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Sure on this shining night

20th-century romantic songs of America
Robert White (tenor), Samuel Sanders (piano)
Recording details: July 1996
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: April 1997
Total duration: 60 minutes 3 seconds

Tenor Robert White sings 28 romantic songs spanning the century by both native American and immigrant composers, from Amy Beach in 1899 to Marc Marder's Walt Whitman setting of 1996. There are many favourites (or 'favorites') here from the musical stage, including Friml's Rose Marie and Victor Herbert's Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life. Malotte's famous setting of The Lord's Prayer is also included. The title of the CD is taken from Samuel Barber's beautiful setting of James Agee (the poet of Knoxville, Summer of 1924).

The accompanying booklet is packed with anecdotes from Robert White's personal acquaintance with the majority of the composers represented. Several of the songs were actually written specially for him to sing.


'This is a very charming record' (Gramophone)

'A delightful, imaginatively wide-ranging anthology. A most enjoyable entertainment as well as a true voyage of discovery' (Hi-Fi News)

'I felt as if I was discovering these songs for the first time' (Soundscapes, Australia)

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There are many beautiful classical songs written in the twentieth century with a romantic aspect, in text or melody and harmonic treatment, that I love to sing. This recording contains twenty-eight such pieces, known and unknown, and some never before recorded. Though keeping within a ninety-six-year time frame, the songs are not presented in chronological sequence but rather weave in and out of this century’s decades. They range in date of composition from Mrs H H A Beach’s 1900 opus, The Year’s at the Spring, to Marc Marder’s To a Stranger, which he composed for me on a weekend in July 1996, just one month prior to the actual recording sessions in London. Songs of love, innocence, joy, anger, faith, wonder, longing and romance are all here. Let us start with one that combines innocence and wonder.

The Children (1946)
Theodore Chanler was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1902 and died in Boston in 1961. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and is remembered today chiefly for his songs. I thought that Chanler’s The Children, written in 1945, would be an apt metaphor for all the songs on this disc. Some songs predate The Children and some come afterwards, much the same as the children in Leonard Feeney’s fascinating text come and go, generation after generation… ‘Out of the darkness and into the dawn’. Songs, like children, are born—grow—and become part of society’s treasury of joy and musical feeling. Other songs follow…‘taking their places’. There is a difference, however. A beautiful song need never grow old and disappear, for upon each new hearing, a song is reborn.

Leonard Feeney has an interesting story. He was a Jesuit priest from Boston whose over-zealous interpretation and preaching of the Church’s doctrine on salvation led to his excommunication in 1953. He came back to the fold before his death in 1978. None of this theological strife need detract from the poem’s ineffable beauty.

The Year’s at the Spring (1900)
The second song is Mrs H H A Beach’s exuberant welcome to the twentieth century. The Year’s at the Spring (Pippa’s song in Pippa Passes), is the first in a set of three Robert Browning songs published in 1900. Words and music are full of incredible optimism: ‘All’s right with the world!’ Two World Wars in the ensuing decades notwithstanding, that same message of hope and enthusiasm would serve us well as we head into the new millennium.

When stars are in the quiet skies (1910)
I am always on the lookout for a good song, old or new, famous or unknown. It is a singer’s joy to discover a great song and then bring it into the repertoire. One day about ten years ago, while searching endless stacks of original sheet music in the Juilliard Library, I came upon an exquisite work written by George Chadwick in 1910, When stars are in the quiet skies, with words by E Bulwer-Lytton. Since finding the piece I have sung it many times in concert, always to good effect. Chadwick, along with Mrs Beach and Horatio Parker, was part of a group of New England composers that flourished in the early part of this century. I am not aware of any other recording of this piece.

