—Co-authored by Chelsea Daniel and Samantha Ege—
Nora Holt (c.1885 – 1974) was a leading voice in Black America’s classical music scene. Her activities as a composer, performer, critic, commentator, and more shaped the Harlem Renaissance and its Chicago counterpart. As the fervor of the Black Renaissance progressed into the Civil Rights era, the energy that drove Black women’s activism sought greater outlets, one of which was the male-dominated world of radio. In radio, Holt continued her mission to broadcast Black excellence and there, her voice found greater power.
As two classical pianists of African descent, we—Chelsea M. Daniel and Samantha Ege—were accustomed to Black women’s voices (as embodied in their compositions, performances, and criticism) being minimized, or muted all together in the Western art music narrative. Hearing Holt for the first time was powerful.
Chelsea never knew that someone who looked like her existed in classical music, especially someone who had as great of an impact as Holt. Starting her piano studies at five, Chelsea was consistently the only Black female pianist in both her high school and college programs and she felt very isolated. It was nearly impossible for her to find any representation of Black female pianists and she was only encouraged to play a “standard” repertoire, which is dominated by white male composers. In her sophomore year of college, Chelsea took a music history course that taught her about diverse musicians who were omitted from her textbook. This discovery and a meaningful partnership with friends who shared similar experiences to her prompted the beginnings of numerous projects dedicated to showcasing music by diverse musicians, one being her junior degree recital where she programmed Sonata in E minor by the groundbreaking African-American composer Florence Price (1887 – 1953). With few performances of the piece existing online, Chelsea found Samantha’s recording and decided to reach out asking for guidance with the music.
Samantha’s journey had been very similar to Chelsea’s, from looking to see some part of herself reflected in her studies to actively seeking a classical music history that celebrated the truth of its diversity. These similarities are what led them to Price, and eventually to this collaboration. At the time Chelsea reached out, Samantha was developing her research on Price’s network and its impact during the Chicago Black Renaissance. As Samantha began to piece Holt’s influence together, she couldn’t help but lament the radio silence around her life and legacy in the mainstream musical consciousness. The following tweet from the Red Bull Music Academy certainly rang true. Or so she thought.
Chelsea came across Holt’s literal voice during her internship at WQXR-Radio, to which Samantha’s reaction was: “Oh. My. God.” Chelsea had been trying to track down locations in New York where Price’s friend and collaborator composer-pianist Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) had performed. She was shocked to find a live recording of the artist on the American Negro Artist Program, something that does not even exist on YouTube. For us to hear Bonds on the piano and Holt’s actual voice, with the crisp mid-Atlantic elocution of a bygone era but a message of Black excellence for the ages, was to feel inspired, renewed, significant, and empowered (much like Holt’s listeners during her time).
Born Lena Douglas in Kansas City to a minister father and musically-inclined mother, Holt’s music education began with playing organ in the church. Her musical pursuits aligned with the Talented Tenth thinking that W.E.B. Du Bois promoted around the turn of the century; it was believed that the highly educated top ten percent of the African-American population would uplift the race and that the study of classical music would provide a tool for mobility. However, Holt also lived beyond the limits of early twentieth-century respectability. As a young adult, she challenged the archetype of the modern day Black woman. By the time she had graduated from Kansas’s Western University, a prestigious HBCU, she had been married three times while still managing to graduate at the top of her class.
In 1917, she married her fourth husband, George Holt, who was a rich hotel owner thirty years her senior. She changed her name to Nora Holt. Prior to meeting her husband, she moved to Chicago and earned her living as a cabaret performer while also actively performing, composing, and promoting classical music. In 1918, Holt became the first person African-American person in the United States to attain a Master of Music degree, which she earned at the Chicago Musical College. For her thesis composition, she presented an orchestral piece called Rhapsody on Negro Themes. The rhapsody was one of over 200 compositions that Holt wrote. Unfortunately, many of them were lost and have yet to be recovered. Holt had kept her manuscripts in storage during her time away in Europe, but returned to find that all had been stolen. The only surviving works were those that had appeared in her publication, Music and Poetry: the art song “The Sandman” and Negro Dance (1921) for solo piano.
