Song of the Day

Beginning in January 2017, the Song of the Day will highlight art song from around the world. We will feature both established and up-and-coming performers and composers. Feel free to contact lfitzgibbon@sparksandwirycries.org if you would like to suggest a song, performer, or composer! 

February 24

Today, February 24, Kathleen Battle (b. 1948) and Warren Jones delight with Strauss' "Ständchen," in this recital from 1990.

February 23

Today is the 75th anniversary of poet and author Stefan Zweig's death (1881-1942). A prolific and popular writer into the 1930s, Zweig was born in Vienna to a Jewish family. Though a pacifist, Zweig worked for the Archives of the Ministry of War during WWI and felt some degree of patriotism for his country. However, he feared rising anti-Semitism in Europe and fled with his wife, first for England in 1934 and then for the United States in 1940 (living as guests of Yale University and then moving to Ossining). After just a few months in America, though, the Zweigs moved again--to Brazil, settling near Rio de Janiero in an area with many German immigrants. Still, though they had fled Europe, the Zweigs' sentiments remained, and they felt despair over the destruction in their homeland. They committed suicide on February 23, 1942.

Zweig is best known within the musical world for the two librettos he supplied to Richard Strauss: "Die schweigsame Frau" and "Daphne." Zweig wrote candidly about Strauss' attempts to curry favor with the Nazi regime:
"To be co-operative with the national socialists was furthermore of vital interest to him, because in the national socialist sense he was very much in the red. His son had married a Jewess and thus he feared that his grandchildren, whom he loved above all else, would be excluded as scum from the schools; his earlier operas tainted through the half-Jew Hugo von Hofmannstahl; his publisher was a Jew."
However, Strauss also stood up for Zweig's libretto, despite opposition from the Nazi party beginning in 1934. Goebbels apparently acquiesced with Strauss' requests because he wanted to take advantage of the composer's fame. Others in the party disagreed, but Goebbels won out--until correspondence between Strauss and Zweig was intercepted showing Strauss' dislike of the regime. At this point, three performances were allowed, and then the work was banned.

Some of Zweig's poetry has been set to music, most notably by Reger and Joseph Marx. The song featured today, "Ein drängen ist in meinem Herzen" is by the latter, performed here by Dinah Bryant and Daniel Blumenthal.

February 22

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (b. 1972) was born in Youngstown, Ohio, just like a previous Song of the Day featured artist, mezzo-soprano Betty Allen (February 7).

Brownlee, one of six children, was raised in a musical family, playing trumpet, guitar, drums, and singing gospel music at church. He describes the area where he grew up as “nothing but cornfields and high school football," and his opera career an "alternate universe" from his upbringing in “an industrial, down-to-earth blue-collar family.” However, his roots have shaped the artist he has become: generous, natural, and unaffected. He also believes--just like George Shirley, profiled yesterday--that his upbringing singing “free, melismatic” gospel prepared him perfectly for the Bel Canto arias he sings today.

Lawrence's career is still on its upward trajectory, but his list of accomplishments is already dizzying: appearances at every major opera house, concert work with major symphonies, recitals with acclaimed pianists in celebrated venues. One recent opera project of note is Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD (Daniel Schnyder), which combines classical music with the jazz of its eponymous character.

For more on Lawrence, read this slightly dated (2011) profile by Vivien Schweizer.

Here, Lawrence singing Liszt's "Pace non trovo" in a 2010 recital with pianist Iain Burnside:

February 21

George Shirley (b. 1934) has a roster of many firsts to his name: the first African-American high school music teacher in Detroit, the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus, and the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, a relationship that began after he won the Met Council Auditions in 1961.

