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ClassicsOnline Home » DREAMER: A PORTRAIT OF LANGSTON HUGHES
By Robert Baxter
Langston Hughes and Music
The composer Elie Siegmeister once declared of Langston
Hughes (1902-1967) that he was the “most musical poet of the twentieth
century”. True or false, this judgement underscores the unquestionable facts
that much of Hughes’s poetry lends itself fairly readily to musical setting,
and that, for Hughes, music was perhaps the primary inspiration, other than the
history and culture of African-Americans in general, for his writing.
In the early 1920s, before the blossoming of the Harlem
Renaissance, the young poet turned away from traditional verse and boldly
linked his literary art to jazz and the blues. His first volume of verse,
appropriately enough, was The Weary Blues (1926). The result of this fusion was
a new kind of poetry that formed the foundation of Hughes’s later literary
career and inspired eventually a new approach to writing by
African-Americans. However, also
starting in the 1920s, Hughes lovingly created a body of lyrical poems that
appealed consistently to musicians both white and black, and led to the
composition of art songs, cantatas, and even operas. This breadth of interest and appeal was typical of Langston
Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes grew up in
Lawrence, Kansas. He spent a year in Lincoln, Illinois, and then attended high
school in Cleveland, Ohio. In high school, between 1916 and 1920, he published
verse and short stories. In the 1920s he lived in or travelled to Mexico, New
York City (where he briefly attended Columbia University), Africa, France, and
Italy. In New York, he helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance with two books of
verse, a novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), and an essay, The Negro Artist and
the Racial Mountain (1926), that became the manifesto of the younger black
In the 1930s, swinging far to the left politically, he spent
a year in the Soviet Union as his poetry shifted away from lyricism to
propagandistic forms urging class consciousness and revolution. With the onset of World War II, however,
Hughes patriotically supported the war effort and his poetry returned to
earlier themes and forms. About this time he began to develop an interest in
writing song lyrics. None of his songs was a huge success, but he was ready in
1946 when Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice invited him to join them as lyricist on
their development of a musical version of Rice’s 1929 prizewinning play, Street
Following the success of Street Scene on Broadway in 1947,
which brought Hughes the first financial windfall of his career, his work began
to attract even more musicians. These included African-American composers such
as Margaret Bonds and William Grant Still. Bonds set to music several of
Hughes’s poems, including his signature piece from 1921, The Negro Speaks of
Rivers. William Grant Still collaborated with him on the opera Troubled Island,
based on a play by Hughes about the revolution that led to the foundation of
the black republic of Haiti. The opera had its première, to mixed reviews, in
1949 in New York City.
White musicians also found Hughes’s words compelling.
Perhaps Hughes’s closest relationship as a librettist was with the German-born
immigrant composer Jan Meyerowitz. Together they worked on The Barrier, based
on Hughes’s 1935 Broadway play Mulatto, a tragedy on the theme of miscegenation
in the South. The Barrier enjoyed excellent reviews but then failed miserably
on Broadway in 1950. Other collaborations between the two men include the opera
Esther, inspired by the Bible, which was first performed in 1958 in Boston.
Later, Hughes joined David Amram to produce their cantata Let Us Remember.
Commissioned for a convention of Reformed Judaism, the piece was first
performed in 1965 by a 150-voice chorus and the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.
Hughes was proud of these collaborations even though his
main interest in music remained tied to the blues and jazz and, in the last
years of his life, gospel. He virtually invented the gospel musical play, in
which a limited story-line links performances of stirring gospel songs by
accomplished singers. He enjoyed critical as well as commercial success with
works such as The Prodigal Son and, especially, Black Nativity. The latter was
perhaps conceived by Hughes as a deliberate counterpart to Gian Carlo Menotti’s
own Christmas classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
From popular forms to the more demanding jazz and classical
repertoires, Langston Hughes found inspiration in the work of musicians. He
sought to learn from them and to work with them whenever he could. He himself
knew little about the technical aspect of music. He could not read music,
played no instrument, and could not sing in any attractive way. Nevertheless,
he adored music and took pride in the fascination that his poems and plays
inspired in composers and performers.
Dr. Arnold Rampersad
Robert Lee Owens is a native of Denison Texas, where he was
born in 1925. After a public school education in Berkeley, California, he went
to Paris, working for four years as a piano student of Alfred Cortot. Although
he has had several academic positions in the United States, he has been
particularly active throughout Europe, and moved to Munich in 1962.
