This is the second instalment of Thomas Hampson’s Song
of America project, released on his own label. It is linked
to his Hampsong
project aimed at showcasing American song and poetry. The
title of the current album comes from the first song in the
recital which was written in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson, a signatory
to the Declaration of Independence and credited with writing
the first American art song. The piece comes over as a short
folk-ballad and it is this style which underlies many of the
songs on this disc. Hampson emphasises this by following the
Hopkinson with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwarz’s
Simple Song from Mass. Here Bernstein seems to
be presenting the folk-ballad for a new audience spiced up with
just a little jazz.
Sitting between Hopkinson and Bernstein is Charles Ives. His
Songs my Mother Taught Me seems similarly to reflect
the folk and hymn tunes that Ives treasured. Only in the accompaniment
do hints of Ives’s more complex musical world come through.
More songs by Ives occur later in the recital, but next on the
disc is a song by Jay Ungar, a folk-influenced musician who
is here represented by an unashamedly romantic ballad with words
by Cleo Laine. Laine herself seems to have performed the song
with James Galway. Despite its impeccable modern credentials,
this song has a simple directness which links it back to the
Shenandoah is very traditional and is performed here
in an arrangement with quite a dramatic accompaniment by Stephen
Elinor Remick Warren’s God be in my Heart has a
simplicity of utterance which belies the complexity of thought
behind the music. Warren was a 20th century neo-Romantic
composer, associated with such as Samuel Barber, but Warren
has yet to gain the recognition she perhaps deserves. John Alden
Carpenter’s music encompassed jazz-inspired pieces, ballets
and impressionistic orchestral pieces. His song Looking glass
river, setting Robert Louis Stevenson has a quiet dignity
and is one of the real art songs on the disc. Warren’s
attractive At Even has hints of RVW’s own Stevenson
setting Songs of Travel in both the words (Thomas S.
Jones, Jr) and the music.
The poem Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson
was adapted into a song by Simon and Garfunkel. The version
here is by John Woods Duke, a Professor at Smith College who
trained with Nadia Boulanger and Artur Schnabel. Duke is best
known for his art songs, but this version of Richard Cory
seems rather oddly wandering, though Duke’s setting
is not without humour despite the fact that the subject of the
poem commits suicide. Miniver Cheevy is another Duke
song setting - a Robinson poem. Again I rather found the poem
a little oddly humorous, Duke brings out the humour by treating
it in a completely dead-pan fashion. The final Duke/Robinson
song is Luke Havergal which comes over simply as a Romantic
ballad. In both of these I had worries over Hampson’s
pronunciation; surely the lines ‘Albeit he had never seen
one’ and ‘Could he have been one’ should reflect
the double-syllable rhyme at the end, though Hampson pronounces
‘been’ as ‘bin’ which rather fails the
rhyme. Similarly his treatment of ‘Havergal’ does
not always match Robinson’s rhyming scheme.
William Grant Still was an African-American, whose studies include
time at the Oberlin and New England conservatories as well as
studying with Edgard Varèse. This song is a big Romantic
ballad that rather belies its 1953 date of composition. The
text by LeRoy V. Brant (b. 1930) was one that I mistook for
a Victorian piece on first hearing.
The Blue Mountain Ballads by polymath Paul Bowles, set
poems by Tennessee Williams and date from Bowles’ decade
in New York when he collaborated with both Williams and Orson
Welles. In these songs Bowles blends jazz, blues, ragtime and
classical to create brilliant settings of Williams’ evocations
of the Deep South.
Charles Ives’ In Flanders Fields seems to be on
less sure footing. His setting of John McCrae’s poem has
a Romantic oddity to it which feels at odds with the text. Sidney
Homer’s General Booth enters into Heaven, sets
Vachel Lindsay’s poem. Homer’s version is altogether
more straightforward than Ives’s own setting of the text.
Homer includes the Salvation Army Hymn ‘Are you Washed
in the Blood of the Lamb’ and the song has an admirable
narrative thrust. You are never quite sure whether Lindsay and
Homer are serious. I suspect that Lindsay was but Homer wasn’t
but have no real basis for this belief.
Edward MacDowell’s The Sea is an example of the
19th century American art song from era when the
genre was still struggling to develop its own style; whereas
the works of Stephen Foster, whilst closer to the folk ballad,
develop a distinctiveness of their own. I found both Nelly
was a Lady and Hard Times a bit too sentimental for
my taste, though Hampson’s performance of them hardly
puts a foot wrong. In addition there is something bathetic about
the lines ‘Nelly was lady, Last night she died’.
And frankly I found Ives’s Memories simply odd,
with the first part describing aptly the excitement before curtain-up
at the theatre and the contrasting second being a sentimental
Most of the songs on this disc need careful handling. They must
be treated seriously but the performers must bring out their
open and simple directness, without ever seeming to patronise
or to send them up. Hampson and his accompanists do this to
perfection. Individually one or two of the songs are rather
wanting, but as a programme they give us a clear feel for the
way one aspect of American song developed. What is interesting
is how many of the earlier pieces contain curious pre-echoes
of the American 20th century including such composers
as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
The booklet includes a thoughtful essay by Thomas Hampson and
full texts for all of the songs.
This is an impressive recital; one which sheds a sympathetic
and intelligent light on a different aspect of song. All lovers
of good singing will want to hear it.