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Langston Hughes and Music

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 Hughes.


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 writers.


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 Scene. 


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 German.


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 fleeting.”


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 English text).


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 compositions.


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 Hebrew).


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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