Born in Indiana, Shirley's family relocated to Detroit in 1940. At this time, he began music lessons, singing at church and playing baritone horn. He attended Wayne State University, graduating with a degree in music education. His career interrupted when he was drafted into the Army, Shirley still continued to break down barriers when he became a member of the United States Army Chorus. Shirley clearly continued to hone his craft during his years of service; discharged in 1959, Shirley went on to make his European debut (as Rodolfo in Bohème) in 1960, shortly followed by his New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera debuts (also as Rodolfo) in 1961. He won the Met Council Auditions the same year, making his debut as Ferrando in October. His relationship with the Met would go on another 12 years and encompass 28 roles, and Shirley's career would take him around the globe.

After his early years teaching high school music in Detroit, Shirley became a teacher again in 1980 when he was appointed professor of voice at the University of Maryland. In 1987, Shirley returned to his roots when he became a professor of voice at the University of Michigan, receiving the title Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Voice five years later. In 2007, upon his retirement, Shirley was named the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice. Despite the length and breadth of his career, Shirley is not one to rest on his laurels: in 2014, he released a CD of spirituals and President Barack Obama honored him with a National Medal of Arts.

Today, more Karl Weigl songs (remember Betty Allen from a few weeks back?) in both German and English, sung ravishingly by George Shirley and played by David Garvey, in a 1973 recording.

February 20

Happy birthday, Ruby Elzy! Born on this day in 1908, Elzy had a remarkable voice and a remarkable career that was tragically cut short when she died during a routine operation for a benign tumor at the age of 35.

Born and raised by her mother in Pontontoc, Mississippi, Elzy was surrounded by strong women and singing from an early age. Elzy's mother worked three jobs: as a school teacher in the mornings, picking cotton in the afternoons, and as a launderer for white families in the evenings. Elzy would join her mother in the evenings, and they would often sing together. She learned spirituals from her grandmother, who had been a slave, and began performing in church at the age of four.

Elzy began college at Mississippi's Rust College, but during her Freshman year a visiting professor from Ohio State, Dr. Charles McCracken, heard her sing. He helped arrange for her to transfer to Ohio State, where he was her teacher, mentor, and her family away from home. Though Elzy started at Ohio State with some disadvantages due to the availability of opportunities in Mississippi, she graduated first in her class three years later, reading and writing music, speaking four languages, and playing the piano.

After graduating, Elzy won a Rosenwald Fund fellowship to attend Juilliard, from which she received two graduate degrees. During this time, she also became involved with the Harlem Renaissance and started performing on Broadway. A choir she joined was hired to sing in the new motion picture "The Emperor Jones," staring Paul Robeson; Elzy was picked for the small additional role of Dolly. This brought her to the attention of the screenwriter, DuBose Heyward--also the author of "Porgy." When Heyward worked with Gershwin to create "Porgy and Bess," he told the composer that he had to hear Elzy sing. After hearing "City Called Heaven" (listen below!), she was immediately cast as Serena.

Elzy went on to perform "Porgy and Bess" over 800 times, and this became the basis of her career. Because of this, she went on to appear in movies and radio broadcasts with Bing Crosby; to sing with the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic; and to make her debut at New York's Town Hall. She sang for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House and she sang recitals throughout the country. Elzy died at the age of 35, as she was preparing for her debut in the title role of Aida.

Want to learn more about Elzy's life and career? Check out this hour long radio broadcast from 2009.

February 19

Robert McFerrin (1921-2006, and yes, father of Bobby McFerrin) is perhaps most famous for being the first African-American man to perform at the Met. However, McFerrin's career and beautiful voice took him far beyond this one opera house.

Born in Arkansas and raised in Tennessee, McFerrin was exposed to music through at an early age through church. His father was a traveling preacher, and McFerrin a boy soprano in his local church gospel choir. One of eight children, McFerrin formed a trio with two of his siblings when they hit their teenage years. The three of them traveled with their father to perform as he was preaching. A few years later, his parents sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in St. Louis, so that he could receive a better education. There, a choir director noticed his talents and began giving him private instruction, even helping arrange for scholarship aid to send him to college. After graduating from college (his studies interrupted by his service in WWII), McFerrin moved to New York City. There he met the woman who would become his wife, singer and pianist Sara Copper (herself an amazing musician and educator). In 1953, McFerrin became the first African-American to win the Met Council Auditions, then called "Auditions of the Air," though he was not granted the customary contract that had been awarded to previous winners. Instead, it would take another two years for him to make his Met debut, a few weeks after Marian Anderson made hers. He did become the first African-American to sing at title role at the Met, as Rigoletto in 1956.

