Paul Sperry: Songs of an Innocent Age

Songs of an Innocent Age

I first became attracted to turn-of-the-century American songs in 1975 when I started preparing recitals for the Bicentennial celebration. I discovered an enormous reper­tory of delightful music of which this recording contains only a small sample. Most of these songs were written primarily to be sung in the parlor around the piano, but many were quickly picked up and performed in concert by the leading singers of the day. As tastes changed over the last seventy years, they virtually disappeared from the concert hall, and as record listening replaced live music-making at home, they were abandoned there as well. Thus for a long time, these pieces have been virtually ignored. Happily, tastes are changing again and both singers and audiences are taking great pleasure in this charming music.

In selecting these songs, I have tried to give a sample of different styles of the period. The musical establishment of the day was the conservative, German-oriented school known as the "New England Classicists." They were led by Chadwick and Foote and included Beach, Clough-Leighter and MacDowell. Brahms was their model and Paine was their American precursor. They wrote many large-scale works as well as songs and began to persuade the American public that serious music was here to stay. Nevin seems to agree with them stylistically, but he wrote only small chamber works; his songs were so successful that he was known as "The American Schubert." "Narcissus," which is probably his most famous piece, was originally a piano solo, but it was arranged for every conceivable combination of instruments. In this version, the piano piece is left intact and a voice line is grafted onto it.

Cadman, Ayres, Gilbert and Loomis were all published by Arthur Farwell's Wa-Wan Press which provided an outlet for composers whose philosophy differed from Chadwick's. They believed in using indigenous sources wherever possible (Cadman's lovely Indian song) and in using French and Russian models instead of German, (although I find Gilbert's chromaticism more Wagnerian than Russian or French). Ives, of course, stood outside all schools, but in "Spring Song" he seems to be composing in the sentimental style of the day, saving a little joke for the end. Carpenter was clearly under the sway of French Impressionism in these early pieces, while Griffes, perhaps the most gifted composer of the period aside from Ives, wrote these beautiful Straussian songs while he was a young student in Germany. MacDowel's career in general is well known, but it is interesting that after his first few songs he decided to set his own texts exclusively. He felt that only in this way could he create a proper marriage of words and music.

Would that other composers of the time had been as concerned about the poems they set. The lyrics of a huge percentage of the repertory constitute an embarrassment of mediocrity or worse, (unfortunately including MacDowel's own texts). Our composers were drawn to sentimental lyrics which are hard to perform in public today. Fortunately, they occasionally tackled Shakespeare, Shelley, or other poets of at least some charm, and I have tried to pick the best of the lot. Occasionally, as with Buck's setting of Charles Swain or Chadwick's "The Danza," the poems are so bad and the settings so appropriate that the songs become hugely entertaining. Whether Bond's "Half-Minute Songs" were meant to be funny at the time, I can't tell; they certainly are now. The Sousa song obviously was meant to be comical and still is.

I hope that many singers will include these songs on recital programs. The music is available in two volumes that I have edited: Songs of an Innocent Aye, published by G. Schirmer, Inc. and American An Songs of the Turn of the Century published by Dover Publications, Inc.

Paul Sperry

Paul Sperry is recognized as one of today's outstanding interpreters of American music. Although he is equally at home in a repertoire that extends from Monteverdi opera and the Bach Passions to Britten's "War Requiem" and hundreds of songs in more than a dozen languages, he brings to American music a conviction and an enthusiasm that has brought it to life for countless listeners.

Many of today's leading composers have written works specially for him; Sperry has world premieres of works by more than thirty Americans to his credit. He premiered Leonard Bernstein's "Dybbuk Suite" with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman's "Animus IV" for the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou at Beaubourg in Paris in 1977, and Bernard Rands' Pulitzer Prize winning "Canti del Sole" with the New York Philharmonic in 1983 under Zubin Mehta. Other composers whose works he has premiered include William Bolcom, Daniel Brewbaker, Richard Hundley, Marvin David Levy, Stephen Paulus, Larry Alan Smith, Louise Talma, Francis Thorne, Nicholas Thorne, Dan Welcher and Charles Wuorinen.

Singing songs has always been Sperry's principal passion. For the American Bicen­tennial in 1976, Sperry assembled a three-recital series, "Red, White and Blue—A Salute to American Song," which explored the little known literature of the past hundred years. Subsequently he increased his repertoire and has now performed songs by over a hundred American composers.

Sperry is also a passionate advocate for American music. He has tried to insure that many of die wonderful works he has unearthed will be easily available to others. To that end, he has compiled and edited several volumes of American songs, both anthologies and single composer collections for G. Schirmer, Peer-Southern, Boosey & Hawkes and Dover Publications. In 1989 he became the first non-composer to be elected president of the American Music Center, a fifty year old national organization which houses a large circulating library of scores, recordings and tapes and provides information all over the world about American composers and their music.

Born in Chicago, Mr. Sperry graduated from Harvard College and continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He worked extensively with such masters of art-song interpretation as Jennie Tourel, Paul Ulanowsky and Pierre Bernac. Today Mr. Sperry is widely appreciated for his own master classes at the Eastman School of Music, the Peabody Institute, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the University of Southern California, the Manhattan School of Music, Harvard and Yale to name a few. Since 1984 he has taught 19th- and 20th-century song repertory and performance at the Juilliard School, and he has created there what may be the country's only full-year course in American song. He has been a faculty member of the Aspen Music Festival since 1978. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children.