Negro Dance with Samantha Ege, piano
Holt’s advocacy for Black artistic excellence became even more far-reaching with her work as a music critic for the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News. She reviewed all of the concerts with African-American performers and composers that she could find and made history as one of the first women to write for a major newspaper as the Chicago Defender’s first ever music critic.
Holt moved into radio during the 1940s. Her American Negro Artist Program on WNYC began in 1945 and spanned almost a decade. It was upon this platform that she used her voice to further amplify the work of Black classical practitioners.
Chelsea found that the NYPR Archive Collections had published Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program. This half an hour segment aired on February 12 at 5pm and was part of WNYC’s 14th annual American Music Festival. Though the scope of the festival was far broader, Holt’s program specifically highlighted the classical artistry of African-descended practitioners. February 12 fell in the middle of Negro History Week–the forerunner of today’s Black History Month–which New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey had proclaimed from February 8 to 15 (a span selected by the Week’s founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, in the 1920s to encompass the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass). With this program, Holt led her listeners through the multifarious layers of Black diasporic representation.
February 12 was also the commencement date of the festival, which was first announced in early February, in 1940. WNYC planned to broadcast an all-American series of concerts (forty in total) that would begin on February 12 and end on February 22, as marked by the dates of Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays, respectively. Morris. S. Novik, WNYC director, told the New York Times (February 3, 1940) that the purpose of the festival was two-fold. He elaborated:
One purpose is to build the municipal radio station into an even greater force in the cultural life of the community, and the second is to promote the cause of good American music. American broadcasters have done a splendid job in developing appreciation of classical music. Radio must do still another important job by focusing attention on American music, and by demonstrating that Americans have written good–even great music.
The American Music Festival was the first of its kind to promote music that encompassed the nation’s musical past and present on such a scale, and with such stylistic variety. According to Novik, no other radio station had attempted to broadcast such a wide cross-section of American music with the same grand vision that he had. The New York Times reported on just how extensive this cross-section was (February 12, 1940):
The concerts will cover nearly all types of American composition. Simple ballads which the pioneer sang as he plodded his way Westward will be included, along with the professional orchestral works of today. Spirituals and blues, indigenous to American soil, will vie with compositions that incorporate the latest innovations. All types of compositions: mountain songs, barber-shop ballads, vaudeville melodies, marches and the more serious forms of composition which make up the musical life of America will be represented.
The festival offers an affirmative answer to the question, “Do we have American music?”
Holt’s program not only evidenced a resounding “yes,” it presented a pan-diasporic purview that affirmed the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry. Samantha uses the term “socio-sonic pluralities” to ground the musical developments of Black cultural creators in their environment and to recognize how various social conditions can shape artistic expression. She identifies this as a central component in Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program, particularly as the program went beyond the United States to embrace the Americas. With composers whose backgrounds encompassed Canada (R. Nathaniel Dett) and St. Kitts (Edward Margetson) and musical influences that merged different diasporic folk traditions with Romantic, neo-classicist, modernist, and Black Renaissance aesthetics, the American Negro Artist Program celebrated the interconnected, yet also distinct audiovisual histories of the African diaspora.
“The Breadth of a Rose”
William Grant Still, composer
Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano
“I want Jesus to Walk With Me”
Negro Spiritual arranged by Edward Boatner
Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano
“His Song” and “Juba Dance” from In the Bottoms
- Nathaniel Dett, composer
Una Hadley, piano
“One” and “Genius Child,” based on poems by Langston Hughes
Edward Lee Tyler, composer
Edward Lee Tyler, bass-baritone and Norma Holmes, piano
“First Movement” from Fantasy on Caribbean Rhythms
Edward Margetson, composer
The American String Quartet: David Johnson, 1st violin; Frank Sanford, 2nd violin; Felix Baer, viola; and Marion Combo, cello
“By the Sea”
Julia Perry, composer
Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” based on a poem by Langston Hughes
Margaret Bonds, composer
Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano
On a scholarly level, Holt’s American Negro Artist Program adds another dimension to the way Samantha interprets the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry in the post-war era. Accessing Holt’s voice in the context of radio reifies connections between growing technologies and Black classical propagation at this time. In the absence of Holt’s full composition catalogue, hearing Holt amplify the work of her esteemed peers gives an enhanced perspective on her musical developments—from composer to curator, off the score and onto the airwaves.