Despite these successes, McFerrin felt unsure about his prospects in New York. After going out to Hollywood to record the soundtrack for Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess," McFerrin realized that "opportunities at the Met were at a stalemate. I had been there for three years and had done only three roles which averaged out to a role a year. I did not want to continue the uncertainty of my future of whether or not I would progress beyond the status of singing the role of a brother, or father. I wanted to sing Wotan or Count di Luna, or a romantic lead. I guess this would have created too much controversy; therefore, I simply chose to resign my position on the Met roster."

Thus began a long career as a teacher as well as a performer (you can hear recordings on Youtube from a recital in 1993!). He was on the faculties of Sacramento State College, the St. Louis Institute of Music Conservatory, Roosevelt University, and the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. Though his career took him around the globe, he credited his success to his early training in the church. In his own words: "I believe that my singing of gospel music and hymns strengthened my voice and gave me the ability to sustain my singing and endure whatever role I was assigned to sing." So, we leave you with an example of his beautiful singing in the spiritual below:

February 18

Barbara Hendricks (b. 1948) was born and raised in Arkansas, taking voice lessons and studying music during her youth, but she graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at the tender of age of 20 with degrees in mathematics and chemistry. A summer at Aspen, followed by studies at the Juilliard School with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, transformed Hendricks' life. 

Her opera and recital careers took off at the same time, in 1974. That year, she made her debuts on the stages of Glyndebourne and San Francisco, but she also moved to Paris and began her recital career. This began an incredibly prolific life in song, both in terms of the number of performances and also the depth of repertoire she performed. Never afraid of a challenge, Hendricks programmed everything from Art Song standards to little-heard Swedish repertoire to premieres of contemporary music. In addition to her operatic and recital careers, Hendricks established herself in the world of jazz beginning in 1994. 

 Hendricks has used her global influence to enrich the lives of others not just through music but through humanitarian work. In 1987, thirty years ago, she was named'Ambassador of Goodwill' for refugees by the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations, a role that has taken her around the world as she advocates for the rights of the downtrodden.  

In her own words, singing "enriches me. And it's responsible for the kind of person I am."

February 17

Soprano Claron McFadden (b. 1961) was raised and educated in New York and trained at the Eastman School, where she was a recipient of the William Warfield scholarship. Her career took off just after graduation, making her operatic debut in Holland under the baton of Ton Koopman in Hasse's "L'Eroe cinese." Following this, she performed extensively with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, making a name for herself performing early repertoire. However, her career has taken her many directions: she is equally at home with contemporary repertoire (see the link to the Wolfgang Rihm below, which she premiered), and in fact gained even more notoriety for her performance of the title role in Berg's "Lulu" at Glyndbourne and for creating the role of the Controller in Johnathon Dove's "Flight." 

McFadden's work not only transcends eras but genres: she mixes the Baroque with jazz, she does work that might be considered performance art, she composes and creates. In short, she is a remarkable artist!

February 16

Today, Reri Grist delights in the last movement of Mahler's 4th Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Grist, born in 1932 and currently residing in Germany, had an usual beginning to her career compared to the other singers profiled thus far here: she started out on Broadway! It was thanks to this training that she encountered Leonard Bernstein, when she was cast as Consuelo in the original Broadway production of "West Side Story." Her heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of "Somewhere" made Bernstein a fan. His encouragement helped convince her to try an operatic career, making her debut at Santa Fe just two years later, in 1959, singing the role of Adele in "Die Fledermaus." A year later, Bernstein hired her to sing the Mahler below on one of his Young People's Concerts, another important step towards international stardom. From there, her career took her to all the major opera houses around the world.

