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Langston Hughes and Music

The composer Elie Siegmeister once declared of LangstonHughes (1902-1967) that he was the \most musical poet of the twentiethcentury". True or false, this judgement underscores the unquestionable factsthat much of Hughes's poetry lends itself fairly readily to musical setting,and that, for Hughes, music was perhaps the primary inspiration, other than thehistory and culture of African-Americans in general, for his writing. 

In the early 1920s, before the blossoming of the HarlemRenaissance, the young poet turned away from traditional verse and boldlylinked 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 wasa new kind of poetry that formed the foundation of Hughes's later literarycareer and inspired eventually a new approach to writing byAfrican-Americans.  However, alsostarting in the 1920s, Hughes lovingly created a body of lyrical poems thatappealed consistently to musicians both white and black, and led to thecomposition of art songs, cantatas, and even operas.  This breadth of interest and appeal was typical of LangstonHughes.

Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes grew up inLawrence, Kansas. He spent a year in Lincoln, Illinois, and then attended highschool in Cleveland, Ohio. In high school, between 1916 and 1920, he publishedverse and short stories. In the 1920s he lived in or travelled to Mexico, NewYork City (where he briefly attended Columbia University), Africa, France, andItaly. In New York, he helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance with two books ofverse, a novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), and an essay, The Negro Artist andthe Racial Mountain (1926), that became the manifesto of the younger blackwriters.

In the 1930s, swinging far to the left politically, he spenta year in the Soviet Union as his poetry shifted away from lyricism topropagandistic forms urging class consciousness and revolution.  With the onset of World War II, however,Hughes patriotically supported the war effort and his poetry returned toearlier themes and forms. About this time he began to develop an interest inwriting song lyrics. None of his songs was a huge success, but he was ready in1946 when Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice invited him to join them as lyricist ontheir development of a musical version of Rice's 1929 prizewinning play, StreetScene. 

Following the success of Street Scene on Broadway in 1947,which brought Hughes the first financial windfall of his career, his work beganto attract even more musicians. These included African-American composers suchas Margaret Bonds and William Grant Still. Bonds set to music several ofHughes's poems, including his signature piece from 1921, The Negro Speaks ofRivers. 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 ofthe black republic of Haiti. The opera had its premi?¿re, to mixed reviews, in1949 in New York City.

White musicians also found Hughes's words compelling.Perhaps Hughes's closest relationship as a librettist was with the German-bornimmigrant composer Jan Meyerowitz. Together they worked on The Barrier, basedon Hughes's 1935 Broadway play Mulatto, a tragedy on the theme of miscegenationin the South. The Barrier enjoyed excellent reviews but then failed miserablyon Broadway in 1950. Other collaborations between the two men include the operaEsther, 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 firstperformed in 1965 by a 150-voice chorus and the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.

Hughes was proud of these collaborations even though hismain interest in music remained tied to the blues and jazz and, in the lastyears of his life, gospel. He virtually invented the gospel musical play, inwhich a limited story-line links performances of stirring gospel songs byaccomplished singers. He enjoyed critical as well as commercial success withworks such as The Prodigal Son and, especially, Black Nativity. The latter wasperhaps conceived by Hughes as a deliberate counterpart to Gian Carlo Menotti'sown Christmas classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors.

From popular forms to the more demanding jazz and classicalrepertoires, Langston Hughes found inspiration in the work of musicians. Hesought to learn from them and to work with them whenever he could. He himselfknew 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 playsinspired in composers and performers.

Dr. Arnold Rampersad


Robert Lee Owens is a native of Denison Texas, where he wasborn in 1925. After a public school education in Berkeley, California, he wentto Paris, working for four years as a piano student of Alfred Cortot. Althoughhe has had several academic positions in the United States, he has beenparticularly 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 seventhsand sixths. Published in Munich, the text is offered in both English andGerman.

John Musto was born in Brooklyn in 1954. He attended theManhattan School of Music where he was a piano student of Seymour Lipkin,working subsequently with Paul Jacobs. In addition to his major career as apianist, 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 representedhere by the second and third of the set. The first, Silhouette, relates to alynching, the second, Litany, to love for those rejected, and the last, for amissed opportunity with love. Island is metrically complex, with aperpetual-motion figure in the pianist's right hand, to be played "fast andfleeting."

William Grant Still (1895-1978) is one of the most esteemedof all African American composers. One of his cultural heroes was SamuelColeridge-Taylor, the brilliant Afro-British composer whose three visits to theUnited States helped lay the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance. A youngStill wished to imitate Coleridge-Taylor, even attempting to train his hair togrow in a similar fashion. His mother's hopes for her son's professional careerlost out in his college days to his ardent love of music. He had a variety ofexperiences by 1930, including editorial work for W. C. Handy, arranging forjazz ensembles, and performance as a pit musician. This was the year that headdressed the goals of the Harlem Renaissance by the idealisation of thefolkloric with his first symphony.

Hale Smith was born in Cleveland in 1925. Before his move toNew York in 1958, he supplemented his education at the Cleveland Institute ofMusic with rich experiences that provided the background for his work in NewYork as a music editor. His greatest mark has been as a totally professionalcomposer, 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 toHughes texts in 1950. The work is dedicated to Gladys Tiff, who gave t
Disc: 1
Still Here
1 My People
2 Heart on the Wall: Heart
3 Shadow of the Blues: Island
4 The Weary Blues
5 Shadow of the Blues: Litany
6 Songs of Separation: A Black Pierrot
7 Beyond the Rim of Day: March Moon
8 Negro
9 The Negro Speaks of Rivers
10 Genius Child: My People
11 Song to the Dark Virgin
12 Evil
13 Joy
14 Street Scene: Lonely House
15 Three Dream Portraits: Minstrel Man
16 Sunday Morning Prophecy
17 Fields of Wonder: In Time of Silver Rian
18 Four Songs of Langston Hughes: Carolina Cabin
19 Madam and the Census Taker
20 Lovely, Dark and Lonely One
21 Sylvester's Dying Bed
22 Sandman / Birth
23 Bound No'th Blues
24 To Artina
25 Down where I am
26 The Dream Weaver / Bouquet
27 Still Here
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