Nancy Ogle – Teaching New Vocal Music to Undergraduates
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Teaching new vocal music to undergraduates
It is tempting to teach voice using only the “standard” classical repertoire, and for good reasons. There is much beautiful music that we know, and much to be learned from it. Today’s students, however, live at a greater distance from even early 20th century music than we teachers can easily imagine. The poetry of these songs is often as remote for them as the musical style we are trying to teach, and this distance intensifies as we go further back, into the Romantic, Classical and Baroque periods.
We, as teachers, have practical obstacles in learning new music: when do we have time to evaluate and learn new repertoire for our students? How do we even find out where it is?
American song literature has grown immensely in the last 50 years. Every year there is excellent vocal music being written in this country by composers as dedicated to their vision as any composers before them. As you may imagine, some music might be too difficult for undergraduate voice majors, but there is much that is not.
Sometimes in my experience with performing this new music, students have asked if they could learn one piece or another after just one hearing! These are the pieces I think voice teachers most want to know about. The ones that are appropriate for undergraduate voice majors, I offer in the list that follows. I will also mention some composers who are my own favorites, both to hear and sing, that I find suitable for teaching. My hope is that as students bring their enthusiasm to the new music they love, they will feel encouraged to embrace more challenging musical textures and so open themselves to some of the thrilling experiences that are available to singers today.
I offer this growing list to my colleagues in the field, who would like to give new poetry and music to their students, but may not have come across these exciting works.
After a thorough search of Emily Dickinson settings, I was pleased to find that Robert Baksa‘s two award-winning Dickinson cycles remain impressive. His grasp of the subtle moods, humor, and depth of Dickinson reads very well. My favorites include “Two butterflies went out at noon” “There is a certain slant of light, ” and the famous “I’m nobody”. The pieces are lyrical and accessible. Moderate range. Suitable for first- or second-year students. Listen to Two butterflies went out at noon. Accompaniment: compare the folk songs of Aaron Copland. Available through Theodore Presser Company, Presser Place, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, or on his website, robertbaksa.com.
Six Lullabies by Brian Holmes (poetry by Mark van Doren). Tonal, lyrical, medium-range. Suitable for first year. Piano accompaniment quite simple (comparable to, say, Handel). Number 5 of this cycle, “Sleep, Grandmother, Sleep”, has elicited a request for a copy of the score at nearly every performance. Listen to the first song in this cycle: Chipmunk, chipmunk . Holmes also has a cycle of John Updike settings, Thermodynamics, suitable for young tenor (second or third year). Accompaniments somewhat more complex (compare Wolf). One student said, “Now I could sing that music all day long!” Available from the composer at his website, brianwholmes.com.
I Am Cherry Alive by Gerald Ginsburg (poem by Delmore Schwartz) makes little girls in the audience sit still and listen very closely. Multi-metric but not otherwise too difficult for a fourth-year soprano with a joyous, high Bb. Ginsburg has written literally hundreds of songs, which he calls theater lieder. His No Clocks cycle of e.e.cummings is a favorite, especially “mantra” and “toctic”. These, like most of his songs, are suitable for first- or second-year students. Moderate range. Accompaniments: compare Bernstein. Listen to toctic . Songs available at the New York Public Library, nypl.org .
Heavenly Grass by Paul Bowles (poem by Tennessee Williams). Mr. Bowles is mostly known for his novels, but his songs are lyrical, skillful, and of a style that refuses to be categorized. “Heavenly Grass” is the first in a group called “Blue Mountain Ballads.” Like “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” arranged by J. J. Niles, these pieces have the feel of traditional ballads, but with a modern texture that is deeply satisfying. Suitable for second-year students. Accompaniment: compare Niles. Available from G. Schirmer. Also on the official Paul Bowles website.