She also performed recital tours in the United States, but her discography seems to show that she only recorded operas. So, for today, we have this historic performance of the Mahler, in its first stereo recording. It's wonderful to hear Bernstein introducing the piece at the beginning, and fascinating to consider his comparatively spritely tempi--which do much to conjure up the childlike wonder of the poetry. Though Mahler originally composed this song with piano, like other Knaben Wunderhorn settings (remember the Jessye Norman/John Shirley Quirk recording from a few weeks ago?), it was not published as such: by the time Mahler was ready to publish the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, he already knew that he would include "Das himmlische Leben" in the Fourth Symphony. The world had to wait until 1993 for the publication of the original piano version!

February 15

Today, the spectacular Martina Arroyo (whose birthday was just a couple of weeks ago, on February 2nd--so happy belated!) singing Schubert's "Die junge Nonne," D. 828. Luckily for us, we are treated to more of Leonard Hokanson's playing (you heard him yesterday!) in this 1968 recording.  

Arroyo's life and career, like many of the singers and composers featured recently, is difficult to sum up in a few sentences. Born and raised in New York City, Arroyo was exposed to music, art, and dance from an early age. Her mother taught her to play the piano and she enjoyed singing at church and at Hunter College High School. She received a BA from Hunter College in Romance Languages and went on to teach English before becoming a social worker. She managed the workload from her professional life while studying voice, but she felt unsure about music as a profession, partially because of the immense barriers for people of color. Thanks to the encouragement of her teachers and her own perseverance, Arroyo began winning competitions and making inroads, leading to her first appearance at the Met in 1959. After this, Arroyo moved to Europe, performing in smaller roles until the Zurich Opera House cast her as Aida. This role helped establish her as a major player on the international stage, leading up to her 1965 performance as Aida at the Met, when she stepped in to replace Birgit Nilsson. From this point on, she became a regular at the Met, singing a dizzying list of leading roles throughout the repertoire. She also continued her performances in Europe at the major opera houses, and of course around the world on the concert stage. 

In addition to her stellar performance career, Arroyo has been a devoted teacher and patron, serving on the faculties of conservatories and summer institutes around the world and establishing the Martina Arroyo Foundation in 2003.

February 14

Today we have a Valentine from (mezzo) soprano Grace Bumbry! With pianist Leonard Hokanson, she is performing Robert Schumann's "Widmung." The first song from his 26-song opus 25, Myrthen, this cycle was a wedding gift to his wife, the composer and pianist Clara Weick Schumann.

Bumbry, born in 1937, was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. A promising singer from a young age, at age 17 she won a competition awarding her a scholarship to a local conservatory. This school, however, was not integrated and she was refused admission. To try to fix this, the competition arranged for Bumbry to attend Boston University instead. After a few years, she transferred to Northwestern to study with Lotte Lehmann, who she would follow to Music Academy of the West. In 1958 (at age 21), after jointly winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions with Martina Arroyo, her career began to take off. Her next major break came when she was cast as Venus in the 1961 Tannhäuser production at Bayreuth. Her performance was so spectacular that there were 42 curtain calls.

This recording was made just five years later; during the intervening years, she had made her operatic debuts at such houses as Covent Garden, La Scala, the Met, Vienna State Opera, Salzburg and San Francisco Opera.

February 13

In our final day featuring the 20th Anniversary of the African American Art Song Alliance, livestreamed by the Hampsong Foundation, we have the "An Evening Potpourri" concert. The link below will take you to Part 1 (of 3); make sure you click back to the main page to hear the rest of the concert! 

