When you think of American song, which composers come to mind? Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Duke, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom? Amy Beach, Lori Laitman, Libby Larsen? Dominick Argento, Jake Heggie, John Musto? All of these well-known American composers have wonderful songs…and offer a great starting point for exploring a wide range of brilliant American composers!
For a general introduction to American song, our 13-program Song of America radio series is a good place to start; you can listen to it for free on our website.
The suggestions below focus on American composers whose body of work includes songs appropriate for young singers. These suggestions offer ideas on how to branch out from the general American art song anthologies. In general, the composers listed here have readily available sheet music for their songs.
…Or explore more songs by female composers of color?
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) collaborated with Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. Among her beloved songs is the collection Three Dream Portraits, which sets Hughes’s poetry, as well as Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and a striking setting of Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Some selections from the 1985 opera Frederick Douglass, by composer Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940), are available in voice/piano versions, including “Fourth of July Speech” (baritone & piano) and “Lullaby” (soprano & piano). Although most of her song cycles include an obbligato instrument, Douglass’s song cycle Flowers of Darkness, which sets the poetry of a variety of black poets, is for tenor and piano.
Brittney Boykin (b. 1989), a.k.a. B. E. Boykin, is leading the next generation of composers with choral works as well as songs, including her gorgeous Maya Angelou song settings for soprano and piano.
If you like these composers, you should also check out: Gabriela Lena Frank, Tania Leon, and Nailah Nombeko. And for further exploration, start with Vivian Taylor’s anthology Art Songs and Spirituals by African-American Women Composers from Hildegard Publishing Company.
Perhaps you want to include works which directly address social or political issues, or explore spiritual themes…
You probably already know Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) because of his musical The Cradle Will Rock, his famous translation of The Threepenny Opera, or his leftist politics—but, apart from his musical theater compositions, he also wrote some stunning art songs. A great many of them are collected in Boosey & Hawkes’s three volume The Marc Blitzstein Songbook: from early, more experimental songs, like Nine Walt Whitman Songs, to numbers that blend classical traditions with blues, pop, and cabaret styles, to settings of Shakespeare and e. e. cummings, there’s something for every singer.
New York city native Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) was deeply inspired by American folk song and Native American music, and elements of jazz and blues also infuse his songs. He was a longtime friend and collaborator of Langston Hughes and set his poetry in the song cycles Madam to You and The Face of War. Both works demonstrate Siegmeister’s social and political engagement during the Civil Rights movement and at the onset of the Vietnam War.
Simon Sargon (b. 1938) is an American composer of Indian and Israeli descent. His Jewish heritage plays an important role in his compositions, and he is well known for his sacred music. However, his extraordinary sensitivity to poetry has brought him to compose penetrating song cycles like Bitter for Sweet, Intimations of Mortality, A Star in a Haymow, and Let It Be You.
If you like these composers, you should also check out: Arthur Farwell, David Leisner, and Leo Smit. And you’ll find more inspiration in our Song of America radio program “Many are the Voices.”
…Or want to discover more African American composers whose songs you may not know?
The songs of Cleveland native H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932) have become integral to the American song canon. Adams’s songs have been heard internationally and throughout the U.S.A., including at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. His song cycle Night Songs is especially riveting, as are his song cycles The Wider View and Five Millay Songs. More information on how to acquire his scores is available via the American Composers Alliance.
The African American Art Song Alliance celebrated the songs of Adolphus C. Hailstork (b. 1941) in February 2017 with a concert dedicated to his music. His most treasured song cycles include Four Love Songs (on poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar) and Songs of Love and Justice (on texts by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both cycles are published in their entirety in The Second Anthology of Art Songs by African American Composers, available via Videmus.org.
Robert Owens (1925-2017) remains an inspiration to today’s American composers and artists. After meeting Langston Hughes in 1958, and setting some of his poetry to music, Owens devoted himself to setting Hughes’s work, composing more than 45 musical settings of his poetry for all voice types. Although he lived most of his life in Germany, American poetry and themes remained at the center of his artistic life. His song cycles are published by Classical Vocal Reprints—and see Darryl Taylor’s album Fields of Wonder to hear many of his songs.
If you like these composers, you should also check out: Shawn Okpebholo, William Grant Still, and Howard Swanson. And take a look at A New Anthology of Art Songs by African American Composers, available from Southern Illinois University Press.
We hope your exploration of American song helps you connect more deeply to your journey as an artist and American. Isn’t it exciting how the more you study American song, the more the story of us as Americans jumps out as we sing?
We look forward to hearing your voice, not only as part of this competition, but also when it comes to more suggestions for our Song of America database! You can email us as [email protected].