Song of Ourselves

The classical musician explains Walt Whitman's begrudging encounter with Italian opera, and the indelible mark this meeting has had on the American song.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is the American song?

Thomas Hampson: The American song, and my preoccupation, or fascination with the song is really this specific dialogue of poetry and music. When we speak of American Song, we really are speaking more of song in America because as we well know, America is a nation of many races and many cultural influences. And the astounding fact about arts and letters in America is how creative we've been. I'm not sure we give ourselves as much credit and attention to how consistently and massive creative we have been in telling our story, or telling what it is to be alive now, as Copeland so beautifully told us that only composers and poets can do this. That's all they really can do is say, "This is what it's like to be alive now."

When we look at the arts and letters in America, especially if we look at poetry, and poetry set to music, this dialogue, we have this very powerful beautiful, eclectic, diary, or narration of being in America, being American, participating in America, becoming more of America and also as an American, the American creative spirit, which is quite interesting. Our composers and poets have spent more time writing and thinking and speaking out of what it means to be a composer or poet as well as to be an American, or a composer or poet In America; both relationships. It's a very fascinating story that's being told that is wonderfully associative and reaches people across all walks of life and all points of association to their cultural history. This is what drives me in American Song especially.

The issues of poetry, and music, and dialogue with one another is the essential thrust of any song. The breakdown becomes the epoch, the language, the cultural tapestry from which it's echoing, if you will. I often say it's the eyes of the poet's and the ears of the composer's. This narration is what fascinates me endlessly.

Question: How has the American song evolved?

Thomas Hampson: Well, the fascinating thing about poetic development or language development. If you take Whitman in an American context it's fascinating. This guy begrudgingly gets sent off to criticize Italian opera, or be the critic in the audience, or at least some sort of reporter of the events; doesn't know much about music, doesn't like music very much. Fast forward 20 years and he's writing "Leaves of Grass" and fast forward another 10 years and he's writing about having written "Leaves of Grass," and says, "Without my experience in music and Italian opera I would have not found this new way of expressing language." And then fast forward again another 20 years, and you have other composers saying that without Walt Whitman's use of language we would have never developed musical style or form to be more flexible to the actual expression.

And that’s the thrust of the idea that, as we see song develop, this dialogue of poetry and music, both searching for the proper metaphor of the actual human experience, if you will, you see this, especially in American arts and literature, you see this driving passion to, as Emerson said, "Let the substance that needs to be expressed tell us how to express it, rather than try to fit it into a form." So, that's probably the most salient difference between Whitman and Foster, or better put, the middle of the 19th Century as we move through the 20th Century we see a deepening of this very, how can I say it, deep relationship of exactly what the metaphor is and what each word stands for and the word finding it's own place in it's context and in it's style versus having to fit some sort of iambic pentameter or something like this.

Question: What’s your favorite poem?

Thomas Hampson: The one I'm singing. I don't recite a lot of poetry. I like to read poetry and I love to hear a great voice or a great mind recite poetry. I don't walk around the house regaling people with the last poem. Having sung so many songs in so many languages, there are so many beautiful moments, I'd have to -- this will certainly be edited out. I'd have to think long and hard to -- some of my favorite poetry is in German, some of the very brief moments of reflective thought from Walt Whitman, "Reside With Me." They're all somehow part of the song literature at this point in my mind.

Recorded on October 28, 2009