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An American Songbook: Marilyn Horne
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864), arr. David MATTHEWS Jeanie with the light brown hair [4:17]
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864), arr. Colin MATTHEWS Beautiful Dreamer [3:33]
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864), arr. David CULLEN If you’ve only got a moustache [3:01]
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864), arr. David CULLEN Camptown Races [2:14]
Traditional, arr. Carl DAVIS Sometimes I feel like a motherless child [4:40]
Traditional, arr. Carl DAVIS I’ve just come from the fountain [1:27]
Alfred MALOTTE, arr. Carl DAVIS The Lord’s Prayer [3:53]
Traditional, arr. Carl DAVIS Shenandoah [3:06]
Traditional, arr. David MATTHEWS Billy Boy [1:48]
Traditional, arr. Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Five Songs from ‘Old American Songs’ [12:10]
George M. COHAN (1878-1942), arr. Carl DAVIS You’re a grand old flag [3:44]
Traditional, arr. David MATTHEWS When Johnny comes marching home [2:00]
Irving BERLIN (1888-1989), arr. Carl DAVIS God Bless America [3:01]
Alfred BRYAN (1871-1958)/Al PIANTADOSI (1884-1955), arr. Carl DAVIS I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier [2:20]
Traditional, arr. Carl DAVIS Battle Hymn of the Republic [3:53]
Marilyn Horne (mezzo)
Osian Ellis, harp (Jeanie with the light brown hair)
Ambrosian Singers
English Chamber Orchestra/Carl Davis
Recorded at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in August, 1985. DDD
ELOQUENCE 476 2743 [60:01]


America has been home to many of the great songsmiths throughout its history. Long before the birth of either jazz or rock & roll there were Americans creating a distinctly American sound. This collection of songs, performed by Marilyn Horne (b. 1934), is largely taken from the pre-jazz era. Included are the works of Stephen Foster, the first great American songwriter, as well as several Spirituals and very early Broadway songs.

These arrangements tend to be uncomplicated which helps to highlight the simple beauty of the melodies. "Jeanie with the light brown hair", for instance, has Ms. Horne accompanied only by harp. On most of the album the chamber orchestra and piano offer solid support to the vocals. The brass are used largely for fanfares and interludes. The chorus is seldom given the lead, though they perform commendably when given opportunity.

Ms. Horne’s performances on the majority of these songs are very well done. Her voice is a powerful force, and though many of these works are normally considered children’s songs today, she takes the performance of them very seriously. However her affected accent for the Spirituals, though appropriate to performance, sounds falsified. "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" is one of the most moving works in American musical literature, but her insistence on a phony accent hurts the performance markedly. It is even more evident when compared to the chorus, who do not change their enunciation to match hers. Also among the disappointments on the album is the song "Billy Boy", which is simply not arranged well. Either her voice is perhaps too heavy for the arrangement or she is over-singing. Regardless of the reason, the exclusion of this particular track would improve the overall album.

Conversely her performance of "Shenandoah" is as good as any put on record. The arranging for chorus done by Carl Davis is consistently good and here outstanding. Here Ms. Horne truly shines. She sounds both wistful and awed by the beauty of the scenes that the song encapsulates. Similarly her "Go ‘way from my window" is a truly moving performance.

When performing the patriotic songs, Ms. Horne does a commendable job of avoiding sounding trite or over the top. Songs like "You’re a grand old flag", "When Johnny comes marching home", "God Bless America", or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are often performed either with a knowing cheekiness or as a sort of protection against criticism. They commonly might be added to an album simply to make an attempt at grabbing the heart of an American and making it swell with pride by default. As a result, the pieces are seldom given much care. This is certainly not the case here: the arrangements are well done and the performances are again solid. No matter your opinion of America, it is evident that when performed well these songs are still moving as pieces of music.

Unquestionably though, the most outstanding of the works on this album is the Aaron Copland collection Five Songs from ‘Old American Songs’. The five songs in question are "Simple Gifts", "Ching-a-ring-Chaw", "Long time ago", "I bought me a cat" and "At the river". The music sounds like something directly out of his Billy the Kid orchestral suite or Rodeo ballet. The orchestra stands in fine form, and Ms. Horne’s vocal talents are put on their full display. There is naught to complain about here. These 12 minutes make the entire album by themselves.

Unfortunately the insert leaves much to be desired. There are no publishing dates, composer dates, or historical notes to contextualize the works. Inexplicably, even the name of Aaron Copland is abbreviated. He is listed only as Copland, and mentioned in passing in the notes when quoting a selection from Simple Gifts. Perhaps that could be forgiven because of Copland’s renown; less understandable is the similar treatment given to Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi. That is a songwriting team deserving at least a mention in the notes for the aid of the listener. Each man had dozens of hits, including many of the most popular tunes during the First World War. "I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier" was written in 1915 on the verge of America’s committing troops as a protest song. The song gained such notoriety that Teddy Roosevelt himself parodied it, calling for another song to accompany the original called "I didn’t raise my girl to be a mother" containing the lyrics that the place for women who opposed war was "in China — or by preference in a harem — and not in the United States." It seems that at least someone inclined to open the packaging should learn that much.

Furthermore, the discussion of Marilyn Horne’s career is perfunctory at best. It seems that the writer for the liner notes is more interested in discussing the ironies surrounding Stephen Foster’s career than in giving any information to enhance the listening experience or understanding of the music. Luckily the production and recording were given the meticulous care that was given the performance. There is nothing that could be considered distracting technically, and that is truly as good as production gets.

In summation, there is much to commend this album. There are a few moments where the arranging or performances are merely adequate. The majority of the album is better than average, with many renditions being exemplary. While there are certainly a large number of collections of American songs that have been produced over time, this one is certainly better than average. It is worth the time to listen, hopefully to rediscover an appreciation for this music.

Patrick Gary



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