Orpheus with his lute (1944)
It has been my good fortune to know many composers and authors whose works I have sung throughout my career. Many are represented on this disc. William Schuman was a good friend of mine. He was a gentleman of such geniality and warmth that it was always a pleasure to be in his company. His 1945 setting of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his lute is spellbinding. With spare modal harmonies—‘plucked’, as it were, on the piano—Schuman conjures up the famous musician of myth and the instrument with which he transfixed nature. For me, this piece has a mysterious, other-wordly quality that is unique in twentieth-century song. Schuman was President of the Juilliard School from 1945 to 1962, and the President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 1962 to 1969. I was touched when Bill asked me in 1985 to sing for his seventy-fifth birthday celebration at Lincoln Center.

Rose Marie (1924)
Rudolf Friml was born in Prague in 1879. He emigrated to America in 1906 where he flourished as a composer of songs and operettas. He is one of three such early twentieth-century immigrants included on this record, each of whom wrote immensely popular stage pieces overflowing with romantic melody. The other two are Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. Friml’s 1924 production of Rose Marie was a huge hit. His librettists were Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. I met Otto Harbach on several occasions when, as a teenager, I sang at a number of annual ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) dinners here in New York. At one of those ASCAP evenings I had the thrill of singing Harbach’s Smoke gets in your eyes and Hammerstein’s It’s a grand night for singing with both authors in attendance. I also sang once at Oscar Hammerstein’s home. I have always loved singing Rose Marie. As a youngster I was convinced that it referred to my own beloved sister Rosemary.

The Side Show (1921)
Connecticut-born Charles Ives had a vast output of song, with myriad points of reference and view. Some of his songs are Tin Pan Alley-like and some are serious. Some are in foreign tongues and some simply tongue-in-cheek. Of the two Ives pieces here, the first is The Side Show, an amusing take-off on both a popular World War I ballad—Mr Riley’s Hotel—and a theme from a Tchaikovsky symphony. Ives sets the song in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 metres to depict the stumbling gait of the ‘old horse, unsound’ who ‘turns the merry-go-round’, and then, as Riley is made to ‘look a bit like a Russian dance’, Ives combines the metres into a 5/4 measure under the words ‘some speak of so highly, as they do of Riley’, directly quoting the famous opening melody and 5/4 metre in the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony.

Song to the Witch of The Cloisters (1967)
John Corigliano is one of America’s leading composers today. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles, which he wrote with librettist William M Hoffman, scored a huge success at its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1990. John is a lifelong friend. When he wrote his song cycle The Cloisters with Hoffman in 1967 he dedicated Song to the Witch of The Cloisters to me. It is a thrilling piece to sing because it is based on a real-life—somewhat mysterious—lady who used to roam about the Fort Tryon Park gardens of The Cloisters, located in upper Manhattan. Bill Hoffman’s fantasy had her culling poisonous herbs for nefarious purposes. I have never had the courage to ask John what I might have done to deserve such an honour…

Sure on this shining night (1941)
Samuel Barber was such a special friend to me that I find it difficult to express the depth of admiration and affection I had for him over the many years of our friendship. He had an aristocratic nature and a wonderful sense of humor. He had, as well, a special love for the old songs—both classical and light—from the era of his famous aunt, the contralto Louise Homer, who sang with Caruso, Gluck, McCormack and Melba. Some of my happiest musical memories are of the house concerts he and Gian Carlo Menotti organized at ‘Capricorn’, their home in Mount Kisco, New York. A cross-section of the artistic world gathered there—Leontyne Price, Rudolf Nureyev, Thomas Schippers, John Browning, W H Auden and Chester Kallman, Stephen Spender, Aaron Copland and Maria Callas, to name but a few. When Samuel Barber died in 1981 he left the world a major legacy of twentieth-century American music. Of the many beautiful songs written by Barber, one of the most famous is his 1941 setting of James Agee’s Sure on this shining night.

