Robert Owens

Robert Owens has composed numerous American song settings, and his songs feature the poetry of writers from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

Photo: Robert Owens, publicity photo

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About

Born in Denison, Texas, on September 19th, 1925, Robert Owens grew up in Berkeley, California, and spent significant time around the piano as a child. His father was a businessman and his mother was a fine pianist who played at bars in the evenings.  She began giving him lessons at age 4. His first piano teacher was his mother. By the age of 15, Owens had already composed a piano concerto and premiered the work with the Berkeley Young People’s Symphony Orchestra.

Owens served in the military and followed his service with studies and performances throughout Europe. Originally placed in Mississippi in a training camp for airmen, Owens would be transferred to Arkansas and, due to his qualifications in reading and typing, began working in the front office doing administration for a commanding officer whom he served until the end of the war.  During this time, Owens managed to learn German from some German prisoners of war being held nearby. When the war concluded, Owens used the GI Bill to travel to France and attempt to study at the Paris Conservatoire.  While he was ultimately unsuccessful, he did manage to find a teacher there who saw potential in him.  Thus he began studying piano performance with Jules Gentil and pianist Alfred Cortot at the École de Musique where he would receive the Diplome de Perfection in piano.  He made his concert debut in Copenhagen in 1952.

He returned to the United States in 1957 to accept a position at Albany State College in Georgia. This year also marks the beginning of his serious compositional output.  During his time in Georgia, Owens began to really feel the effects of racial segregation in the American south for the first time. Before he even arrived, the school where he intended to teach was burned down. Owens even had to delay teaching music to his students because the education for Blacks was so poor that he deemed it more important to begin by teaching them basic English. After two years, with racial tensions climbing ever higher, Owens left Georgia.

Owens was introduced to Langston Hughes in 1958. Hughes gave Owens a copy of Fields of Wonder and invited him to “see what you can do with it.” Silver Rain was debuted by John Caldwell (chair of the music department at Albany State College) later that year and Owens would go on to devote himself to setting Hughes’ poetry to music, with more than 45 settings of Hughes in Owens’ oeuvre today.  Although the two men did not have significant contact throughout the rest of their lives, their artistic connection was profound.  Upon hearing his own words in Owens’ setting, Hughes said “My God, they just sound so much more beautiful with music.”

Owens moved to Germany in 1959 where he would live for the rest of his life. Many of his songs, especially his Langston Hughes settings, became popular among American singers there.  He continued to compose and also developed a notable ability for acting in German theater.

–Christie Finn & Jonathan Taccolini

Sources:

– Liner Notes to Darryl Taylor’s recording “Fields of Wonder: Songs and Spirituals of Robert Owens” (Albany Records)

Reimer, Jamie. “Fields of Wonder: Exploring the Langston Hughes Song Cycles of Robert Owens (an Introductory Analysis and Performance Guide): ‘Tearless’, Op. 9, ‘Silver Rain’, Op. 11, ‘Desire’, Op. 13, ‘Heart on the Wall’, Op. 14, ‘Border Line’, Op. 24, ‘Mortal Storm’, Op. 29.” University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 2008. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=musicstudent

Rogers, Philip J. “Robert Owens Biography,” February 17, 2020. http://afrovoices.com/robert-owens-biography/.

Related Information

Songs

Videos

Recordings

Heart on the Wall

(Robert Owens)

2011

With a Song in My Heart

(H. Leslie Adams, Henry Burleigh, Margaret Bonds, Robert Owens and Cecil Cohen)

2008

Fields of Wonder: Songs of Robert Owens

(Robert Owens)

2006

Dreamer - A Portrait of Langston Hughes

(Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, Henry Burleigh, Robert Owens, John Musto, Ricky Ian Gordon, Howard Swanson, Jean Berger, Erik Santos and Florence Price)

2001

African-American Composers of 20th Century

(Henry Burleigh, Robert Owens, William Grant Still)

2000

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

(H. Leslie Adams, Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, Robert Owens, George Walker, Howard Swanson, Florence Price, Henry Clay Work and Cecil Cohen)

1998

Sheet Music

Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers, Compiled by Willis C. Patterson

Composer(s): H. Leslie Adams, David Baker, Margaret Bonds, Charles Brown, Cecil Cohen, Noel de Costa, Mark Fax, Adolphus C. Hailstork, Eugene Hancock, Thomas Kerr, Jr., Charles Lloyd, Jr., Wendell Logan, Maurice McCall, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Undine Smith Moore, Robert Owens, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Florence Price, Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Howard Swanson, George Walker, Olly Wilson, John Work, Jr.

Song(s): For You There is No Song (Leslie Adams)
Early in the Mornin' (David Baker)
A Good Assassination Should Be Quiet (David Baker)
Status Symbol (David Baker)
Three Dream Portraits: Minstrel Man; Dream Variations; I, Too (Margaret Bonds)
The Barrier (Charles Brown)
Song Without Words (Charles Brown)
Death of an Old Seaman (Cecil Cohen)
Two Songs for Julie Ju (Noel da Costa)
Cassandra's Lullaby (Mark Fax)
Love (Mark Fax)
A Charm at Parting (Adolphus C. Hailstork)
I Loved You (Adolphus C. Hailstork)
Absalom (Eugene Hancock)
Nunc Dimittis (Eugene Hancock)
Riding to Town (Thomas Kerr, Jr.)
Compensation (Charles Lloyd, Jr.)
If There Be Sorrow (Wendell Logan)
Marrow of My Bone (Wendell Logan)
Chanson Triste (Maurice McCall)
Sweet Sorrow (Maurice McCall)
Weary Blues (Dorothy Rudd Moore)
Love Let the Wind Cry...How I Adore Thee (Undine Moore)
Faithful One (Robert Owens)
Genius Child (Robert Owens)
A Child's Grace (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
Melancholy (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
Night (Florence Price)
Song to the Dark Virgin (Florence Price)
Velvet Shoes (Hale Smith)
Grief (William Grant Still)
A Death Song (Howard Swanson)
I Will Lie Down in Autumn (Howard Swanson)
The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Howard Swanson)
Lament (George Walker)
A Red, Red Rose (George Walker)
Wry Fragments (Olly Wilson)
Dancing in the Sun (John Work, Jr.)
Soliloquy (John Work, Jr.)

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Genius Child

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Baritone

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Three Countee Cullen Songs, Op. 27

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: High

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Border Line, Op. 24

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Baritone

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Two Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Cello

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Song(s): 1. I am Part of the Load 2. Drum sound rises on the air

Voice Type: Mezzo-Soprano

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Desire, Op. 13

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Tenor

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Heart on the Wall

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Soprano

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3 Lieder für Mezzosopran mit Klavier Op. 19

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Mezzo-Soprano

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3 Lieder für Bariton und Klavier Op. 20

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Baritone

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Silver Rain, Op. 11

Composer(s): Robert Owens

Voice Type: Tenor

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