Robust Americana: Hampson Explores Chicago Art Song

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Baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang have recorded unfamiliar songs by composers who lived in Chicago, including three who created musical settings of poems by Langston Hughes. (Cedille Records photo)
By Paul E. Robinson

Songs From Chicago. Music by Ernst Bacon, Florence Price, John Alden Carpenter, Margaret Bonds, and Louis Campbell-Tipton. Thomas Hampson, baritone. Kuang-Hao Huang, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 180. Total Time: 60:31.

DIGITAL REVIEW – At the age of 63, the great American baritone Thomas Hampson shows no sign of slowing down, nor does he give any indication that he has lost interest in musical exploration, having recently taken on, to stellar reviews, the lead role in the controversial new opera Hadrian by Rufus Wainwright premiered in Toronto by the Canadian Opera Company.

Hampson sings songs tied to Chicago, including forgotten gems.

In this new Cedille recording, Songs From Chicago, Hampson turns his attention to mostly unfamiliar songs by composers who lived in Chicago at one time or another, giving magnificent voice to music that is exceptionally thoughtful and beautiful.

Although there are five composers represented on this new CD, nine of the 23 songs are by one man, John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), who in 1906 had the distinction of being one of the few composition students of Edward Elgar in Rome. Carpenter lived most of his life in Chicago, earning his living not in music but in business, as vice-president of the family ship supply business for 27 years.

Langston Hughes, muse to Chicago composers (Carl Van Vechten)

Three of the five composers featured on this disc set to music works by innovative black poet and activist Langston Hughes, an outspoken opponent of segregation, whose radical views led him to embrace communism and support the Soviet Union.

One of them, Carpenter, set to music some of Hughes’ non-political poems, adding rhythmic elements and blue notes typical of early jazz music to the poetry, which is already jazzy in spirit. Carpenter shows a real understanding of the sadness and despair of poor black people expressed in this poetry. On this recording, Hampson sings three of the Four Negro Songs.  

The other Carpenter composition on the CD is the cycle of six songs, titled Gitanjali, or Song Offering, based on poems by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), for which Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Gitanjali is based on poems about blue sky and water, children playing, and death lurking nearby.

J.A. Carpenter, b.1876, set Tagore, lent Hughes some blue notes.
(Seyffert, National Portrait Gallery)

Carpenter’s score often evokes rippling waters in the piano accompaniment, and the long melodic lines suggest lengthy hot days by the seashore. It is playful music for the most part, but the composer plumbs greater depths in “On the Seashore of Endless Worlds,” in which children playing on the beach are oblivious to “death-dealing waves.” Carpenter’s music captures both the innocence of the children and the threatening nature of the waves. The Gitanjali cycle opens with a spoken Prologue (Credo) and finishes with a spoken Epilogue. All in all, this fine tribute to Tagore is one of Carpenter’s best works.

Two of the other composers represented on the disc are not widely known to the classical audience, though one of them  is currently experiencing a revival of interest. Florence Price (1887-1953), whose Symphony No. 1 in E minor was performed in 1932 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has the distinction of being the first African-American woman to have had an orchestral piece played by a major American orchestra. This work, along with her Symphony No. 4 in D minor (Naxos 8559827), was recently recorded by John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony. Next season Riccardo Muti will conduct performances of her Symphony No. 3 with the Chicago Symphony.

Florence Price, b. 1887 (G. Nelidoff, Rosenthal Archives)

On this new Cedille CD, Hampson sings Price’s “Songs to the Dark Virgin” and “My Dream,” both with texts by Hughes; unfortunately, Price’s gentle and attractive music gives little hint of the bitterness of Hughes’ words.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a student of Price in both piano and composition. She appeared as soloist in a performance of Price’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in 1933. Like Price, Bonds was attracted to the work of Hughes and set to music several of his poems. In fact, Bonds also set “My Dream” to music, in a more thoughtful and probing composition, using unusual register and harmonic changes to underline the poet’s unsettling words. Bonds’ setting of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is also memorable for its effective use of heavy bass chords in the accompaniment.

Ernst Bacon, b. 1898, prolific, drawn to Whitman. (ernstbacon.org)

Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) was born in Chicago, studied at Northwestern and at the University of Chicago, but spent most of his career in musical positions elsewhere. Bacon wrote more than 250 songs, and he was particularly drawn to the poetry of Walt Whitman.

On this CD, Hampson sings seven of Bacon’s Whitman songs, all of them philosophical in nature and often dealing with the big, basic questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our destiny? The poet Whitman asks more questions than he answers and leaves us with a potpourri of concepts culled from many different religions. Composer Bacon captures Whitman’s spiritual curiosity extraordinarily well in varied and compelling music that never overwhelms the words.

Campbell-Tipton, b. 1877, remarkable
and all but unknown. (Cedille Records)

Louis Campbell-Tipton (1877-1921) was the least successful of all the composers represented on this CD. Born in Chicago, he studied with Carl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatory, lived the rest of his life in Paris, and died at the age of 44, apparently discouraged about never being successful in music in his own country. Like Bacon, Campbell-Tipton was attracted to Whitman’s poetry. The “Elegy” is taken from Whitman’s larger work “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” written in 1865 as an elegy for President Lincoln. (Paul Hindemith composed a musical setting in 1946 as a requiem for President Roosevelt.)

Campbell-Tipton’s “Elegy” is a beautifully crafted piece of work, ingeniously conflating the warble of a thrush and the rattle of a snare drum in the accompaniment.

This is a fine collection of nearly-forgotten Americana, and the performances by Hampson and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang could hardly be better. The baritone is a tireless champion of American song through recordings such as this one and through the Hampsong Foundation which he created in 2003.  The Hampsong website is a vast treasure-trove of master classes, song texts and translations, in-depth studies of the songs of Mahler, and much more.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for  La Scena Musicale (www.myscena.org.)

Margaret Bonds , b. 1876, performed Price’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony in 1933. She also created her own settings of Langston Hughes poems, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” (Van Vechten)

1 COMMENT

  1. As Ernst Bacon’s widow, I received a complimentary copy of this marvelous CD from Thomas Hampson, whom I had the pleasure and honor tof meeting at Glimmerglass this past summer. Thomas is a big fan of Bacon, and they both share a deep affinity for Walt Whitman, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this spring. Hampson wrote the foreword in Victoria Villamil’s book, “A Singer’s Guide to American Art Song, 1870-1980,” in which the author writes: “In his settings of Walt Whitman, Bacon perfectly matches the amplitude, mystery, vision, and challenging exuberance of the grand poet, who in his free-wheeling celebration of
    America, the common man, life, and the unknown, was surely Bacon’s soul-mate.” Ernst Bacon also composed a 46-minute oratorio with an all-Whitman text, “By Blue Ontario,” for SATB chorus, baritone and mezzo solos, and orchestra. It can be heard on youtube in a live performance from 1969, Bacon was best known for his settings of Ermily Dickinson, in which he was a pioneer. According to Villamil, “Bacon mey well be her best interpreter. Comfortable with the Amherst spinster’s quirks and sensibilities, amazingly his virile, forthright, expansive voice never overwhelms her delicate, cryptic, economic verse.” A few years ago Martha Guth gave a wonderful recital of 34 Dickinson settings, 14 of which were composed by Ernst Bacon. Thomas Hampson has also recorded a number of Bacon’s Dickinson settings for his WFMT and Library of Congress “Songs of America” project.
    Ellen Bacon, president, The Ernst Bacon Society (www.ernstbacon.org)

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