Small Poem by Russell Smith (poem by P.R. Brown), would work on any children’s concert, and it gets giggles from adults as well. Haiku-like, middle range. Suitable for second- or third-year students. Smith writes melodically, usually for moderate range with accompaniments about as requiring as Wolf. His sense of the form of the art song is, as far as I can see, unsurpassed in American song-literature. If I were a theorist, I might be able to tell you why, but I am drawn to think of Schubert with his songs, again and again. Listen to Epitaph on a Tyrant. Available from Werner Becker Verlag., Giselherstr. 10, D-80804 Munich, Germany.
Thomas Merton Songs four settings by Brian Banks, are a powerful argument for American ecstatic-mystical poetry. These early works of Banks are suitable for third- or fourth-year students. The soaring lines are reminiscent of Richard Strauss and Frederick Delius, but there is already something distinctly American in his musical conception. His later songs, including settings of Whitman, Dickinson, cummings and St. John of the Cross, show increasing influence of Charles Ives. Accompaniment: compare Mendelssohn. Listen to Evening. Scores available from the composer at his website, brianrbanks-composer.com.
Rain in Spring by Ned Rorem (poem by Paul Goodman) is particularly evocative. Mr. Rorem is, of course, so well-known that he needs no mention, but this list would be incomplete without him! Vocal lines are lyrical, accompaniments playable (compare Mozart). This song is suitable for a second-year student: most of his songs are accessible to undergraduates. Available from G. Schirmer.
The Bird which John Duke wrote for Bidu Sayao (poem by Elinor Wylie) has attracted many sopranos. Mr. Duke is also well-known, although many of his lovely songs are still not widely available. A long career teaching at Smith gave him great sensitivity to undergraduate women’s voices. Accompaniments: compare Wolf. Available from G. Schirmer.
Good Times by Morris Knight (poetry by Lucille Clifton). These exciting songs are worth the time of a third- or fourth-year student who is attracted to jazz. You will want a jazz pianist to accompany. Listen to the first song in this cycle: In the Inner City . The notes aren’t difficult, but the spaces can be tricky! The title song comes at the end, and is unforgettable. Available from prestomusic.com.
Spring and Fall by Ronald Ray Williams from “Three Songs” (texts by G.M.Hopkins). All these settings are warm, accessible and musically satisfying. Ideal for first- and second-year students. Middle range. Listen to Inversnaid. Piano: compare Schubert. Williams also has an impressive cycle of Millay settings that I have seen, and is lately at work on some Herrick songs. Scores available at the Performing Arts Library of the New York Public Library: nypl.org.
The Starlight Night by Russell Woollen, from his “Suite for High Voice”, is a delightful celebration! Good, strong musical ideas! It’s the fourth song of this group of five (all texts of G.M. Hopkins), but makes a good ender for a set. The entire suite has a quality of uplift which effectively counterbalances the somber tendency of Hopkins’ poetry. Listen to: Starlight Night. Suitable for students from the second year onward. Accompaniment: compare Copland. Scores available from the American Composers Alliance: composers.com .
Ripple Effect by Donald Hagar, poem by Ruth Stone. A very funny poem and setting. Students have requested copies of the score just to be able to read it and show it to people. Only for very mature students, as it takes musical confidence and perseverance to put this piece together, but the result is marvelous. Listen to Ripple Effect . Hagar has a penchant for abstract and funny poetry, but has a few quieter songs, which are within grasp of most upper division students. Accompaniment: compare Sondheim. In recent years, Hagar has also set to music poems by e.e.cummings, Katie Louchheim and Emily Dickinson. His opera, Inspiration, was performed by the New York City Opera in their Festival of New Operas in 2004. Scores available from the composer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace by Joyce Hope Suskind, poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from a cycle of Hopkins settings. Suskind writes classical songs infused with such a strong feeling of traditional or “folk” music that the listener is sometimes taken “out” of the concert hall – a very interesting effect, showing an edge of the power that her music has. Listen to Peace. Songs generally suitable for undergraduates, especially third- or fourth-year. Accompaniments: compare Schubert. Suskind has set several other poets, including William Butler Yeats (18 songs, two with orchestra), Aiken, Auden, Stevenson and Christina Walsh. Scores may be ordered from the American Composers Alliance, at composers.com .