Heart is the first of five songs within Heart on the Wall,
written by 1968. The style is totally tonal, with triads coloured by sevenths
and sixths. Published in Munich, the text is offered in both English and
John Musto was born in Brooklyn in 1954. He attended the
Manhattan School of Music where he was a piano student of Seymour Lipkin,
working subsequently with Paul Jacobs. In addition to his major career as a
pianist, he has secured many prestigious awards as a composer of vocal music,
an area in which he is self-taught.
Shadow of the Blues, a cycle of four songs, is represented
here by the second and third of the set. The first, Silhouette, relates to a
lynching, the second, Litany, to love for those rejected, and the last, for a
missed opportunity with love. Island is metrically complex, with a
perpetual-motion figure in the pianist’s right hand, to be played “fast and
William Grant Still (1895-1978) is one of the most esteemed
of all African American composers. One of his cultural heroes was Samuel
Coleridge-Taylor, the brilliant Afro-British composer whose three visits to the
United States helped lay the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance. A young
Still wished to imitate Coleridge-Taylor, even attempting to train his hair to
grow in a similar fashion. His mother’s hopes for her son’s professional career
lost out in his college days to his ardent love of music. He had a variety of
experiences by 1930, including editorial work for W. C. Handy, arranging for
jazz ensembles, and performance as a pit musician. This was the year that he
addressed the goals of the Harlem Renaissance by the idealisation of the
folkloric with his first symphony.
Hale Smith was born in Cleveland in 1925. Before his move to
New York in 1958, he supplemented his education at the Cleveland Institute of
Music with rich experiences that provided the background for his work in New
York as a music editor. His greatest mark has been as a totally professional
composer, capable of working with serial techniques, writing his own texts,
arranging jazz tunes, or composing jingles.
Beyond the rim of day is a cycle of three songs, set to
Hughes texts in 1950. The work is dedicated to Gladys Tiff, who gave the set
its première at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, with which Smith had been active in
earlier days. The first of the three is March Moon, readily designed for an
accomplished singer, posing challenges of meter and range.
Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) secured her musical
education in her native Chicago and at the Juilliard School, counting among her
teachers Roy Harris, William Dawson, and Florence Price. In turn, she was one
of Ned Rorem’s first teachers. Her career was launched quickly in both
composition and performance. She received a Wanamaker award before she was
twenty and was soon after engaged in solo piano recitals, as part of a duo
piano team, as vocal accompanist, and as a concerto soloist.
Throughout her life, she was engaged in composition, but
several of her most frequently performed works come quite early in her life.
Minstrel Man is the first song of Three Dream Portraits and was written when
she was only nineteen. The Negro Speaks of Rivers was composed only three years
later. Hughes was also only nineteen when he wrote the latter poem. The irony
of the former is suggested initially by a carefree, though melancholy melody
and rhythm that are transformed into sadness as the text reveals its truth.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s love of theatre, music, and dance was
largely nurtured at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he became a frequent
visitor starting at the age of eight in 1964. This interest has been manifested
by his output of compositions, a large number of which are vocal, and of these,
more than two dozen employ texts by Langston Hughes. A series of these were
staged by a vocal quartet, two dancers, and orchestra in 2001 as Only Heaven, a
memorial tribute to Gordon’s companion.
Florence Price (1888-1953) came from Little Rock. She
studied at the New England Conservatory and in Chicago where she spent much of
her adult life. Several historic events took place as she neared mid-career. In
1932, her first symphony won the Wanamaker award and the next year, Frederick
Stock conducted this work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (as part of the
World’s Fair events). Her songs entered into the repertoires of such artists as
Roland Hayes, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, and Hilda Harris.
Less than a month before the death of William Grant Still,
music lost Howard Swanson. He had been born in Atlanta in 1907, but moved with
his parents in 1916 to Cleveland. He saved enough money to enroll at the
Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with Ward Lewis and Herbert
Elwell. A grant made it possible for him to continue his studies with Nadia
Boulanger in France, but this was terminated by the Nazi invasion. Swanson left
Paris by foot, leaving his music behind, one day before the city fell to the
Nazis. It took him over a year of travels through Spain and Portugal to make
his way back to the United States.