Featured composers include:
Robert Lee Owens
H. T. Burleigh
H. Leslie Adams
John Work, Jr.
Charles Ingram
Richard Thompson
Margaret Bonds
Gregory T. S. Walker
Eugene W. Hancock
Roy Jennings

February 12

Today, again thanks to the Hampsong Foundation's livestream, we continue to share highlights from the 20th Anniversary African American Art Song Alliance! This recital, "Generation Next: Passing the Torch," features songs by a wide range of young composers. You'll hear works by:
Marques L. A. Garrett
Lori Celeste Hicks
Nailah Nombeko
Anthony R. Green
Shawn E. Okpebholo
Dave Ragland
Brandon Spencer
Andre Myers
Brittney Elizabeth Boykin
James Lee III

February 11

Thanks to the performances yesterday at the 20th Anniversary African American Art Song Alliance conference, livestreamed by the Hampsong Foundation, we are featuring an entire recital of songs by composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941)! 

Born in Rochester, New York, Hailstork's education took him first to Howard University, then to Manhattan School of Music (MM), and finally to Michigan State University, where he received his doctorate. Like the composer featured yesterday, Julia Perry, Hailstork also studied with Nadia Boulanger. 

His works, which range from the art songs featured today to works for choir, orchestra, and operas, have been played by such esteemed orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra.

February 10

Today, I have to confess that I'm cheating a little bit. The piece I'm posting isn't actually a 'song'--it's a work for contralto and string orchestra by Julia Perry. This is because, as far as I can tell, her songs have yet to be recorded. However, this piece is striking and I hope it might be the inspiration to someone to seek out more of her work!

Julia Perry (1924-1979) was raised in Akron, Ohio, and educated at Westminster Choir College (BM, 1947; MM, 1948), where she studied composition and conducting. Her further education included a year at the Juilliard School and two summers at Tanglewood, where she was a student of Luigi Dallapiccola. Thanks to two Guggenheim Fellowships, she was able to study with Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger in Europe, winning the Boulanger Grand Prix for her Viola Sonata.

When she returned to the US four years later, her works were performed by such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and the few recordings of her compositions (including the one featured today) were made. However, she suffered a series of debilitating strokes in 1970, and her declining health made further composition difficult--even though she re-taught herself to write with her non-dominant left hand.

Her papers are held at Rider University. For the curious, below is a list of her works for solo voice and piano or small ensemble from the Oxford Dictionary of Music: Deep Sworn Vow, 1v, pf, ?1947; King Jesus Lives, 1v, pf, 1947; To Elektra, 1v, pf, 1947; Lord, What Shall I Do?, spiritual, 1v, pf (1949); By the Sea (Perry), high v, pf (1950); Free at Last, spiritual, high v, pf (1951); I’m a Poor Li’l Orphan in This Worl’, spiritual, medium v, pf (1952); Alleluja (Bible: Matthew xxviii.1, 2, 5, 6), medium v, org, 1954; A Short Service from The Mystic Trumpeter (W. Whitman), T, tpt, 1954; How Beautiful are the Feet (Bible: Isaiah lii.7), medium v, pf/org (1954); Parody (P. Sides), Bar, pf, 1954; Quinary Quixotic Songs (Triptych) (Perry), B-Bar, fl, cl, va, bar bn, pf, 1976; Bicentennial Reflections (Perry), T, 2 cl, 3 perc, elec b gui, 1977; 5 Songs, Mez, str qt, by 1977; 7 Contrasts (?7 Songs), Bar, chbr orch


February 9

Today, the wonderful coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs singing the last two movements of Joaquín Rodrigo's "Cuatro madrigales amatorios."

Dobbs (1925-2015) was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a well-connected, civic-minded family. Her father insisted on seven years of piano instruction and college for his daughters, so her early musical education consisted of piano lessons and choral singing, and she went on to Spelman College with the aim of studying fashion design. She was shy and couldn't imagine a career as a soloist, but thanks to the encouragement of her professors, she wound up majoring in Spanish and Music.

After graduating from Spelman, Dobbs' father encouraged her to move to New York to continue her vocal studies. While doing so, she also completed a Master's degree in Spanish at Columbia. During this time, as a student of Lotte Leonard, she spent summers at Tanglewood, and won a number of awards and fellowships--which, in turn, allowed her to move to Europe to study with Pierre Bernac.

