For African-American History Month: Three vocal CDs in review

The three CDs under review here are all related, with a direct through-line of friendship, mentorship and inspiration. Many dots connect these three great artists, starting with the only one still living, the soprano Leontyne Price, and going back to soprano Dorothy Maynor and to her mentor, the composer and choral conductor R. Nathaniel Dett.

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances 1938 & 1953 is an award-winning disc compiling two live performances featuring Leontyne Price as vocalist with the composer and masterful pianist Samuel Barber accompanying here, followed by 12 songs sung by the 28-year-old Barber accompanying himself!

The remarkable 1938 recording comes from a live Dec. 26 radio broadcast from Barber’s alma mater, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, now released to the public for the first time. The 28-year-old baritone opens with six folk songs from England, America, the Tyrol and Tuscany, several of them slyly humorous, requiring impressive interpretive skill. A more serious number, “Brother Greene,” is the battleground death song of a wounded Union soldier in the U.S. Civil War. “The southern foe has layed me low,” he tells his friend Brother Greene, and he knows he will never see his wife and children again. Yet he is prepared to “die so easy” for he knows he believes in Jesus and his sins will be forgiven. He is clearly at peace with giving his life for the cause of holding the Union together and emancipation. The six German Lieder that follow, by Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, C.P.E Bach and Schubert, treat the evergreen topics of love and death. There’s a hint at genderbending in his rendition of “Nonnelied,” by C.P.E. Bach, in that it’s the voice of a nun in the convent who “must stay within its walls, and give up all sweethearts.” Barber was well-known for being the longtime companion of fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, whom he had met at Curtis in 1928. They remained together for 40 years. Barber was the nephew of the famous opera singer Louise Homer, and her composer husband Sidney Homer, who were great influences on him growing up. His articulate, honey-sweet, legato-drenched baritone is deployed to rare communicative effect. He made his lasting mark as a composer, not as a pianist or singer, but he coulda been a contender!

For most listeners today, however, the greater revelation will be the first portion of the generous 80-minute disk. The Oct. 30, 1953, live recording features the spectacular 26-six-year-old Leontyne Price at the Library of Congress. The entire recital is included, here issued for the first time. That day the two musicians gave the world premiere performance of Barber’s Hermit Songs, a collection of 10 songs on Irish texts dating from the 8th to the 13th century, mostly meditations of timeless spirituality, though lit with occasional sparks of humor and even eroticism. It was a signal honor for Price to premiere these songs—and at the Library of Congress, no less—as a recent graduate of the Juilliard School. And what a rapturous experience it must have been for that audience! At the time of this engagement, she had to ask permission to absent herself for one day from the current run of Porgy and Bess that she was appearing in, showing her versatility and openness to various musical idioms. She and Barber filled out the rest of the almost hour-long program with four other Barber songs, five by Francis Poulenc, one by Gabriel Fauré, and a delicious cycle by Henri Sauguet called “La Voyante” (The Fortune Teller), tongue-in-cheek praises of the arts of card-reading, astrology and palmistry, with a little weather prediction thrown in for good measure.

Price’s training is impeccable, her “goddess” voice truly one for the ages. She would go on to premiere Barber’s cycle Prayers of Kierkegaard the following year. And he later asked Price to appear in his opera Antony and Cleopatra in 1966 on the occasion of the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new house at Lincoln Center, appropriately with an American work written under commission, and with an African-American diva as one of the eponymous characters. As really the first African-American singer to achieve an international reputation in opera, she opened doors to generations of others. It must be so amazingly gratifying for Price, who just celebrated her 95th birthday on Feb. 10, to see her contributions to music continuing to be celebrated with such reverent appreciation.

Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber: Historic Performances 1938 & 1953
Great Performances from the Library of Congress, Volume 19
Bridge Records 9156

One of Price’s role models was the soprano Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996), whose career flourished as a concert recitalist in an era when Black performers were simply not accepted on the operatic stage. Yet she recorded and made concert appearances, reaching the peak of her career in the 1940s. At the age of 14 she began studying at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., and joined the school’s choir. That chorus, under the direction of R. Nathaniel Dett, presented the first African-American spirituals heard at the Library of Congress in 1926, though it’s not clear whether Maynor sang with the choir at that concert.

Maynor’s solo concert at the Library of Congress on December 18, 1940, marked the first time an African-American artist had given a solo recital there. The occasion marked the 75th anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally ended slavery in the United States (not ignoring that potent little escape clause about involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”). Interestingly enough, just two evenings later, the Black tenor Roland Hayes became the second. Both were well known for their moving renditions of classic spiritual numbers, many of them in Dett arrangements. This CD is a recording of that performance. She was 30 at the time.

Her repertoire is extremely broad, reaching from a Händel aria from the opera Semele through the German and French song and aria catalogue, contemporary Black composers such as Dett, the rarely performed Cecil Cohen (1894-1967) setting a poem by Countee Cullen (who incidentally married W.E.B. DuBois’s daughter), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), then concluding with six spirituals in artful settings. Each number is a gem: Maynor totally “got” what a song needed, what words to lean into, where to press, where to slow down, where to insert a sly smile to draw out the humor of a text, where to bend a note, where to use her “shouting” voice à la Ma Rainey or her bewitching pianissimo. To me, her voice compares to that of the beloved Brazilian soprano of her era, Bidu Sayão. If she had been allowed to appear on the operatic stage, she would have made an affecting Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier or the eponymous Louise, whose aria “Depuis le jour” is here, and which became her much sought-after encore in almost every concert.

