impressive array of twentieth century masters from Copland (Appalachian Spring) to Barber (The Hermit Songs), and also built the concert hall at the Library of Congress. She was a passionate advocate for modern music, and insisted “not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”
When Coolidge telegrammed Ravel with her request for a new vocal work, she asked if it could be scored for piano, flute, and cello. At that moment, Ravel was re-examining a book of poems by Evariste Parny on the subject of Madagascar. Ravel chose three of Parny’s poems that fired his imagination, and got to work on what turned out to be a ground-breaking work, the Chansons madécasses.
Ravel had first come into contact with Parny’s poems in 1900 when he was a student. That was also the year of the Exposition universelle de 1900, where Madagascar had a well-attended pavilion featuring an enormous scale model of the island. During the day there were short concerts of native music, which many think Ravel attended. Certainly there is nothing else like the Chansons madécasses in Ravel’s oeuvre. Each of the three instruments is completely independent of the others, and Ravel pushes them to their limits in order to make unusual sound effects. The low register of the flute becomes a trombone-like war cry in the second song, the pizzicato cello in the last song turns into an African tambour, the high cello harmonics sound like a Malagasy wooden flute, and the piano ostinatos become throbbing gongs. In the madécasses, every instrument plays in a different key from the others, and sometimes in no recognizable key at all. The net effect is astonishing, erotic, languorous, and startlingly fierce in the middle movement, where the speaker admonishes his listeners to be wary of the invading white man.
Evariste Parny (1753-1814) never actually visited Madagascar, though he was born in that part of the world—the Île de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. But he was fascinated by the culture of the island. Parny was a fervent anti-colonialist and published his Chansons madécasses as a way of bringing Malagasy culture to the understanding of western readers. He claimed to have adapted his texts from a volume of Madagascar poems from the early eighteenth century, though it is now thought they were entirely his own creation. Parny described a world where the women were the workers and the men lived a life of ease. “They are passionate about music and dance; their songs are simple, lovely, and always melancholy.” The native form of expression was not poetry, but an elevated, florid prose which Parny recreated in his work. As a result, his Chansons madécasses became one of the earliest examples of prose poetry.
The Chansons madécasses are a musical exploration of a culture that the composer created primarily out of his imagination, and a social portrait of a place the poet never visited. From these elements emerges a work of great truth, and one whose early-1920s Modernism still startles the listener with its originality.
There are countless songs about my home town—I should know, I just listened about two hundred of them. The themes include our perfect bagels, the inconvenience of tourists, the nostalgia for buildings that have long been torn down, the disdain for other boroughs and nearby states.
But I wanted to avoid the clichés and capture the true spirit of New York through a series of character portraits. First up is Liza Elliott, the magazine editor who is the heroine of Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart. All of the show’s musical sequences are enactments of Liza’s dreams—she is in psychoanalysis because of her inability to make important decisions. “One Life to Live” is her exuberant hymn to life in her “Success Dream,” delivered as a soapbox speech at Columbus Circle.
We next meet Cathy, the heroine of Jason Robert Brown’s autobiographical musical The Last Five Years. We are with her at a series of unsuccessful musical theater auditions, as well as a lunch date with her father where she pours out her frustration. If you ever wondered what distracted thoughts flit through a performer’s mind when she is onstage, fasten your seatbelt and listen up. Jason Robert Brown’s song is devastatingly funny—and sad—and accurate.
“Through a Keyhole” was written for Irving Berlin’s smash hit revue As Thousands Cheer, but the song never made it to the stage. Its lyric was far too risqué for Depression-era Broadway, and it got cut. Berlin, of course, is best known for wholesome Americana like “God Bless America” and “Easter Parade.” But the man had a devilish sense of humor and could give Cole Porter a run for his money when it came to sexy innuendo—he (anonymously) wrote a verse for “You’re the Top” far more salacious than any of Porter’s lyrics for the song. To this day, “Keyhole” remains unpublished. It still has the power to raise an eyebrow or two
“Litany” comes from one of John Musto’s first successes, the song cycle Shadow of the Blues. He wrote it for Christopher Trakas and me in 1985 to include on our Naumberg Award CD. Its blend of Italianate cantilena and New York blues make this a quintessential Musto tune. It is more meaningful than ever to hear Langston Hughes’ prayer for the poor people of our city. The poem is over 70 years old, the music more than 30 years old—yet they evoke contemporary New York with concise eloquence.
