Politics & Policy

Singing His Songs

The composer Lee Hoiby and his ongoing gift.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Naxos label has a series called American Classics, and on it is an album called A Pocket of Time. It consists of songs by Lee Hoiby, sung by Julia Faulkner (soprano) and Andrew Garland (baritone), with the composer at the piano. Jay Nordlinger has written the liner notes for the album — a version of which is below.

 

Lee Hoiby has written a variety of music, in a long composing career: sonatas, concertos, chamber works, oratorios, operas. Probably his two most acclaimed operas are Summer and Smoke (based on the Tennessee Williams play) and A Month in the Country (based on the Turgenev). He has worked with the librettist Mark Shulgasser for many years. Who knows what other operas may emerge from their studio?

But it’s as a song composer that Hoiby is best known, and best loved. He has written about a hundred of them — songs, that is. And we have on the present album about 20 of them. You will want to acquaint yourself with the other 80, too, when you can.

Hoiby was born in Wisconsin in 1926. He was a pianist, and, as you can hear on this disc, is still a pianist. He studied with one of the great players and teachers of the 20th century, Egon Petri (a pupil of Busoni). He still practices Chopin études, every day.

But he gave up the career of a touring pianist to compose. It was a calling he could not turn away from. His principal composition teacher was Gian Carlo Menotti, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. But he also worked with others, including Darius Milhaud and Samuel Barber.

While Hoiby was finding his way in the world, a curious thing was happening to music: Atonality was in, tonality was out; severity and formalism were in, beauty and inspiration were out. And Hoiby could not swim with this tide. He had no choice but to swim against it, because he had to write the music that was in him.

In 1952, he won a Fulbright scholarship, allowing him to study at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. But they — the academy officials — would not allow him in. They said that he had to hop on board, compose in modern, accepted fashions, abandoning all “19th century” notions. And Hoiby refused. As he likes to say, “I wanted to grow heirloom roses, but they allowed you nothing but cactuses.”

He has always been a nonconformist, even a rebel. Recently, a young composer referred to him as a “maverick,” which tickled Hoiby. Obviously, there is a price to be paid for nonconformity: a price in fame, commissions, and general acceptance. But Hoiby insists that no one feel sorry for him: “I have had a wonderful life. I have been free to compose as I please, and there have always been people around — mainly singers — who would commission something. I never starved. And I’ve had the privilege and thrill of writing music!”

Important influences on him have been Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, and Barber. When he was a student, Hoiby and a friend would ring in the new year by reading through Schubert songs — on into the night. “It was Schubert who taught me to write songs,” Hoiby says. And he has requested a specific track for his funeral: Schubert’s “Im Abendrot,” sung by Elisabeth Schumann. As for Strauss, “he was the one, in Capriccio, who gave me the courage to write simple lyricism.”

Hoiby will also cite to you a pop artist: Joni Mitchell. She proved that “there is still juice in the tree of melody.” And that juice will never run out, as long as there are people who are open to it.

Hoiby had one great champion, the Mississippi-born soprano Leontyne Price. She took Hoiby songs all over the world, and they were a great success for her. She was kind to them; they were kind to her. Often, she would set off a near riot in the hall, after a stirring, passionate Hoiby song. I know, because I was there, several times. Price retired in 1997, and a singular Hoiby voice was stilled. But the songs go on, of course.

Dalton Baldwin, the pianist and accompanist, once paid Hoiby a supreme compliment. On meeting him, Baldwin said, “Your songs are for the ages.” He may well prove right.

There are familiar and beloved songs on the present album, such as “Where the Music Comes From.” Hoiby has called it “my Cat Stevens song.” Also, “The Lamb,” to Blake’s famous poem. And “Lady of the Harbor,” written for the bicentennial of the Statue of Liberty. Hoiby says, “It’s only a minute long, but it’s a kick-ass piece.” One cannot disagree.

But this collection is by no means a “best of” or “greatest hits.” There are many hits among the other 80 songs, including “The Serpent” — which is probably Hoiby’s most popular song. In fact, it’s so popular, there was once a program called “Hoiby: Beyond ‘The Serpent.’” And a voice coach once told him, “If you throw a brick out a window on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan], you will probably hit a soprano who has learned ‘The Serpent.’”

The new album gives us many new, or newish, songs. We see that the juice has not run dry. Hoiby is not necessarily one for social events — even those events that could help him, professionally. (A lot of networking and politicking goes on in the music world, believe you me.) “I could go out,” he says, “or I could stay home and write another song, which might please people and last.”

Speaking of lasting, Hoiby himself expects to last — in the flesh — many more years: A great-aunt of his recently died at 108.

We find in the songs here many of Hoiby’s hallmarks: a gift for melody (of course); a gift for harmony; a gift for modulation. I once said to Hoiby, about a particular modulation, “How’d you come up with that?” He said, “I don’t know — it just appeared.” Hoiby also has a gift for fluidity: His music tends to flow and stream and lap. Furthermore, many of his songs are simple — but they are not simplistic. There is true art behind the simplicity.

Do you know the story about Irving Berlin and “Always”? He once said it was his favorite of his songs. And someone had the temerity to say to him, “But Mr. Berlin, it’s so simple. Anybody could have written it.” He said, “I know, but I did.”

Hoiby songs are often imbued by the spiritual. And though they are usually beautiful — sometimes very, very beautiful — they are never merely sweet. Hoiby applies astringency, where desirable.

He also has a gift for length, I would say: The songs are neither too long nor too short. The pianist Earl Wild once said, “Music ought to say what it has to say, and get off the stage.” Hoiby understands that. In his songs, there is typically a climax, or some release. And there is what I’ve called “Hoiby flying music”: The singer soars on long, high notes, and the pianist runs wild underneath.

This composer always looks out for the pianist. One afternoon, he played me a new song — a lullaby. While simple (naturally), it contains a neat, surprising piano lick. He said with a wink, “You have to give the pianist something to keep him interested.”

Many people have remarked that Hoiby’s music is particularly American. What might that mean? Here is a guess: He is open, warm, direct, candid — guileless (while no naïf). But he is certainly universal. His music is exceptionally humane — the composer is on your side.

In the course of making this album, with his soprano and his baritone, Hoiby made a few changes in his songs. Rare is the composer who refrains from tinkering. And you might say that, given the presence of Hoiby as pianist and guiding spirit, these interpretations have real authority. (But a composer, I maintain, does not own his compositions — after he publishes them, the world does.)

Some years ago, at a party, Hoiby accompanied Leontyne Price in one of his songs (“Evening,” which is in fact part of the group known as Songs for Leontyne). Afterward, the soprano said to the composer-pianist, “You played that awfully fast.” He replied, “That’s the way it goes, Leontyne.”

I have heard a number of singers sing Hoiby songs. But the best singer of them, I have to tell you, is Hoiby himself — even now, even in his eighties. He truly knows how they go.

More than once, I have heard him sing “Where the Music Comes From,” which, out of him, becomes a personal prayer: a prayer for direction and growth. Once you have heard him sing it, the song gets under your skin. Of course, it gets under your skin anyway. As does so much of the music of this remarkable, individual man.

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