Sigh no more, ladies
The boisterous Sigh no more, ladies is a direct reflection of its rambunctious author, Virgil Thomson. This wonderful evocation of Elizabethan rowdiness reminds me of the three years I spent in the early ’60s singing original English Renaissance songs with Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica. Thomson’s setting recalls Shakespeare’s era perfectly with a hemiola ‘kick’ that rivals the energy of a Morley madrigal. I remember singing for Thomson in his studio at the fabled Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street in the late ’50s when, as a raw college Student, I went to him for professional advice. It was a daunting experience, to put it mildly. My Hunter College class-mate Samuel Sanders played for me, then as now, while I bravely sang Il mio tesoro and Come into the garden, Maud. When I finished, Thomson peered out over his glasses and said in his high-pitched staccato voice: ‘Young man, I suggest that—for the foreseeable future—you ditch Donna Anna and stick with Maud’!

Come away, death (1943)
Once again Shakespeare is the author in the next piece on this program, Come away, death. I found this searing lament by the same search process described earlier. The sad words are set to music in a Mahleresque idiom by the Austrian-born Erich Korngold—whose opera Die tote Stadt had joint premieres in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. Korngold emigrated to America in 1934 and went with Max Reinhardt to Hollywood where he became a successful writer of film scores. He took American citizenship in 1943, the same year that Come away, death was published.

On hearing ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ (1942)
In early 1963 I was called in—with only five days left before the opening night—to replace an ailing tenor and quickly learn the leading role of Charles Bayard in the Juilliard Opera’s American premiere of Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner, with a libretto by Thornton Wilder. Since I was not yet affiliated with the school, it was a professional engagement. The thrill for all of us was that Hindemith himself conducted the first performance. I had just returned from studies in Munich, and spent the whole time talking with the maestro in my newly-acquired German. Hindemith was a delight in every way. On opening night I got ahead of myself in a big ensemble piece and, though completely lost, continued to sing at the top of my lungs. Desperate, I finally turned to the conductor for help. Looking directly at me and with a kindly smile, Hindemith put a finger to his lips and bid me shut up while he restored order. Then, like a friendly traffic cop, he raised his arm and cued me into the correct musical lane. With Hindemith at the helm it was smooth sailing for the rest of the evening. He is represented here by two songs in succession. In his 1945 song On hearing ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ Hindemith maintains the text’s feeling of suppressed anguish by means of only fleeting references—mostly in the piano—to the famous Irish song in its title.

Echo (1944)
The second Hindemith song, written in 1944, sees the composer conveying love’s callings and ‘Echo’s’ tender replies through ravishing canonic effects.

If I could tell you (1940)
In radio’s heyday of the 1940s, ‘The Voice of Firestone’ was heard live every week across America. The worlds most famous singers, Jussi Björling, Blanche Thebom, Leonard Warren, Gladys Swarthout, Lauritz Melchior, Dorothy Kirsten—to name but a few—sang arias and songs for millions of listeners. The beautiful theme song If I could tell you was composed in 1940 by Idabelle Firestone, wife of the tire company’s owner, Harvey Firestone. At the opening of each program, the guest artist had to sing the famous theme song—remembered to this day by many Americans in their late fifties and over. I remember how—depending on the particular singer’s country of origin and their command of English diction—the vowels coming out of my radio ranged from a perfectly eloquent ‘If I could tell you’ to endless variations of ‘Eef Ahi-e-e-e Kood-e Tail You, uf mahi-e-e deevowshun…’! Madeleine Marshall wrote the words. Funnily enough she was the diction coach at the Juilliard School, where I met her in 1963 when I sang the Hindemith opera referred to above. Often, running into each other in the school corridors, one of us would break into a badly prounounced version of her famous song and we would both fall about laughing. Idabelle’s Firestone’s granddaughter, Cinda Fox, is a dear friend. She informs me that her grandmother wrote the song as a tribute to her daughter—Cinda’s aunt Elizabeth—who had died at a young age.

