This is too big a topic to cover in one short essay. What anyway do we mean by American song? There is the popular song of the 20s-40s of which Cole Porter and George Gershwin were perhaps the greatest exponents. And for me, Love walked in, I got rhythm, Night and day and all those other glories still represent the greatest songs by Americans. But the American popular song is a genre by itself. It holds as tightly to basic formulae as baroque fugue does; its words are written expressly for the song; and it often has a context outside of itself in a musical or movie.
In all of these respects it differs from the art song which I want to discuss here. America has been something of a standard-bearer in the anglophone world for modern art song. Question: who is the better song composer, Barber or Britten? Nowadays I would say Barber. But think of the Serenade, or Winter Words, you might answer. Yes, and they raise an interesting point. Britten’s talent is for writing song cycles rather than individual songs. Think of the song representing the boy at the train station playing his violin in Winter Words. In the context of the cycle it is right and inevitable; as a one-off recital number it would make not the slightest sense. Now think of Barber’s setting of the medieval Irish poem about the monk and his cat, Pangur. Part of a larger cycle, to be sure; but also an unrepeatable gem of song-writing, as unmatchable in its way as the organ-grinder song at the end of Winterreise. The whole of this cycle needs to be listened to, as do Barber’s Joyce settings and his settings of Rilke in French. He gave more painstaking attention to words than any other composer of English song. When this is matched by musical inspiration, he is the greatest modern song composer. For the general listener eager to explore the songs all at one go (the published oeuvre by this self-critical composer fills just two CDs) the best option is still the DG album ‘Secrets of the Old’ featuring Thomas Hampson, Cheryl Studer and pianist John Browning.
Barber’s longer vocal works with ensemble have their advocates. I don’t greatly care for either Knoxville 1916 or Dover Beach. In the first, I dislike James Agee’s mawkish text, and in the second, Barber imposes a standardised musical rhetoric on a great poem. I need Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach too much to care greatly for Barber’s.
The inheritor of this tradition is of course Ned Rorem. His diaries by the way illuminate the joys and woes of the professional song composer like nothing else. Those woes are principally two: the genre of song and song recital is dying; and singers are not taught to sing English, and regard it as a vocally inferior tongue. This last absurdity must be laid at the door of music academies and teachers, I regret to say. Two discs will give a good flavour of Rorem’s huge song output: Susan Graham’s Erato disc (8573-80222-2), and the Naxos volume with the composer at the piano accompanying Carole Farley. Rorem is not as accomplished a pianist as Graham’s Malcolm Martineau, and Graham’s album features perhaps the most lovely of all his songs, the exquisite setting of Thomas Lodge’s Love. Rorem’s fine setting of Frost’s Stopping by Woods can be found on both discs.
Another text that song-lovers and writers should own is Virgil Thomson’s Words and Music. I have a feeling it is now out of print. And while you are at it, listen to some of Thomson’s songs on the Naxos CD of his vocal and chamber works. His setting of the famous bedtime prayer (‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on’ etc.) is doubtless neither the first nor last. But I doubt if it will ever be bettered.
What future for this marvellous genre? A precarious one, I fear. On this side of the Atlantic, one festival of American music succeeds another in which none of this marvellous music is ever heard. Some orchestral daub out of Ives’s bottom drawer, or the latest hot-house growths of the USA’s curious university avant garde are our preferred thing when it comes to America, not to mention the prairies of minimalism rolling unoffendingly and drearily to all horizons. The concise and understated and perfectly realised, as represented by the best of American art song, are undervalued and scorned.
Well, the loss is ours.