Wild Nights! Wild Nights! by Dace Aperans, on the famous poem by Emily Dickinson, is one of a group of three Dickinson settings. This piece is remarkable for its sensitivity to the text, echoing and complementing Dickinson’s ecstatic, profound and compact style. Listen to Wild Nights! Wild Nights!. Appropriate for 4th-year students. Accompaniment: compare Schumann. Scores available at the Performing Arts Library of the New York Public Library: nypl.org.
Chances by Arnold Berleant, on the poem by Philip Booth. Rich, satisfying textures of ocean and beach under and around this marvelous poem. Berleant writes lyrical and engaging melodies, tending to choose poems that are emotionally complex, so more suited to older students. Listen to Chances. Accompaniment: compare Wolf. Berleant’s other vocal works include Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird for flute, oboe and tenor, as well as other settings of Wallace Stevens, W.B.Yeats, and Philip Booth. See his website for further information: arnoldberleant.com.
My life closed twice before its close by Donald Betts, on the poem by Emily Dickinson. The plaintive and solitary quality of this poem are beautifully expressed in this passionate rendering from his cycle Five Poems of Emily Dickinson. Betts is a musical idealist, who attains a remarkable purity of vision and tone. Like Wagner, his lines are difficult, not because of the shapes of phrases, which are quite lyrical, but rather because of the emotional intensity demanded of the performer. Listen to My life closed twice before its close. Accompaniment tends to be demanding: compare Hindemith. Besides the Dickinson cycle, Betts has also set texts of G.M.Hopkins and Clara Schumann. For further information see his website: donbettspianist.wordpress.com.
The Messenger by Richard Brooks, from his cycle of Shelley settings, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Clear and powerful, this setting amplifies the poem and provides context and spacing that allows the audience to take in the abstraction of a very philosophical work. Listen to The Messenger. Information and scores are available from the composer at richardbrooksmusic.com .
Morning Star by Philip Carlsen, is the first of a cycle (of the same name) on texts by Gary Snyder. Scored for marimba and voice, the songs are rhythmically irregular and dynamic, evoking an ancient quality of nature worship that fits well with the poems. Scored for medium voice. Other songs by Carlsen include settings of Wes McNair and Emily Dickinson, and Wordsworth, with piano or small orchestra. For more information about Philip Carlsen’s works, see his webpage: philcarlsen.com.
The Tiger by Donald Dilworth, setting the famous poem by William Blake, is the last of his cycle, Five Blake Songs. The angularity of Dilworth’s music really pays off in this piece, formulating the dark uncertainty of the jungle, the mounting tension and sheer animal power. Listen to The Tiger. Besides writing songs, Dilworth has written larger vocal works and one opera, Rostam. For more information about his music, see his Opera America webpage: Dilworth at Opera America .
Musicians Wrestle Everywhere by Cary John Franklin, on the poem by Emily Dickinson. This is the first song in an award-winning cycle, commissioned by the Schubert Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. Exciting and very singable, with a fabulous text, this piece makes a great opening for a recital. Listen to Musicians Wrestle Everywhere. Accompaniment: compare Copland songs. For more information, visit his website: caryjohnfranklin.com.
The heart asks pleasure first by Earl George, from his cycle of Emily Dickinson songs. Including one a capella piece in a program has a way of helping the audience to focus on the texts — in my experience, students will often like that piece best of all. This particular song is not a capella, but the writing is so spare that it’s an excellent example of true simplicity: the accompaniment does not even enter until late into the poem. George, who is mostly known for his choral works, has a reputation for communicating the spirit of his chosen texts. Scores available at the Performing Arts Library of the New York Public Library, nypl.org .