Though her initial work in Europe was that of a recitalist, early competition success propelled her into the opera and festival circuit. She was the first black artist to sing at La Scala, as Elvira in "L'italiana in Algeri," and press from those performances hailed her as "the outstanding coloratura of her generation." She was also the first African-American to have a long-term contract at the Metropolitan Opera, performing such roles as Zerbinetta, Lucia, and Oscar over her eight seasons there.

The recording chosen for today is in homage to her academic studies, and provides contrast to the languages and composers featured until now. It is from a recital Dobbs gave on July 23, 1955, in Sydney, Australia, with pianist Raymond Lambert. Dobbs did not make many recordings, and it is perhaps due to this that her career is less famous today than some of her contemporaries. Still, there are many wonderful examples of her voice to be heard on Youtube, and I urge you to explore them all!

February 8

If it was difficult to sum up the accomplishments of the singers of previous days, any attempt to condense Paul Robeson's biography into something short enough to post here is nearly impossible. 

Robeson (1898-1976) was not just a strikingly beautiful singer, but a lawyer, athlete, actor, orator, political activist, author, and scholar. The National Archives begins their short biography of him with this paragraph:
"How many people do you know who are athletes? How about an athlete who has won 15 varsity letters in four different sports? An athlete who has also played professional football while at the same time being valedictorian at his university? Does this athlete also hold a law degree? How many scholar-athlete performers can you name? Concert artists who have sold out shows around the world and who can perform in more than 25 different languages? Does this scholar-athlete-performer also act in Shakespearean and Broadway plays and in movies? Can you identify a scholar-athlete-performer who is also an activist for civil and human rights? Someone who petitioned the president of the United States of America for an anti-lynching law, promoted African self-rule, helped victims of the Spanish civil war, fought for India's independence, and championed equality for all human beings? Did this scholar-athlete-performer-activist also have to endure terrorism, banned performances, racism, and discrimination throughout his career?"

The recording presented today is from Robeson's May 9, 1958, recital at Carnegie Hall. This concert, with collaborative pianist Alan Booth (a distinguished, ground-breaking artist in his own right), was Robeson's first appearance in such a hall since he had been prevented by the State Department from performing due to what they considered seditious behavior. On the recital, he programmed works from art song to opera to spirituals. We have chosen Mussorgsky's Сиротка/Orphan, but if you would like to hear more, you can find other songs from his performance on Youtube or purchase the CD

Read more about Robeson here, here, and here

February 7

One of the most exciting aspects of finding a song to post each day is discovering singers, pianists, and composers with whom I was previously unfamiliar. Today is one such composer, Karl Weigl, with songs performed by the mezzo-soprano Betty Allen and pianist David Garvey.

Weigl (1881-1949) was a Viennese composer, exiled to America with his wife (also a composer, pianist, and music therapist) after the rise of the Third Reich. He studied with Zemlinsky and Mahler, and was a classmate of Webern. As a teacher, his notable students included Ernst Bacon. Indeed, Weigl's influence on Bacon seems obvious from listening to just these songs. From his biography:
"His works were published by Universal Edition, Schott, Edition Strache, and others. Prominent conductors―among them Ferdinand Löwe, Franz Nedbal, Franz Schreker, Robert Schulz-Dornburg, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Robert Heger, and George Szell―performed his orchestra works; the Rosé, Kolbe, Gottesmann, Havemann, Busch, and Sedlak-Winkler String Quartets took his chamber works into their repertoires; Ignaz Friedman premiered his Piano Concerto; and luminous singers such as Hanna Schwarz and Elisabeth Schumann sang his Lieder."
Despite his prominence in Europe before WWII, Weigl's life was difficult in America, and he and his wife died in poverty, relatively unknown.