On a personal level, however, it is upsetting to not have learned about Holt sooner and, as Chelsea elaborates, to not have a face like Holt’s to look up to during the loneliest moments of our education. Holt’s work validates Chelsea’s own pursuits, particularly in radio. Holt successfully created her own space in classical music, and did so unapologetically. She provided opportunities for Black musicians to be at the forefront and challenged a system that was not built for first-person Black narratives. And so, we take a leaf from her book, recognizing that the (re)sounding of her story is also the celebration of our own.
Listen to Holt and the American Negro Artist Program here.
Featured image:”Music stand (1)” by Flickr user Rachel Johnson, CC-BY-ND 2.0
Chelsea M. Daniel is a senior at the University of Texas, Austin, pursuing her Bachelor’s in Piano Performance. She is devoted to showcasing the stories and music of marginalized people and musicians. Daniel is the co-founder of the award-winning Exposure TV, which was created to highlight composers and musicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Daniel came across the American Negro Artist Program during her internship at WQXR-FM.
Samantha Ege is a scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. Ege’s upcoming article on Price, Holt and the Chicago Black Renaissance women is called “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship” and appears in Volume 24 of Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. As a concert pianist and recording artist, Ege continues to amplify Black women composers in her repertoire.
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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
In this podcast Sounding Out! interviews Ithaca, New York theremin master Eric Ross. Eric talks here about his background in avant-garde classical music but also waxes philosophical about performance, embodiment, emotion, technology, and play. Please listen in as Eric shares his experience as a pioneer in wrangling the interfaces of electronic music and as an explorer of the theremin’s wonderful contradictions.
Check out Eric on the internet here.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Interview with Theremin Guru Eric Ross.
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Eric Ross (born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, USA) received his B.A. and M.A. from the State University of New York at Oneonta. He premiered his Concerto for Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York, and released his first solo album,Songs for Synthesized Soprano, in 1982. He has written symphonies, chamber pieces and many works for solo instruments. He’s performed concerts of his original music at the Newport, Berlin, Montreux, and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Copenhagen New Music Festival, the Kennedy Center, and the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival among others worldwide.
Eric performs on piano, guitars, synthesizers, and the theremin. For over twenty years, he has led his own ensemble that has featured jazz greats John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, Byard Lancaster, new music virtuosos Robert Dick, Lydia Kavina, Youseff Yancy and many others. He has also played with Blues Legends Champion Jack Dupree, Lonnie Brooks, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee and appeared with BB King on Danish RTV.
With his wife, Mary Ross, Eric presents multi-media concerts of video, film, computer art, dance and music. He began playing the theremin in 1975, and has performed on radio, film and television. He has written an Overture for 14 Theremins and performed on the 1997 World Premiere of Percy Grainger’s Free Music No.1 in New York City. In 2006, he was guest artist on the No.1 Best Selling CD in Japan, Aqi Fzono’s Cosmology.
From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas
“I told you, I like it.”
“This is why we have so much trouble with you.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“Listen to that cursing…it’s nothing but garbage!”
“What are you doing?”
“All of these CDs are going in the basement. No more rap until you start listening to your parents! Now, go practice your violin!”
Growing up, exchanges like these were common between my Korean American mother and me—a multiracial Korean Euro-American. In her eyes, there was no such thing as enough violin practice. Rap—the vulgarity! The noise! It was turning me into a juvenile delinquent! She was convinced I had it in me to be the next Korean-American classical music virtuoso, the next Sarah Chang—if only I would practice more scales and stop trying to imitate “black men shouting.” (However “conversational” the rap world considered Nas’s flow, my mother still heard yelling.)
It’s not that I didn’t like classical music—I watched Amadeus on loop until the VHS squealed—but my mother, like the mothers of most all my Asian friends, insisted on it consuming a fairly large chunk of my life. While immensely diverse in its makeup, most of the Asian population where I lived was either Korean or Chinese, and were forced by their parents to learn violin, piano or cello. Not only was it criminal to play an instrument other than one of these; but, whichever one (or two) you chose, you had better be the best at it.