Sainte by Jan Gilbert, on a poem by Stefan Mallarmé. This piece is a fine example of Gilbert’s particular talent for discovering underlying moods in poetry that is abstract and highly objectified. The lyricism in both the vocal line and the piano reveals a beauty and coherence in the text, making difficult poetry accessible and hauntingly attractive. Recent settings of texts by G.M Hopkins and Richard Carlsen show how well she expresses more emotional lines. Gilbert’s greatest public successes have been, I believe, with her electronic and choral music, but her songs resonate with some important contemporary poets, and they provide beautiful, windows into the ice palace of her musical vision. For more information, visit her website: jangilbertmusic.com.
Burdens by William Goldberg, on the poem by Harold Siegelbaum. Goldberg has written so many fine settings of New England poets. This one is a particular favorite, and a good example of his usual style. Listen to the interplay of harmony, melody and silence in Burdens. Accompaniments: compare Schubert. Goldberg has songs appropriate for undergraduates at all levels, as well as dramatic works for advanced singers, such as his Domine, probasti me. Among his songs, check out the other settings of Siegelbaum, as well as those of Walt Whitman, Ted Enslin and Grace Paley. Scores and recordings available from Cormorant Press. Scores available at the New York Public Library: nypl.org .
This is my letter to the world by Robert Greenlee, on the famous poem by Emily Dickinson. In his recent songs, Greenlee displays an exquisite sense of mood, giving the singer sensitive and ecstatic lines of even Wagnerian intensity, while providing the pianist with a satisfying second voice that sets the tone with its own melodic elements as well as responding to the vocal line. Listen to This is my letter to the world. His cycle of G.M.Hopkins settings is every bit as beautiful. Scores available at the Performing arts Library of the New York Public Library: nypl.org.
I died for beauty by Ethan Haimo, from a cycle based on poems of Emily Dickinson. When Haimo sets reflective text, something very specific seems to be going on. His accompaniments tend to be spare, and the vocal lines in a middle range, which is good for conveying the words. There’s often a somewhat angular quality to the melodies, creating a sense that the music exists in a three-dimensional space where one is exploring it kinetically from the inside. Listen to I died for beauty. He has a cycle of May Swenson songs in which that same otherworldliness is palpable. Although recently he has been writing only orchestral and instrumental works, one can hope he will find more poems that inspire. Scores may be obtained from the composer: Ethan.Haimo@biu.ac.il.
The Chums by Sydney Hodkinson, from his cycle on poems by Theodore Roethke. Hodkinson really has a grasp on the hard humor and irony of Roethke. Listen to The Chums. Throughout the cycle, his accompaniments tend to be rich: one needs an accompanist with skill and finesse, but lyricism, depth and wit of these songs are extremely attractive. For scores, contact him through his website: sydhodkinson.com.
…as the circling bird by Mary Ann Joyce-Walter, on the poem by G.M.Hopkins. Joyce-Walter has set many Hopkins poems for solo voice, and also for chorus. Her clear, declamatory treatment supports and enhances these difficult texts. Her distinctive, balladic style reveals the tone and beauty of the poems admirably, the effect reminiscent of Carl Loewe’s treatment of German poetry. Listen to …as the circling bird. For more information, see her webpage at maryannjoyce-walter.com.
I heard a fly buzz when I died by Ken Langer, from a set of twelve songs on poems by Emily Dickinson. This charming and unusual song gives a strong sense of dynamic connection between text, melody and rhythm which one tends to find in his songs and also in his larger vocal works. Listen to I heard a fly buzz when I died. Besides Dickinson, Langer has set poems of Christina Rosetti and Rabindranath Tagore. He also has a set of spiritual songs based on religious texts of eight different world religions. For a complete listing of his work, see his homepage: kenlanger.com. Scores may be obtained from the composer: email@example.com .
The Bourgeois Poet by Leonard Lehrman, from a cycle of settings of Karl Shapiro. The sardonic wit in the poem comes to life in this song. It’s an exquisite piece of writing: memorable and sure to bring chuckles from the audience. It will make you curious to know more of Lehrman’s music. Listen to The Bourgeois Poet. Besides the Shapiro songs, Lehrman has also set texts of Emily Dickinson. For more information and scores, see his website: ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com.