Maynor includes an important song by Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen, “Farewell of the Arab Mistress,” set to a text in Victor Hugo’s book Les Orientales of 1829. As the book and song titles both suggest, this is a work of the Orientalist era that tended to eroticize and exoticize the mysterious “other,” in this case a young Arab woman (apparently among several) who bids farewell to her “beautiful young, white man” lover. Today this song is seen as overtly colonialist (think French occupation of Algeria), but as music and cultural artifact, it is worth recalling.

Coleridge-Taylor’s two love songs, one to a Robert Louis Stevenson text (“She Rested by the Broken Brook”), the other to a lyric by Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall (Thou Art Risen, My Beloved”), reveal nothing explicit about race, yet imagery in the lyrics must have resonated strongly with this African-English composer. The RLS text speaks of a love object walking away after an encounter of unspecified character. The poet asks, “Will she remember too?/ Will she recall the eyes of brown/ As I recall the blue?” In the second song, day has already broken, yet the poet recalls, with classical, possibly racialized language: “Can the day that thou art seeking/ Give such rapture as the darkness?/…Turn again onto my bosom,/ I would have it night forever!”

The spiritual “I’m Goin’ to Tell God All My Troubles” (“when I get home”) has two stanzas. The first is just those words repeated four or five times. The second is “I’m goin’ to lay down all my burdens when I get home,” also repeated. Yet each time she reiterates the same words they seem to take on discrete dimensions, as if all the troubles and burdens the African-American has suffered, rendered in her shifting, deepening intonation, can hardly be contained in but a single iteration.

In her final selection, “Were You There” (“when they crucified my Lord,” “when they laid him in the tomb,” “when they rolled the stone away”), Maynor uses all her power to ask her adoring audience a series of honest, probing questions to which she truly seeks answers. In other words, is “my Lord” your Lord too? Do you follow a Christian path as I try so hard to do, and as these spirituals say? You gave us this Bible—was it to enslave us or set us free? Maynor performs this last song totally unaccompanied, not as an “art song” but as a confession of pure faith. It is written in the program booklet that “on the original acetate discs recorded by the Library’s engineers, there is more than a minute of silence at the conclusion of her performance before the audience explodes in a thunderous ovation; it is the ultimate audience tribute.”

And then they filed out into the streets of a segregated Washington, D.C.

After her performing career ended, Maynor continued to contribute to the arts community, and to her people, by founding and leading the Harlem School of the Arts, which still exists to this day. She retired from that post in 1979.

Dorothy Maynor, Soprano
Great Performances from the Library of Congress, Volume 24
Bridge Records 9233

With some chagrin I admit I had not heard of R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses, composed for a Cincinnati May Festival premiere in 1937, yet all too seldom revived—though each time it is yanked out of obscurity it always scores a huge popular hit. The May Festival performed it again in 1956 with a stellar operatic cast of Leontyne Price, Carol Brice, Luther Saxon, and William Warfield, again reinforcing the direct through-line from Dett to Price. The current release is a live recording by radio station WQXR from May 9, 2014, at the Spring for Music Festival, with the May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, New York City, under the sympathetic baton of James Conlon. From the program booklet:

“The [1937] premiere was broadcast live nationwide via NBC radio from the Cincinnati May Festival, but only about 3/4 of the performance was heard over the network. Near the end of the original acetate disk, the announcer can be heard saying, ‘We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentlemen, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance.’ It has been suggested that these ‘previous commitments’ were in fact a concession to objections voiced by callers to the network. The May Festival’s performance of The Ordering of Moses was possibly the first network broadcast of a major work by a Black composer.”

The 48-minute 2014 recording that we hear also features a stellar cast of today’s leading Black operatic singers: Latonia Moore, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Rodrick Dixon, and Donnie Ray Albert. (Moore sings the role of the mother in this season’s runaway operatic phenomenon Fire Shut Up in My Bones.)

The composer R. Nathaniel Dett (public domain).

The composer can be easily researched on the Internet—his life makes for interesting reading— but he long aspired to create a work for his primarily African-American public that would be “musically peculiarly their own and yet which would bear comparison with the nationalistic utterances of other people’s work in art form.” The oratorio, characterized as a “Biblical folk scene,” depicts the burning bush, God’s ordering Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land—in other words, the Passover story. The oratorio ends in salvation, redemption and triumph with a concluding “Hallelujah” chorus that inevitably recalls that of Händel from Messiah.

Needless to say, the Exodus story has special resonance for African Americans. For many, the Great Migration was a kind of exodus—from oppressive rural Jim Crow conditions in the South to decent-paying industrial jobs in the North. In fact, Dett’s own family history involves just such a migration, but a century earlier, when his grandmother escaped slavery to Canada. Dett himself was born in Drummondville, Ontario (now part of Niagara Falls), though he established his musical career largely in the United States.

The Exodus story also held great power for Jewish composers, such as the émigré Kurt Weill, whose The Eternal Road, staged briefly in New York during the same mid-1930s era when Dett’s work was unveiled, also treated the subject and then brought the story of the Jewish people forward to the present day. Jim Crow for African Americans was closely linked to Nazi race theory about Jews—in fact, Hitler took many of his theories on race from Southern apartheid law and practice.

The chorus plays a leading role, and the soloists portray Moses, The Word, The Voice of Israel, and Miriam. The work features extended passages for the orchestra alone, with a prominent role for the solo cello. The score is certainly of its period, and can be interpreted alongside other choral dramas such as those by Earl Robinson, Marc Blitzstein, Randall Thompson and others. It deserves to be heard more often. It seems like a very apt project for interfaith and interracial collaboration.

R. Nathaniel Dett
The Ordering of Moses, Live from Carnegie Hall
May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, conductor
Bridge Records 9462


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.