So does “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s 1930 show The New Yorkers. Here is the Manhattan I know—and the Manhattanite I am at heart, under my gentle exterior. The song is a New Yorker’s credo: you live here and the world comes to you. You take a trip abroad, i.e., you travel ten minutes across the Hudson, and you want to race home as soon as possible. Brash, confident, and wedded to the glories and indignities of city life—Porter fits it all perfectly into a New York minute.
These days the cuisine of every island in the entire world is available for takeout 24/7. Today we give you a multi-cultural musical meal, a Grubhub of song. It’s a bracing journey filled with upheavals, mysteries, hates and loves, war and peace—ending with a celebration of the island I call home, my beloved Manhattan.
There are two histories of the Rodgers family that run parallel to one another. The first celebrates the dazzling musical gifts that propelled three generations of artists, giving birth to a century of groundbreaking musicals and hundreds of indispensable songs. The second is the shadow history of three composers triumphing over tremendous adversities, some from without, many from within. Tonight we celebrate that triumph with a selection of their songs, a few chestnuts, and a cache of rarities.
Richard Rodgers began his dazzling Broadway career with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Their first song, “Any Old Place with You,” found its way into the 1919 show A Lonely Romeo. Rodgers was 16 years old, and still a journeyman. But his path was set, and his collaborations with Lorenz Hart went on to ornament Broadway for two decades, with hits like the dapper A Connecticut Yankee, the brilliant Boys from Syracuse, and the gritty Pal Joey. Rodgers’ second musical marriage, to Oscar Hammerstein II, gave us the now-classic shows that define “Broadway musical” for most of us: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Rodgers’ career spanned 60 years, ending with the 1979 adaptation of I Remember Mama.
Richard’s daughter Mary carried the Rodgers tradition forward, bursting onto the scene in a blaze of success with her first musical, Once Upon a Mattress. Its off-Broadway run in 1959 was so popular that the producers transferred the show to the Great White Way, where it lasted for 244 performances. This hardy musical made it to London’s West End, and received no fewer than three productions on television before its last Broadway revival twenty years ago. It was a brilliant start for Mary Rodgers, who naturally had access to the cream of lyricists: her childhood friend Stephen Sondheim, the gifted, if unruly, Marshall Barer, and Broadway masters like Sheldon Harnick and Martin Charnin. Each of them inspired her to write first-class songs.
Her son Adam Guettel launched his career more slowly than either his mother or his grandfather. In the Roaring 20s, his father grandfather’s era, it was easier to place a song in a loosely structured, vaudeville-style show that might include music by many writers. The theater was vibrant and affordable. In 1919, the year of A Lonely Romeo, some 152 plays and musicals opened on Broadway, from Twelfth Night and Hamlet to La-La, Lucille! and something called The Very Naked Boy. But Adam Guettel was born in the 1960s, the auteur era of single-composer, high-concept musicals, a tradition his grandfather helped to establish. And Adam has always been a slow, careful writer, taking years to craft his stage works. His musical voice is one-of-a-kind, an American original. But Adam is also firmly grounded in the great traditions, drawing on Broadway, rhythm and blues, and classical composers from Ravel to Stravinsky. His first two major shows, Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns (also titled Saturn Returns), played only in limited runs. But their recordings quickly turned Guettel from a cult figure into a star. The albums are in every music-theater lover’s collection, and his music is treasured by actors, jazzers, and classical singers. When his 2005 musical The Light in the Piazza finally reached Broadway after a six-year gestation period, Adam Guettel finally enjoyed the kind of sustained exposure that had eluded him for many years. The show won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Original Score.
But three generations of hit shows, with their ubiquitous original cast albums and vocal anthologies, came at a personal cost. Each of these prodigiously talented musicians struggled with demons, and in our tell-all age their dark side has been under the microscope, the subject of books and magazine articles. Sometimes, alas, the backstory has threatened to get more attention than the art.