Author and Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, recently incited an online firestorm when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from hercontroversial new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she recounts calling her daughters “worthless” and “garbage” if they couldn’t perform a piece of classical music up to her exacting standards. University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor, Mari Yoshihara’s study, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music(2008) describes similar instances of “tiger mothering,” such as virtuoso violinist, Midori Goto’s, mother, Setsu Goto, who (it was rumored) was so strict that it forced Midori into a mental breakdown and an eating disorder. Many would likely agree that “Tiger Mothering” such as this is morally questionable (and in some cases abusive), but I should note that instances like these are only part of a much bigger picture. Scores of students and performers would no doubt concur with Dr. O’C’s recent SO! account of the potential for classical music praxis to have ameliorative effects. Despite this, however, classical music training seems to have become a central tenet of “Tiger Mother” methodology. In all the kerfluffle over Chua’s book, no one has been asking the most foundational question: Why is it so important to Asians and Asian Americans that their children play classical music?
In a recent interview on why she chose classical violin and piano for her children, Chua fancifully suggests that classical music is the antidote to materialism. She says that “classical music all about depth” and calls the violin and piano “very respectable instruments.” Indicative of more than just a love of classical music, Chua’s statements imply that other forms of music lack comparable artistic value and require less cultivation to perform and enjoy. In a similar vein, the Asian-descent classical musicians interviewed in Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore divulge their belief that playing classical music anchors one to a high social stratum. Acknowledging the contradiction between classical music’s high cultural status and its mostly poor compensation, the musicians identified social factors such as educational attainment and musical taste and ability as more important determining factors of class standing than income. Yoshihara thus links the importance Asians and Asian Americans place on classical music praxis to class consciousness and the production of cultural capital.
Class consciousness no doubt accounts for some of the zealousness exhibited by Tiger Mothers with regard to their children’s classical music training, but it’s not the only thing that keeps them roaring. Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately. Chapter 5 of Chua’s memoir, titled, “On Generational Decline,” is her cut-and-dried summarization of how subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is “the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” Constructed as an appeal to Chinese Americans, Chua essentially argues that classical music training is key to an Asian person’s cultural and racial legitimacy. Unwilling to relinquish “the high cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors,” she expects her children to uphold a racially and culturally endorsed standard of melody-making that reinforces Asian gender norms and encourages other Asian parents to do the same.
In Ellicott City, Maryland, the wealthy, culturally diverse “Ethnoburb” of Baltimore where I grew up, Asian American classical musicians abound and Asian American rappers are few. Here, (where the community-wide motto is “Choose Civility”) Asian youth gained a sort of “cred” for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to “prove” oneself along racial lines was something I always felt—particularly as a teen of mixed race. It was probably the biggest reason why I didn’t quit the violin until I graduated from high school. I hated it, but resentfully continued attending orchestra and private lessons in the fear that I would lose the meager amount of “cred” I’d built up. It hardly mattered, though. There was no chance of me getting into an Ivy League school or playing Carnegie Hall—I listened to rap and sometimes didn’t do my homework. In short, I would never be a “Super Asian” (a term coined by my Indian music stand partner and me), and as any Asian kid knows, if you’re not the best, you needn’t bother trying. None of the “Super Asians” had any interest in rap, and one even joked that I was a “chocolate-filled twinkie” for wearing a Pelle Pelle jacket to practice one week.
People who looked like Sarah Chang were supposed to be in the business of making melodies, not rhymes. Chang performing a violin concerto is a comforting scene, a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US. A result of the gradual process of East Asian modernization (instigated by Western Imperialism), classical music was initially adopted by the people at the behest of the state, eventually becoming a integral part of middle class life in East Asia and a social marker of bourgeois womanhood that functioned to situate women vis à vis the domicile. Uncomfortable defining myself in this way (and feeling, also, that I never truly could), I gravitated towards something more “disruptive” that would allow me to show a different face to the world.
Rap became a vehicle for me to explain myself in more hybrid terms. On drives into Baltimore City, I heard it bellowing from the windows of the West Side’s crumbling row homes. The loud, curt, interjections! The spontaneity and candor! This loudness was initially what drew me in, but eventually I realized that rap had just as much profundity as anything classical you could throw at it. Listening to rap, I was finally on offense. It was a medium that spoke to me, because it made me feel capable of speaking back. And there was an entire legion of disaffected youth who seemed to feel the same way.