The Beauty and the Beast by James Lewis, on a poem by Claudia Barbosa Teixera, from Lewis’ cycle, Winter, Water, Sky Songs, for soprano and piano. Lewis has a penchant for soaring melodies, rich harmonies, open spaces and wide angles that works extremely well for some poetry of the 1960’s. A very different example of his work, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, shows his skill in combining jazz and classical elements to create a powerhouse of a piece. Most composers seem shy of pulling the worlds of jazz and classical music together, but Lewis accomplishes this very thing superbly, giving the vocalist a full-throated lyricism which is one of the particular joys of classical singing. For further information and scores, see Mr. Lewis’ page at musicsalesclassical.com .
Hat Song by Binnette Lipper, on a poem by Audrey Colombe. This is a great poem, and the song is a real acting piece, for the range of moods almost more of a solo cantata. Lipper’s melodies are lush and gratifying to sing, and her piano parts tend to be full and rich, creating a sense of completeness that is almost orchestral. She infuses humor and lightness into music in a way that is subtle and fresh. Her Yeats Songs are on shorter, simpler poems, but have the same luscious qualities. Scores available at newyorkwomencomposers.org .
Penmaen Pool by Kile Smith, on the poem by G.M.Hopkins. All three of the Hopkins settings in this little cycle are memorable for their charm and poetic focus. His style is a welcome mixture of classical and “popular” elements that makes one wish for him to write an opera. Listen to Penmaen Pool . He has composed many solo vocal works, using secular and sacred texts. This award-winning Hopkins cycle has been performed with orchestra, as well as with piano. Further information is available at kilesmith.com.
A Child Said by Don Stratton, on the poem by Walt Whitman. This a capella setting combines strong and tender emotions with speech-like qualities, in fact, some of the text is recited. A life-long jazz musician, Stratton combines a jazz perspective with an admiration for Charles Ives and John Cage to produce an unmistakably American sound. His vocal works tend to be for one or a few instruments plus voice: although he has written several major orchestral works, only one, Phuong!, includes voices. I have seen a full house enthralled by a performance of his The Explaination, scored for three solo voices plus jazz ensemble. Jazz tends to break the barrier between performers and audience. Stratton understands this as well as any composer I have met. I have seen several concerts of his music in which the audience giggled and laughed out loud from pure delight. Scores are archived at the Bangor Public Library: Bangorpubliclibrary.org .
Wild Nights by Richard Pearson Thomas, from his cycle A Liquor Never Brewed of some twenty settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. This is a light-hearted and thrilling take on Dickinson’s ecstatic poem, and it works. This poem is probably as close as Ms. Dickinson ever got to writing potential lyrics for a popular song, and Thomas makes the most of the text’s simple element of joy. Listen to Wild Nights . For more information and scores, see his website at richardpearsonthomas.com
Where is the Nightingale by Gwyneth Walker, from her cycle, Songs of the Night Wind. This is a gorgeous, passionate cycle, set for medium voice and cello. An early work for Walker, with an emotional directness that can be very attractive to young singers. Also available with piano accompaniment, this and her other cycles can be purchased from E.C.Schirmer. For more complete information about her songs, see her webpage: gwynethwalker.com/walkcat.html .
O to be a Dragon by Beth Wiemann, on a poem by Marianne Moore. In this early, but (I think) representative song, Wiemann really captures the wonder and charm of young energy trapped in the angularity of the modern mind. Her vocal anthology is called Simple Songs, and they are not, but her choices of modern poetry are delicious, and superbly set. Listen to O to be a Dragon. Wiemann’s vocal works are available through the American Composers Alliance or from the composer at her website: bethwiemann.com .
Unless otherwise indicated, all recordings are of Nancy Ogle with colleagues at the University of Maine.