Richard Rodgers maintained a pristine public image during his career: devoted family man, gifted businessman, infinitely patient caretaker of his gay, alcoholic lyricist Lorenz Hart. He was known as a curmudgeonly but beloved taskmaster to willful singers seeking to embellish his music with rhythmic or melodic alterations. It was a false front. A 2001 biography by Meryle Secrest, Somewhere for Me, revealed Rodgers as a serious alcoholic, an exploitative womanizer, solitary and uncommunicative. He fought with depression for much of his life. It is a shocking exposé, and one of the saddest books I have ever read. After Oscar Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers’ increasing intractability made him a very difficult collaborator for everyone else who followed. No wonder his last four shows were failures.
It was not easy to be Richard Rodger’s daughter. Mary Rodgers forged a strong, sometimes formidable personality. She was capable of great warmth, but her sunshiny generosity could cloud over if something displeased her. One was in her good graces—until one wasn’t. She was a fighter, and she had to be. She valiantly bucked the condescension and outright discrimination that a female composer faced in the boys’ club of musical theater.
Ultimately Mary endured a series of terrible disappointments, and she gave up her career as a composer. After Mattress, she had a disastrous flop, Hot Spot. The show had received a great deal of publicity, leading to enviable pre-sales. It finally opened after two months of previews, several changes of director, and emergency last-minute contributions by her pal Sondheim. After so much anticipation, Hot Spot’s Hindenburg-esque failure received even more press, this time damaging. Actress Judy Holliday made her final stage appearances in the show, saying “You can only live through one or two Hot Spots in your life.”
Mary Rodgers recovered to enjoy one more musical success, The Mad Show in 1966. This off-Broadway musical revue ran for 871 performances and starred Linda Lavin and Jo Anne Worley. Then came the deal-breaker.
Mary’s agent at the time, Robert Lantz, got her involved with a musical based on Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. She and her lyricist, Marshall Barer, visited McCullers, played some of the songs, and received the author’s blessing. There followed a tangle of manipulations and skullduggery, some of them instigated by Lantz, some of them quirks of bad timing. Eventually, after McCullers’s death, the author’s sister rescinded the rights to the novel in favor of a different version of the musical, this one to be directed by Ted Mann of Circle in the Square. It was a spectacularly bad decision. The resulting musical, F. Jasmine Addams with a score by a composer who went by the name “G. Wood,” was widely panned and lasted for six performances. It made Hot Spot’s brief run look like My Fair Lady by comparison.
This was the last straw for Mary Rodgers. She left music. Her stated reason was that she estimated her talent as good-but-not-great. She felt that her father, and then her son, were touched with a kind of genius that she lacked. But another reason was that she knew she had other artistic talents to explore. She turned her hand to writing children’s books and became a very successful author. One of her books, Freaky Friday, has attained the status of a classic.
Mary wasn’t quite done with music, however. She made occasional forays into composing, including a song or two for the 1978 musical Working and the score for a musical based on Freaky Friday. As late as 1988, she attempted one more musical, an adaptation of Frank Stockton’s short story The Griffin and the Minor Canon. It was an unhappy experience, including an uncongenial lyricist and the kind of working conditions “you can deal with when you’re in your twenties, but not when you’re in your fifties.” Her unhappiness re-confirmed her earlier vow to abandon composing. After Mary’s final retreat from music, she turned her attention to writing, philanthropy, and important board duties at Juilliard and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
Mary Rodgers reacted to the legacy of her father’s dark secrecy by being almost aggressively open about the family’s painful past. Writer Jesse Green described it as “a personal style you might call knee-jerk transparency, except that you do not need even a tiny rubber mallet to get the goods from her.” Adam has followed in his mother’s footsteps—and, alas, his grandfather’s. He has been open about his long, dramatic struggle with drugs and alcohol. Even his own mother had salty words about Adam’s sexual appetites when he was a younger man. And unlike his grandfather, he writes slowly and painstakingly, with periods of writer’s block. In different ways, both mother and grandson inherited both the Midas touch and the Midas curse: the Rodgers genius for songwriting, along with the crippling weight of Rodgers legacy. And both had their fair share of the Rodgers pain. It is therefore a pleasure to see Adam in the year 2016: happily married, a hale, healthy, still-handsome fifty-year old keeping his demons at bay, hard at work on new theater pieces. I remember him from his troubled years as a haunted man, short-circuited by the world’s expectations of him and by his own compulsions. The warm, generous Adam I encountered in 2016 seems an altogether different being. I pray that this new Zen-Adam enjoys a long, healthy life.