Allen's career took off during a summer at Tanglewood, when Bernstein selected her to sing in his "Jeremiah Symphony" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, she was raised in eastern Ohio, near Youngstown, in a steel mill town. After her mother died at an early age from cancer, her father's grief and instability prompted Allen to leave home. However, she had been bitten by the opera bug at an early age:
“The families on my street were mostly Sicilian and Greek. On Saturday, walking down the street, you could hear the Met broadcasts coming from the windows of everybody’s house. No one told them that opera and the arts were not for them, not for poor people, just for rich snobs.”
Thanks to her brilliance, drive, and determination, she received a scholarship to Wilberforce College, the Hartford School of Music, and eventually to Tanglewood.
Allen's performance career was perhaps less storied than, say, Leontyne Price's. Perhaps this is because she was forced to stop much of her singing by the 1970s, due to chronic lung problems from exposure to the steel mills in her youth. However, she stayed active as a teacher, adjudicator, and advocate, shaping the lives of generations of American singers to come. Read more about her in this New York Times obituary.

February 6

Today, Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber performing the fifth of his Hermit Songs, "The Crucifixion," in the cycle's premiere at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1953.

Price, a native of Mississippi, began her musical education at an early age. Her doting parents sacrificed much to provide the best instruction for her--even trading in their phonograph as a down payment on a piano when Price was just five. As a teenager, Price played the piano for choruses at church and school, and had the life-changing opportunity to see Marian Anderson perform. Thanks to her immense talent, hard work, and the support of her community, Price was able to attend the Juilliard School after graduating from Ohio's Central State University. Her move to New York was the beginning of her ascent to stardom: in short order she was performing throughout America and Europe as Bess in the revival of "Porgy and Bess," and it was thanks to this that she became the first African-American to sing with the Met (at a fundraiser on Broadway in April 1953, six months before the Hermit Songs premiere, and two years before her Marian Anderson would become the first African-American to sing at the Met itself).

There is hardly enough room to recount the breadth, depth, and meaning of Leontyne Price's remarkable life and career. Even a biography as short and cursory as that on Wikipedia recounts numerous "firsts" and provides a dizzying list of accomplishments.

February 5

Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) was an incredibly accomplished composer and pianist, equally talented in both fields. A native of Chicago, she was raised in a musical household and began composing at the age of five. During her earlier years, she was a composition pupil of Florence Price (whose "Night" we heard earlier this week), was the first African-American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and performed Price's piano concerto with the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University and establishing a teaching studio (where she taught a young Ned Rorem!), she moved to New York. During this time, she lived in Harlem, becoming close friends with the poet Langston Hughes. 

Today's song is a setting of the Hughes poem "The Negro Sings of Rivers," performed here by Robert Honeysucker (read more here!) and Vivian Taylor. Legend has it that when Bonds applied to study with Nadia Boulanger, she brought this piece. Upon reviewing it, Boulanger reportedly told Bonds she needed no further guidance, and would not accept her as a student. However, Bonds' first exposure to this poem came many years earlier, when she was a student at Northwestern University. Northwestern was not a welcoming place; though she was accepted as a student, she was not allowed to live in the dormitories or use campus facilities.
"I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place--I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and I'm sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem he [Langston Hughes] tells how great the black man is: And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have--here you are in a setup where the restaurants won't serve you and you're going to college, you're sacrificing, trying to get through school--and I know that poem helped save me." 

Bonds worked tirelessly to promote the work of African-American artists, forming the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society, joining the National Association of Negro Musicians, and teaching piano and composition to young people from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles.

 

February 4

Today, February 4, is all American! American composer, American singer, American poet! 

Adele Addison and Aaron Copland perform his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson in this 1964 recording, made late in her career, which also featured his "In the Beginning" (one of my favorite pieces!) and his Old American Songs. 