Despite this popularity, however, critics of rap maintain that the sounds that (predominately African American) rappers produce are nothing more than “noise.” In Black Noise, Tricia Rose observes that despite (and perhaps because of) rap’s widespread popularity and cultural relevance, it is often pitted as classical music’s polar-opposite—“unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupt[s the] familial domain” (63). Against charges that rap lacks “depth,” purveyors of hip hop (despite their hefty salaries) often accrue little to no widespread artistic acclaim. Evidence of what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman terms the “sonic color-line,” this demotion and “Othering” of non-white sounds into “noise” (discussed further in her recent SO! post) has historically functioned to both generate and underwrite public attitudes about race, class and gender and to create dominant ideas about listening that she dubs “the listening ear.”
It seems that dominant modes of listening have everything figured out. If you look like this, you sound like that. But, what about people who look like me? What are we supposed to sound like? With which sonic cultural productions am I supposed to ally myself, and do I have a choice in the matter? How does “the listening ear” interpret a biracial Korean Euro-American or any person of mixed race heritage? Was there a distinction to be heard? I was sure there was, but didn’t quite know how to voice it.
For most of my life I have lived on the precipice of Asianness and something else, leaving me to feel—at times—confused, demoralized and illegitimate. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant famously note in their seminal work, Racial Formation, “Without a racial identity [in America], one is in danger of having no identity.” Acutely aware of my difference, I searched for ways of being heard as a multiracial subject in a fiercely stratified, race-conscious society. In the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, Michael Omi notes that within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Disruptive to fixed notions about race, it is often a challenge for multiracial subjects to be recognized or understood by the state or the ear.
Rap assisted me in my effort to be heard as a multiracial person. While my Asian friends in All-State Orchestra were polishing their four-octave chromatic scales for the judging panel at Julliard, I was conscientiously studying Rakim’s flow and the RZA’s beats, hoping that one day it might make sense for me to show my face at a rap battle, if only as an observer. After the realization that Nas wasn’t the reason I could never be a “Super Asian,” my mom returned my copy of his masterpiece debut, Illmatic. As previously, I spent the hours before bedtime reciting the lyrics to Nasty classics like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” moved by every skillful turn of phrase: “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man-half amazin,” I would repeat over and over until I got the cadences just right. Whatever the hell he was talking about, I was sure it applied to me.
J. Stoever-Ackerman’s recent exploration of the complicated relationship between classical music and social class in America raised some provocative questions for me personally. I am a professional classical musician with a doctorate in voice, as well as the daughter of two working-class white ethnics who became professional intellectuals. My family’s origins, curiously perhaps by today’s standards, did not place classical music out of reach on the far side of the class barrier: my father played in the legendary Hempstead High School Orchestra on Long Island, while my mother, a single teen mom, took herself to the Philharmonic for a Christmas gift every year while she worked in a factory and attended college at night (this was, however, before music instruction was gutted from the public school curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s). As a result, classical music was a very present part of my early life, and, without overstating things too much, I can realistically say that it has helped to form me as a person, and has provided me not only with bread for my body but also, and more importantly, with breath for my soul. I feel like the study and practice of classical music gave me not only my career, but even my life. Coming from this position, then, Stoever-Ackerman’s slighty gulity bemusement at her pleasure in the orchestral concert she attended, and her assertion that “where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated,” sat uneasily with me.
Stoever-Ackerman’s objections to longhair music are based not only upon class affinity, but also, perhaps unconsciously, in her standpoint as a twenty-first-century American intellectual. As UCLA musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted, it has been au courant since the 1960s for intellectuals to eschew classical music in favor of the various genres of what he calls “commercial music:”
and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
If, as has already been discussed extensively at this site, pop and its various genres make up the (only?) legitimate musical repertoires of the American working classes–both white and of color–I believe it’s time for a word from the trenches of musical praxis: this is not necessarily so, nor should it be.