Swanson was virtually unknown until Marian Anderson included
his setting of The Negro Speaks of Rivers at Carnegie Hall in 1949, and then
the New York Critic’s Circle decided American composers were now well enough
advanced that they could bestow their annual award on a local composer. Swanson
was selected, and his Short Symphony was acclaimed the best new work performed
in New York during the 1950-51 season. It was during this period that Joy was
composed, soon becoming known by the recordings of Helen Thigpen, and of
Phalese Tassie, and often performed by baritone Ben Holt.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was branded as an entartete
(degenerate) composer the same year the Nazis came to power, and he was also
Jewish. He moved quickly to Paris, then London, and in 1935 to the United
States. He continued to write operatic social commentaries, with the flavors of
jazz and popular songs, using the techniques of the times, including atonality
and polytonality. He secured great success with Lost in the Stars (1949, after
Cry the Beloved Country), Lady in the Dark (with Moss Hart), and Die
Dreigroschenoper (1928, known as The Threepenny Opera with Marc Blitzstein’s
Street Scene dates from 1946, and employs a text by Hughes
and Elmer Rice. Lonely House is a lament of solitude. A riff that appears in
the piano, before the monotonous line that starts the vocal part, unifies the
piece. The reiterated figure that drones through the opening returns in the
last moments of the song.
Harriette Davison (1923-1978) was trained as a violinist at
the Oberlin Conservatory, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Columbia
University. She was a member of the Harlem Symphony and the Symphony of the New
World, in both instances joining her husband, Julius Burton Watkins, a horn
player who had extensive work in jazz on horn and trumpet.
From Hughes’ Fields of Wonder (1947) comes In Time of Silver
Rain, set here in harmonies often based on a fourth.
Jean Berger, born in Germany in 1909, came to the United
States in 1941, following work in his native country, France, and Brazil as
opera and choral conductor. While
on the faculty of the University of Colorado (1961-1968), he established his
own John Sheppard Music Press, although other firms have also published his
Four Songs, using Hughes texts, come from 1951. Carolina
Cabin is the third of these and follows Berger’s determination only to write
tonal music. In a quasi-strophic setting, the opening piano figure migrates to
the bass and returns to introduce the brief second verse.
From Hughes’ The Dream Keeper comes Lovely Dark and Lonely
One, set by Harry Burleigh in 1934. The composer had been a voice student at
the National Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Christian Fritsch.
His association with Antonín Dvorˇák provided the stimulus for a major
career as vocal composer, both of totally original works and of settings of the
spirituals. As music editor subsequently, he secured publication of these
essays, which he featured in his own performances. At the same time, he
provided repertoire for recitals by others, such as Marian Anderson, Paul
Robeson, and Roland Hayes in the Harlem Renaissaance, and even for Ezio Pinza,
Nelson Eddy, and Herbert Witherspoon. For 52 years, Burleigh was baritone
soloist at New York’s St George’s Church and for almost half that time, sang on
Saturdays at Temple Emanu-El (often performing his setting of Deep River in
Erik Santos and Darryl Taylor met while they were both
engaged in graduate studies at the University of Michigan. When Darryl Taylor
first heard one of his works, he was resolved that, in time, he would
commission a work for his performance. That resulted in the cycle, Dreamer, the
composer’s initial essay for voice. It received its first performance at New
York City’s Merkin Concert Hall in January 2001, with the pair joined by
harpist Patricia Terry Ross.
The first of the five songs in Dreamer cautions that the
Sandman “abroad each night, has a dream in his sack to fit each child just
right”, while the undulating bass of the piano plays against figures in the
harp that reflect either the piano or voice lines. Bound No’th Blues is a
deploration of a weary and lonely traveler whose complaints appear over
syncopated obstinate patterns, with the harp joining in the middle section
(“slow, sultry swing”), and offering after-beats for the restatement of the
initial idea. The third song, To Artina, is a passionate declaration of
consuming love, expressed with great intensity. Down where I am is marked
“dark, tough blues, really drag the beat” and obligates percussive activity
from the pianist, with the final measures to be improvised by the singer in
blues style. The cycle ends with The Dream Keeper. Interspersed among the five
songs are two additional poems, Birth and Bouquet, spoken by the singer.
Dr. Dominique-René DeLerma
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DREAMER: A PORTRAIT OF LANGSTON HUGHES