Though Addison sang in many important opera houses, her career was more focused on song and concert work than on opera. She was a champion of new music, performing the premieres of many important works by composers including Copland, Lukas Foss, and Francis Poulenc. Another devoted teacher, later in her life she helped shape the lives and careers of many young students--including Dawn Upshaw (heard in a few previous Songs of the Day). Today, this doyenne of American song is 91 years old--turning 92 in July!  

She shared some thoughts on her career and on Art Song with Opera News in 1996: "Today, young singers are almost forced to make a choice, because they are counseled that becoming established in opera is the way to make a career in music. I never had to make a choice. I loved the song repertoire from the start, and as I began to sing, for even the smallest ladies' clubs, etc., those inviting me expected and accepted that.... Even as the years passed, and I sang all the rest of the repertoire – opera, oratorio, chamber music, etc. – the first love remained.... My curiosity, joy and love for song never changed. It still has not."

 

February 3

Today we present Shirley Verrett and Geoffrey Parsons, performing the first of Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge, "Denn es geht dem Menschen" in concert, 1983. Verrett is undoubtedly most famous for her illustrious operatic career, which spanned both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles and brought her in starring roles to every prominent opera theater around the globe. However, she was also a devoted recitalist, and there are wonderful recordings of these performances--including this one!

What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Verrett achieved such greatness despite the discrimination that she faced. In one famous incident, she was forced to turn down an engagement with Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony after the board refused to allow an African-American soloist to perform the the orchestra. 

In addition to her performing career, Verrett was a devoted teacher and cared deeply about protecting the rights and opportunities of all. We leave you with these words from a speech given at the University of Michigan, where she taught beginning in 1996: "Not all of you who come through these portals will become major opera singers or renowned scholars. However, every one of you should leave this university as an educated person . . . I have now come to believe specializing too early is counter-productive and can stunt your growth. I have heard many a voice professor talk about "the voice" as if it were detached from the physical body, the emotions, and especially the mind. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Your mind is your greatest asset. . . My mother, Elvira Verrett, always told my brothers, sister and me to "learn everything you can because you'll never know when you will need it. . . ." You may face your own moral crisis where your personal development or views may place you in conflict with those of your family, your friends, or "tradition." I can't advise you how to handle such a dilemma should it arise, however I can encourage you to be honest in your reflections. But don't let the fear of rejection slow down your intellectual curiosity or your personal development." For more information about her remarkable life, see her autobiography "I Never Walked Alone" and her website.


February 2

Today, Florence Beatrice Price's breathtaking "Night." 

Though Price is perhaps best known for her orchestral works, her vocal writing is no less beautiful. This is just one small example of her output, and if you are curious to learn more about her, we would suggest this short introduction:


Followed by this excellent, hour-long radio broadcast from WQXR.

February 1

We got so caught up in Poulenc and Éluard yesterday that we missed Schubert's birthday, 1/31! I can't say how Schubert feels about the subject, but I know I appreciate a good belated birthday wish--it keeps the celebration going! So here's hoping Schubert won't mind either.

Now comes the difficult part: how does one pick a single composition when you have so many hundreds to choose from? Perhaps "Sehnsucht," D. 879 will do. As Johann Seidel's poem begins, we are in a small room, looking up at the night sky. The piano part hurries along despite this stasis, with figuration that sounds more like a galloping horse than the melancholy of longing. Perhaps Schubert brings us the racing thoughts and pacing feet of someone trapped, someone who cannot bring himself to sing. And yet in acknowledging this, a song emerges: "Dann fühl' ich, daß ich singen darf."

Performed here by Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier (on fortepiano!):


January 31
Today we feature Francis Poulenc's "Tu vois le feu du soir," performed here by Pierre Bernac and the composer. Poulenc's setting of surrealist Paul Éluard's poetry comes from a cycle of two songs, "Miroir brûlants," written in 1938. In this first song, we travel from empty, perfect nature to the nature of humanity: perfect stones, gilded towns, and malicious, immaculate brothers. Are they the 'animals' Éluard references?


For past Songs of the Day, see the Sparks & Wiry Cries Facebook page.

Login |