While earning my doctorate at the City University of New York, I taught for two years as a graduate assistant and for another two as an adjunct at two of CUNY’s senior, i.e. four-year, colleges. In the heart of an urban metropolis, I taught studio and class voice, that is to say both individual lessons and singing classes en masse. My students, with very few exceptions, were from the outer-borough working classes, traveling long distances on public transportation to attend college while working and in some cases parenting, and they represented a variety of races and ethnicities, with whites solidly in the minority. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life and various dead-end jobs from finishing their bachelor’s degrees at a more usual age. Since I am a classical singer, I taught everyone the same thing: classical singing. My voice students studied classical musical practice and classical music repertoire not only because I believe that healthy classical technique is the basis of good vocal technique across genres — that is, if you can sing well in the classical style, you can sing anything well — but also because I know, in the depths of my being, that the experience of making classical music is healing and transformative for the person who undertakes it, an experience that should be denied to or refused by no one. In this sense, classical music praxis was, in my studio, a tool for self-transformation, self-empowerment, and self-expression that ignored distinctions of class and race. This might suggest that classical music is in fact a subversive practice for the working classes and people of color, and perhaps it is, though I see it more as a human right.
In teaching these diverse classes, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his or her ethos, if you will. The truth is that I loved and respected my students, and I felt a heavy responsibility for making their experience as fledgling classical musicians one that would enrich their lives. They were, as I mentioned, from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent, spinsterish woman who spoke German as well as French, and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument — if only she had been physically and psychically free to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic. Many of my students, I perceived, were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. Though occasionally they spoke of their traumas and difficulties, words were not really necessary; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn’t need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why, as every classical singer and voice teacher know, tears are a commonplace in the voice studio. And this is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice — that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat — can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.
T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.’s choice, however, was Robert Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” This piece is number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a song cycle based on poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: “I know that God will forgive me my sins: c’est son métier“). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But T.’s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.
“Schöne Wiege” starts off as a gently-rocking lullaby-like song (what we in the biz call a “strophic berceuse”), then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed quasi-operatic number (a “scena”), with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death or madness. My translation follows:
Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: “Farewell,” I call to you.
Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.
And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.
I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love —
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.
But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.
And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer’s staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.
I was astonished by T.’s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him on the piano myself. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her out of pocket. Once out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Working on “Schöne Wiege” in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there was a synergy between his vocal line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of “Lebewohl!” (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found what I was meant to do with my life.
T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree at CUNY, a more prestigious program than the B.A. he was pursuing, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him an Italian piece, a piece by French late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, the aching tenor showpiece “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s 1947 American opera Street Scene (often performed by university music departments because of its plethora of ensemble roles), for which Langston Hughes wrote the libretto:
And, finally, “Der Lindenbaum,” the best-known piece from Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands:
In one stanza of “Der Lindenbaum,” the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn’t considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been committing an unthinkable social transgression; the fact that the narrator doesn’t turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the song cycle. I realized that T. was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.
When the time for T.’s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition–at which I was not allowed to be present–with one of his best pieces, the Weill or the Schubert, but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece first. A mistake. He wasn’t admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.
Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing “Lonely House” and “Lindenbaum.” He rushed in just as the recital was starting with an etiolated, sickly-looking man whom I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn’t come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn’t shine.
This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included abortion and divorce. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C’est son métier. It’s her job to sublimate her suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear her, and give them the healing that she seeks for herself. Arising out of our nonetheless-shared western cultural heritage, classical music is a gift to us twenty-first century Americans across race and class, and, in some small way, those who practice it can use this gift — the gift of beauty — to transform our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.
I never saw T. again after that, except once by chance, as I was heading to a pub in Midtown to meet my boyfriend. He still had a CD I lent him, the wonderful Tryout, which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for the Broadway shows he wrote.
For a final treat, here’s an excerpt from that CD, Kurt Weill singing a snatch of his famous song “Speak Low” from the 1947 musical “One Touch of Venus,” for which American poet Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics. In Weill’s performance, the great tradition of the German art song — the tradition of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” and “Der Lindenbaum” — meets the race-and-class-fraught American popular music scene; the song became a beloved standard, and was sung by the great jazz triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Here, Weill’s fragile-sounding vocal delivery and heavy German accent embody the world-weary European composer (Weill was a refugee) delivering himself into the capable and vital hands of a musical culture built by immigrants and former slaves.