The Collection (1920)
For many years I have loved singing Ives’s The Collection, which the composer wrote in 1920. I read once that a critic thought the piece to be a parody, or send-up, of hymn-singing. I find the piece to be a fascinating musical construction, with a dreamy, ‘way out’, Messiaen-like organ introduction (Ives writes ‘The Organist’ in the score), followed by a perfectly four-square hymn tune marked ‘The Soprano’, and ending with the ‘Response by the Village Choir’ at the repeat of the words ‘and love’s sweet law fulfil’. Ives weaves the rising motif of the introduction into a counter-melody for the right hand under the voice line’s ‘Lord, thy yoke to wear…’

The Lord’s Prayer (1935)
Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of the The Lord’s Prayer is dedicated to the great American baritone John Charles Thomas who introduced it on the radio in 1935. It became enormously popular with American audiences. In much the same way as I feel about Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Victorian jewel The Lost Chord, I think this Malotte piece is most effective when sung without exaggerating its musical line or poetic content.

Nature, the gentlest mother (1949)
In Nature, the gentlest mother, written in 1949, we move from the religious outpouring of The Lord’s Prayer to a more blissful state. Emily Dickinson’s exquisite text is rendered with brilliant musical imagery by Aaron Copland (who, like The Year’s at the Spring, was born in 1900). His depiction of nature’s silence—through widely stretched-out chords and broad vocal intervals—is startling in its effect. The tumult, as well, of her creatures and plants is brought to musical life through Copland’s special genius. How magical too are Emily Dickinson’s descriptions of sleeping children, peeping stars and the setting sun in the closing two stanzas.

The Tiger (1993)
Cleveland-born Eric Ewazen is on the Juilliard faculty. He is also composer-in-residence with the St Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. I have sung many of his songs over the years. Eric’s songs range from the gentleness of Edna St Vincent Millay’s God’s World—not performed in this programme—to the ferocity found here in William Blake’s The Tiger. When Eric brought this song to me I was immediately struck by its vitality and freshness. I am delighted to be the first to record it.

Never more will the wind (1990)
William Bolcom has an abiding love for song. He is one of the most exciting and affable composers I know. I met him and his gifted wife, the singer Joan Morris, when I was making my first recordings for RCA Red Seal in the late ’70s. We were all three toiling in the same musical vineyard, recording songs and music-hall ballads from the turn of the century. Today, William Bolcom is celebrated for the broad range of his creative output. He won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Music. His symphonies, concertos, songs and operas are performed throughout the world. He, Joan and I have just recorded two CDs of Vincent Youmans songs for the Arabesque label in America. It is with great personal joy that I include Bill’s poignant 1990 setting of Hilda Doolittle’s poem Never more will the wind in this album.

Little Elegy (1949)
I have known and admired Ned Rorem for many years. More than any other American composer Ned has focused singers’ attention on the art song as a means of expression. In his vast output of song there are many glorious pieces to be found. One quiet stunner is this next song, Little Elegy, written in 1949. With the simple rise and fall of parallel chords accompanying a step-wise melody, Rorem depicts the bleakness of life when there is no love.

One Alone (1926)
A far more light-hearted loneliness is portrayed in the opening bars of the next song—One Alone from The Desert Song, written in 1926 by the Hungarian-born, naturalized American Sigmund Romberg. This song—as well as the pieces by Rudolf Friml and Victor Herbert—is part of a unique repertoire of romantic American ‘arias’ that the whole country sang—with gusto—in the first half of the century.

Do not go, my love (1917)
Do not go, my love is one of our century’s most famous concert pieces. Richard Hageman was an American composer of Dutch birth who moved to America in 1906. He wrote operas and songs and was a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1908 to 1922. The song was written in 1917.