The enigma of Richard Rodgers is poignant and shocking for those of us who were weaned on his musicals with Hammerstein, so imbued with optimism—“But I’m stuck like a dope/With a thing called hope/And I can’t get it out of my heart!/Not this heart.” Ultimately, according to Mary, “I don’t think anyone knew who he really was, with the possible exception of one of the five psychiatrists he went to. And I’m sure they didn’t know either. I don’t think he knew. He was just all locked up in there, grinding out gorgeous stuff.”
The “gorgeous stuff” he ground out has taken on the oracular quality of folk music. One of the secrets of Richard Rodgers’ long career was his ability to roll with the times, capturing the Zeitgeist of four decades. It is fascinating to hear his earliest songs, written with Lorenz Hart just after World War I, dancing to the chunky rhythms of vaudeville and ragtime. Just a few years later he found a way to swing into the jazz age—perhaps never with the pelvic abandon of George Gershwin, but with the coltish energy of a flapper. His music in the 30s has a bit more texture, longer lines, a kind of moodiness suitable to the era. In the 40s, now in partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II, he discovered a new depth, which spoke not just to sophisticated New Yorkers but gave the entire nation something pure and hopeful to sustain them through the rough times of war. In the 50s, he wrote for the squarer tastes of Eisenhower’s America, faltering a bit with Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet, but hitting his biggest pay dirt with The King and I and The Sound of Music.
Like so many of Broadway’s classic composers, Rodgers had trouble adapting to the social and theatrical upheavals of the 60s and 70s. The colorful, idiosyncratic scores of Fiddler, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, and Hair were not in Rodgers’ arsenal. Music theater was moving on, leaving the masters of the 32-bar song behind: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Rodgers, and even Bernstein.
But recent revivals of Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I (with judiciously trimmed scripts and spruced-up staging) have served to remind modern audiences of his theatrical power. And of course his songs have never been out of the spotlight. Rodgers’ melodic gift was indefatigable, and his tunes melded themselves to Hart’s and Hammerstein’s words with an uncanny eloquence. This was due to his gift for musical timing and spacing: Rodgers knew exactly how to leave room for their lyrics to resonate in the listener’s mind and soul—this is the true reason why his songs have become indispensable. Modern theater songs often have lengthy, chattering lyrics, while modern popular songs tend to pound away on a single hook, bludgeoning the listener into an instant feeling of familiarity. Rodgers and Hammerstein used musical hooks too—ear-catching phrases like “Across a crowded room,” or “When the dog bites”—but they did so in a more insinuating way, sneaking them into our imagination where they seem to nest forever.
Richard Rodgers’ music is not especially adventurous harmonically, and he had an odd penchant for making melodies out of repeated quarter notes on a single pitch—think of “Where or When,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “The Gentleman is a Dope,” or “It Never Entered My Mind.” (They say Hart wrote the lyrics to “Johnny One-Note” as a way of poking gentle fun at his partner.) Rodgers music tends to be square and orderly, though his waltzes sometimes attain a sweet, anti-gravitational lightness. No, Rodgers’ music isn’t hip. But it is perfectly crafted, immaculately tailored for the voice, beautiful on first hearing and still heart-stopping on the thousandth. No wonder that he became jazz musicians’ favorite songwriter. Rodgers’ plain-spoken tunes are often the basis for their wildest improvisations.
Mary Rodgers may have lacked her father’s eloquence. But the longer I work on her songs, the more I see how daring her music is. “Happily Ever After,” for example, may seem like a genre song in a standard blues pattern, a joke-joke-topper number like “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. But “Happily” has a devilishly deceptive harmonic pattern, and the listener is never sure exactly what key the song is in. (Nor are the performers: all of us are working hard to get this complicated piece right.)
