Just So You Know, You’re Missing Something
by Melissa Wimbish
I just realized that my repertoire list does not include one single work by an African-American composer or feature any poetry by an African-American poet. At least, not that I can recall. Although there are many first-rate contributions from African-Americans in the field of composition, these works are not yet part of the standard repertoire assigned to students, performed in recital, or available on recording by several different artists. Are non-African-American singers afraid they will be admonished if they perform these works because this music “doesn’t belong to them”? Are African-American singers weary of appearing “too proud of being black”? Folks, (channeling my inner Obama) I think we have reached that mountaintop! Are you ready to get started?
Here are some suggestions by voice type based on a teeny tiny eensy beensy bit of exploring I completed:
Are there any sopranos in the house? I have never heard this piece, but the description alone has me convinced. Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra composed by George Walker, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1996! The text by Walt Whitman recalls the assassination of President Lincoln. I cannot wait to get my hands on this recording. From what I read it sounds like it could be sung by a soprano or tenor, but I am not absolutely sure; it was definitely premiered by a soprano.
Although the Songs for Leontyne are not written by an African-American composer, they pay homage to one of the most important singers of our time, as well as one of the pioneers for equality in the field of opera and classical singing, Ms. Leontyne Price. Here is a great clip of the diva singing probably the most famous piece from this set by Lee Hoiby.
Coloratura sopranos should check out Robert Owens’ song cycle Heart on the Wall, Op. 14 featuring five elegant pieces originally composed for the coloratura Mattiwilda Dobbs. I stumbled upon an absurdly thorough (that’s a compliment) research project exploring the song cycles of Mr. Owens including musical and poetic analyses as well as historical anecdotes here.The poetry of Langston Hughes is the bones of this set.
Desire, Op. 13, for the tenor voice is another set by Owens. “In this cycle,” Jaime Reimer explains in the excellent essay I just referenced that, “Hughes and Owens explore themes of sexual content without emotional intimacy, shattered dreams, unfulfilled promises and the unwanted wisdom of maturity.” Wow, sounds like Mr. Owens was dead on in assigning this to the tenors. Among other works to consider, although I don’t know that they are limited to the tenor repertory, include John W. Work III’s “Dusk at Sea,” and “Soliloquy,” I was able to find recordings of both and really enjoyed listening. His style reminds me of Barber, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff all mixed together. Delicious! Sadly, the sheet music is out of print, but can likely be found at a library or through interlibrary loan as suggested by Art Song Alliance.
For beloved middle voices, baritones and mezzos, Three Dream Portraits was composed in 1959 by Margaret Bonds (pictured above) another child prodigy who completed her first work by the age of five. Here is a great description of the pieces from an online reference: “In these songs Bonds employed the various musical languages she had mastered–traditional classical styles, jazz, and pop–in order to explore the complex inner lives of the poetic protagonists [Langston] Hughes created.” (Click here for source) I have also found evidence of these pieces being suitable for tenor voice.
Florence B. Price’s setting of “Night,” to the poetry of Louise C. Wallace sounds like it could be sung by a higher voice successfully, but the lower parts are so luscious! Go for it mezzos!
William Grant Still’s “Plain Chant for America” is an epic piece. I heard these from a tenor and they were great, but they were originally composed for baritone. I hate to say back off to the tenors since these songs need to be performed, so I won’t at this time.
Songs of Separation also by William Grant Still features five songs for baritone or mezzo-soprano, “Idolatry,” “Poème,” “Parted,” “If You Should Go,” and “A Black Pierrot.” All but one piece features the poetry of African-American poets. This is one of the most incredible cycles I have ever heard! I can’t believe I didn’t know about it! If you can sing it, you must or you are a criminal.
When I set out on this venture 6 and ½ hours ago, I didn’t realize how much monumentally gorgeous music I have been missing! I hope this inspires at least a few people to explore some different repertoire and poetry from our beautifully diverse American culture. Auf Wiedersehen!
Melissa Wimbish is one of the founders and directors of Operagasm.com. You can learn more about Melissa under the ‘About Us’ tab on the top of the page. Her article will be featured on Operagasm.com every Monday. Melissa welcomes you to comment on her article or email her privately at firstname.lastname@example.org