Many of the scores mentioned above are available through the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, at nypl.org/locations/lpa .
University of Maine Professor Nancy Ellen Ogle’s work with contemporary composers is available on recordings on Capstone, Cormorant, Woodsum, New Media Productions and Parma labels. In 2014, Ogle was a Grammy nominee in the category for best classical solo vocal recording for a CD of Scott Brickman’s music featuring Ogle singing his Dear Darwin Songs (Ravello Recordings). Ogle has presented papers on the philosophy of voice for conferences of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, The Prometheus Trust, and The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. The Santayana Society published her article, “Santayana and Voice,” in their Fall 2016 Bulletin.
An Evening with Gerard Manley Hopkins CD
Including settings of his most loved poems, composed by Kile Smith, Ronald Ray Williams, Arthur Campbell, MaryAnn Joyce Walter, Donald Betts, Joyce Suskind, Don Hagar, Samuel Barber, Robert Greenlee. Accompanied at the piano by Ginger Yang Hwalek. Narration text by Kathleen Ellis, read by John Burns.
A Different Slant of Light CD
Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been set to music more times than any other American poet. This album shows some of the highlights from our extensive search, including celebrated settings by Aaron Copland, Robert Baksa, Cary John Franklin, and John Duke, along with delightful new works by…Accompanied by Ginger Yang Hwalek. Narration by Kathleen Ellis.
The Truth About Love CD
W. H. Auden’s lifelong fascination with music is explored in this album. Examples from his operatic collaborations with Stravinsky and Henze, as well as his libretto for Mozart’s “Magic Flute” are represented along with several of his most famous poems in recent settings by American composers. In addition, some songs were deliberately written by Auden for musical setting during his long collaboration with Benjamin Britten. They include the title song, “Tell Me the Truth About Love.” Sung by Ms. Ogle and Francis John Vogt. Accompanied by Ginger Yang Hwalek, piano; Beth Wiemann, clarinet; and Elizabeth Downing, flute. Narration by John Burns.
Above recordings available from Capstone Records, 252 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205.
Nancy Ellen Ogle holds a Master of Music Degree in Vocal Performance from Indiana University, where she studied voice with Martha Lipton. Her postgraduate studies have included important work with Birgit Nilsson, Edward Zambara, Allen Rogers and Elizabeth Cole. Her concert career has included television appearances in Canada and Germany as well as the United States and performances in Mexico, England, Ireland, Austria, Russia, Georgia (Republic), and Japan. Recent operatic appearances include Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure with the Apollon Arts Society in St. Petersburg (Russia), and Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with the Surry Opera (Maine). Ms. Ogle has performed premieres of many concert works, including pieces by John Eaton, Don Stratton, Jan Gilbert, Marilyn Ziffrin, Don Dilworth and Mary Ann Joyce.
Ms. Ogle is a Maine Touring Artist.
Professor Ogle (standing) with colleague Ginger Yang Hwalek, pianist.
With help from accompanying musicians and also scholars of poetry and composition, Ogle has evaluated hundreds of scores of unpublished works by American composers living throughout the United States and abroad. Drawing from published and unpublished sources, she has created programs, in the lecture-recital format, which she has performed principally in the New England area. Ogle’s recital programs include such subjects as “the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” “American Poetry of the 1930’s,” “American Poetry of the 1950’s,” “American Women Poets,” “American Women Composers,” “New York Composers,” and “Maine Composers.” Her research and performance in the field of modern American song literature has been supported by such organizations as the National Poetry Foundation, the Maine Humanities Council, the Women’s Literary Union, the Live Poet’s Society, The Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School, and the Maine Composers’ Forum.
Recordings of Ms. Ogle’s work are to be found on Capstone, Cormorant, Woodsum and Music Media Productions labels.
Ms. Ogle is currently Professor of Music at the University of Maine, where she teaches voice and directs the Opera Workshop.
Nancy Ellen Ogle
tel. 207.581.1255 fax. 207.581.4701