To a Stranger (1996)
When Ted Perry invited me to London to do these twentieth-century songs, I told him that I would do my best to provide examples ranging from the very beginning of the century right up to the last years of the nineties. As it happens, To a Stranger is just about the latest example of twentieth-century song that I could possibly have performed on this compilation. A month before the recording in late July 1996 I visited my dear composer friend Marc Marder who lives in Paris. A superb bass player and prolific composer of chamber music, songs and film scores, this New York-born artist moved to France some years ago to raise his family and continue his musical career. I asked Marc to write me a piece on an American text—of his own choosing—for possible inclusion in this recording. Marc was leaving for Lyon that very weekend, but he got right to work and finished the music for Walt Whitman’s poem To a Stranger while travelling back and forth on the Paris-Lyon TGV I had gone on to Italy to perform at the Spoleto festival with pianisi Jean-Yves Thibaudet and other artists. When I received Marc’s fax of the song, I showed it to Jean-Yves who immediately placed it on the piano and read it through as I sang. We agreed that it was an excellent song, and I took it straightaway to London where it became part of this disc. Marc Marder has given Whitman’s moving text a musical urgency and beauty of line that make the song a delight to sing.

When I have sung my songs (1934)
In 1934 Ernest Charles wrote both the words and music for When I have sung my songs. The piece became a huge success in concert hall and on radio broadcasts. John Charles Thomas, Jussi Björling, Kirsten Flagstad…they all sang it. I often hear it now sung by our voice students at Juilliard and it is sung, not infrequently, by many of today’s major recitalists. Ernest Charles’s piece is famous for good reason. The words are powerful, the music is beautiful, and the sentiment is noble.

These, my Ophelia (1935)
The 1935 These, my Ophelia is worlds away in feeling and harmonic language from Theodore Chanler’s other song The Children, which opened this record. This second Chanler song, with its modern, polytonal texture and frequent changes of metre, seems to mirror Ophelia’s deranged state of mind. I find the final melismatic ‘Ah’ at the end of the piece to be one of the saddest moments in song. It is an extraordinary work to sing.

An Old Song Re-sung (1918)
Though he died at the age of thirty-six in 1920, Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ works have retained an important place in American music. Griffes was an early user of impressionism and exoticism in his music. An Old Song Re-sung, the first of Two Songs by John Masefield (1918), is a strikingly powerful piece. After a highly energetic introduction depicting a ship in full and dramatic sail, Griffes abandons the sea-shanty element of the song, gradually revealing the lurking sense of menace that finally surrounds the eerie chinking of broken glass at the end as the vessel sinks ‘among the wrecks’. For me there is a touch of the same dread in this piece that I feel whenever I hear Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman.

Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (1910)
Even as a child I loved to ‘belt out’ Victor Herbert’s Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life. I sang it first with orchestra in 1948 on the CBS radio programme ‘We the People’, then again a year or two later—in the days of early television—on ‘The Paul Whiteman Show’ which came from WFIL-TV in Philadelphia. The Dublin-born Herbert, another immigrant to America, wrote the piece for his 1910 operetta Naughty Manetta. I have always been moved by the song’s unabashed ardour and though I have performed it hundreds of times over the years, it still has the power to inspire me when I sing it today.

June Night (1901)
June Night, written in 1901, is one of the loveliest discoveries I have ever made in my endless library searches. Its New England-born composer, Horatio Parker (teacher of Charles Ives), was best known at the turn of the century for his oratorio Hora Novissima. Though brief, June Night expresses an almost Wagnerian voluptuousness which makes it thrilling to sing. Venus, in the curled arm of the moon, bends down at midnight to the sea’s strong, throbbing breast. The tension builds up to the exclaimed release, ‘Venus, thou art a light o’ love!’

Triolet (1987)
Samuel Sanders and I decided to end our programme with a work written in 1987 by one of America’s finest young composers of song, John Musto. I first met John in 1973 when he was my student in a music history class I taught at the Manhattan School of Music. It is gratifying indeed to know that his talents are so appreciated now. John’s songs are sung throughout America by many of the young classical singers studying voice in our music conservatories and colleges. Triolet is a touching—somewhat nostalgic-sounding—slow ragtime piece that recalls a quieter age. The text is heavenly in its tenderness and the words ‘Sleep on her breast, Rose of my heart!’ seem just right to close the chapter on twenty-eight songs whose concerns have been mainly about love.

Robert White 1997

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