When composing Once Upon a Mattress Mary Rodgers summoned up her courage to show her father the song “Normandy.” After a breezy fox-trot-style main tune, the bridge takes off in an unpredictable direction, with modal harmonies and a faux-Renaissance feel. Richard Rodgers raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have done that,” he said disapprovingly. This was, of course, exactly the response Mary secretly craved: to be different, to be original. When the inevitable rumors sprung up that her songs were ghost-written by her father, she exclaimed, “Write them? He doesn’t even like them!”
Mary Rodgers always felt abashed that she had not finished the music program in which she was enrolled at Wellesley College. She never felt confident she could notate what she heard in her head. The unusual chord patterns in her songs were like a musical crossword puzzle—to see if she could arrive at the right chord after taking challenging harmonic detours. Her father’s music feels inevitable. Mary’s is quirkier, and more unpredictable.
She expressed few regrets about abandoning her career in music. Mary was having tremendous success as a writer. She was also a mother of five, and the daughter of two troubled parents. She wanted to be the parent she never had and that meant making her family, not her career, the top priority.
Still, I can’t help being sad that she gave up songwriting. She was reaching new heights when she stopped composing. The Member of the Wedding contains many fine numbers, including the one I prize above all her others: “Something Known,” a ballad worthy of her illustrious father, poised somewhere between Broadway monologue and operatic aria. There is also great beauty in The Griffin: “Am I?” is my runner-up for Best Mary Song, a ravishing, complex piece of music that whirls through tonalities with a delicacy only hinted at in her previous work.
If “Something Known” sounds like Mary’s tribute to her father, “Am I” looks to the future: it sounds like the music of her son Adam. Mary educated herself by working with Leonard Bernstein on his Young People’s Concerts, and by collaborating with her lifelong friend Stephen Sondheim, who was a student of Milton Babbitt. Adam took it all a step father, with influences ranging through four centuries of music. And like all contemporary theater composers, he has absorbed the restless, rapid-fire style of Sondheim, so different from the leisurely, almost courtly way his grandfather addressed audiences.
In fact, Adam Guettel has accomplished the impossible: he bridged the gap between Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. In life Rodgers and Sondheim were adversaries, and their one collaboration, Do I Hear a Waltz? left each of them hostile and embittered. When I saw its recent revival at the Encores! series, I described it as the marriage of a butter knife (Rodgers) with a steak knife (Sondheim)—fascinating for the viewer, but unpleasant for the knives. Rodgers later described Sondheim as “a cold man with a deep sense of cynicism,” Sondheim publicly pronounced Rodgers “a man of infinite talent and limited soul.” But Adam finally brought the two men together through his music, marrying Sondheim’s dazzling facility with Rodgers’ supernal lyricism to create something all his own.
Adam fascinates his listeners, drawing on many recognizable genres without being slavish to any of them. He has a way of cross-breeding styles within a single piece, so that Stevie Wonder mates with Ravel (“Hero and Leander”), Bob Dylan with Fauré (“How Glory Goes”), James Brown and Britten (“St. Who”). But when I sit down to play Adam’s music, I find a common thread lying right under my hands: an opulent harmonic palette used with classic precision. Bach would not have recognized Adam’s gorgeous Bill Evans-y chords, but he might have appreciated the perfect voice-leading and the logic of their quirky progressions. Unlike Richard Rodgers’ songs, which seem to re-harmonize themselves the minute I touch them, Adam’s music needs to be played as written. You can slightly amplify a gesture, perhaps, or double a bass line, but ultimately you must treat it as if it were art song.
There are two composers whose music seems like what I would write, had I that creative gift: Karol Szymanowski and Adam Guettel. And it is for the same reason: their exquisite chords, sexy clusters of notes that capture the kind of wordless longing and sensuality that only music can express. I am gratified to see that Adam has become an icon for the current generation, and tickled to inform them that he had a very famous grandfather and also a talented mother. We will one day get to the point when Adam Guettel’s songs are the standard to which Mary and Richard Rodgers are compared, not vice-versa. Have no fears: they are up to the scrutiny. All three of them are unique and indispensable, sources of eternal pleasure.
–Many thanks to the writer Jesse Green, who loaned me several of the rare, unpublished songs by Mary Guettel for tonight’s concert. He also offered me invaluable guidance as I prepared both the program and the above essay. I am in his debt, and very grateful for his generosity.
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