Crossing that Line to Freedom: Heart on the Wall, African American Art Songs, by Louise Toppin and the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra; and the anthology Sence You Went Away

By Daniel Garrett

Louise Toppin with the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra, Heart on the Wall
Executive Producers Larry D. Stanley, Louise Toppin
Producers Milan Puklicky (Prague); Julius Williams, Louise Toppin (USA)
Albany Records, 2011

Sence You Went Away: Contemporary African American Art Songs and Spirituals
Producer Louise Toppin
Production Assistant Lynn Bridges
Albany Records, 2000

The single voice joined to another in harmony, or accompanied by a piano or harp or drum, forms the simplest kind of music, the foundation on which the development of musical scales—the happy major keys and sad minor keys—and the creation of compositions not only for home, travel, and church but for court and concert and operas, in ever more distinct and elaborate forms. It is the wellspring of treasure. Heart on the Wall, the impressive collection by singer Louise Toppin with the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra, has the appearance of a luxury, but it may be a necessity. Louise Toppin, a classical music soprano and pianist, who has appeared in international recitals and opera performances—in the works of William Banfield and Mozart and the Gershwins—is, like many of her peers, out of tradition and also necessity, a scholar of the music. Toppin is a conservator of more than one tradition. Her discernment can be read in her selections: first among them is the five-part “Heart on the Wall,’ with lyrics by Langston Hughes and music by Robert Owens; a musical suite that offers speculations both comic and philosophical, and Toppin’s singing tone is warm, pretty, with assured modulations as the narrative moves, ending on a high note, above a light, sweet orchestral sound. The suite’s third part, “Girl,” suggests that sensual life brings early death but also fruits that flower on the other side of the grave; and the fourth part indicates the multifarious nature of dreams, whether refreshment or travel or love or finery; and Toppin’s singing is stately and sensuous. Yet, the thematic associations among the five sections of “Heart on the Wall” seem rather loose to me. The scenes of the composition are inspired by a comic-sad figure, a shy man who makes a public declaration —Pierrot; and the suite was written for coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, the first Negro singer with a long-term Metropolitan Opera contract.

On Louise Toppin’s Heart on the Wall, “Myths of History,” with Africa and the enslavement of its people as its subject, and words by Dr. Edgar Toppin and music by Julius P. Williams, is a three-part composition of shifting moods, in which history and instructive rhetoric are given a beautiful sound, the orchestra creating great momentum. “Africa” is both playful and pedagogical; and in “Slavery” is the assertion, “Slavery has been a universal phenomenon that has existed among all people,” which is context, although no excuse. With such specific content, the listener is inclined to ask about the importance of content—essential or incidental? History, spirituality, and politics, as well as fame and money, are the traditional measures of meaning and worth for African-Americans; but what of other realities, other values? The composer of “Myths of History,” the conductor and educator Julius Williams, has written for ballet, opera, film, and theater, and performed with American and international orchestras.

“Lyric Suite” is composer Robert L. Morris’s interpretation of traditional texts, spirituals with sometimes dancing rhythms, sung by soprano Louise Toppin on Heart on the Wall—exemplified by a joyous exaltation of passionate faith and rhythm in “Dramatic Declaration: Rockin’ Jerusalem!,” a gorgeously mournful “Gospel Blues: What Shall I Do?,” the dismayed humor of gossipy community in “Humoresque: Scandaliz’ My Name!,” a sad, pretty “Lament: This May Be My Las’ Time,” and the great horns and string rhythm of the festive “Juba: Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit!”. The diversity of form and tone in “Lyric Suite” is the kind of thing for which Robert Morris, a researcher and conductor as well as composer, is known. The fast, almost conversational lines readings, followed by high slow ones, create drama in “Rockin’ Jerusalem!” “What Shall I Do?” has a purity of tone inflected with sorrow. The four compositions that make up “Songs of Harriet Tubman” are arias—songs of innocence and experience, of pain and heroism—from an opera, Harriet Tubman, by Nkeiru Okoye, a scholar and an internationally respected composer of symphonies. The arias, sung in Louise Toppin’s golden, exultant voice, portray the transformation of Harriet Tubman from an enslaved girl who is grateful to have her family around her to a woman who does not rest until she can share her newly acquired freedom with others, a hero of history. In one aria, “My name is Araminta,” the evocation of the vulnerability of the enslaved Africans is captured, with cruel and precarious circumstances making family important. Toppin’s voice handles the difficult narrative well. The orchestral music seems somehow both lean and lush. After the girl, Araminta called Minty, is struck down, losing consciousness, she awakens to a changed mind, finally gathering together a catalog of abuses, in the aria “My Name is Harriet, Now.” Toppin’s voice carries the alarm of being struck with the shock of a trumpet blast. With the insistent conviction of text and voice, the singing blends the personal and the public—a private hurt and transformation, a public lesson. Both sung and spoken, “I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” is dramatic, telling of an escape from Maryland to Philadelphia, and the decision of the newly free woman to go back for her family. Toppin’s singing of the line “I am a free woman” at the beginning of the piece has a recognizable pride, and as she goes on to sing of rough travels and distance and self-inspection, there is a great eruption, an expanse of joy. It is an aria that acknowledges different kinds and levels of freedom—freedom from tyranny, from worry, from selfishness. That is the kind of ideal knowledge that art can bring. “I am Moses, The Liberator” is confident, strong, and tumultuous. The movement of history—from freedom to enslavement to freedom—is humbling. The accomplishment of dignity and excellence is humbling. And yet encouraging. It is amazing to think that the works on Heart on the Wall are a well-kept secret to many persons. Classical music is a form of idealization; and it is transformative to have a harsh history and hard-won heroism become a part of that. There is no need for only one simple history or philosophy of a people or of the world; instead, there is always a need to accept and celebrate what is good in the world, past, present, and future.

On Louise Toppin’s Heart on the Wall, the text of the Hughes-Owen composition “Remembrance” goes “To wander through this living world/ And leave uncut the roses is to/ Remember fragrance where the flowers soon/ No scent encloses.” What poetry means is open to interpretation, but those lines suggest to me that memory possesses what the hand does not hold, and that there are different ways of gaining the world, a spiritual way beyond the material. That is also the realm of art, a form of beauty, craft, emotion, idea, memory, spirit, and thought.

The ignorant man is a terrible witness, but a great advocate for slander; and the idea that art is too complex for Africans or African-Americans was always one of the worst of slanders. The ignorant man would make the lie true through discouragement and mockery. Those who might speak truth are themselves often loss to time and common memory: Flora Bergen, Thomas Bowers, Maggie Porter Cole, Theodore Drury, Sissieretta Jones, Ira Aldridge, Edmond Dede, Scott Joplin, Florence Price, and William Grant Still. How many people know the musicians and composers of the classical art of song as practiced by African-Americans of the past, or now living and working? The African-American art song, a work of voice and accompaniment, shaped by ideals of excellence, perfection, and expressive freedom, is usually a tree with many roots, African, American, and European, as noted by Professor Hansonia Caldwell years ago and for the 2012 African-American Art Song conference at the University of California in Irvine: its roots are in the praise songs of African griots and musicians, with their inclination to celebrate heroes and nature, and to use call and response forms and many rhythms, and to present their work as part of communal activities, often including dance; and the art song’s roots are in the spirituals taken up in America after Africans, beginning in the fifteenth century, were brought to the west to work, songs of faith and struggle and deliverance, sung in yards, fields, and churches, alone and in choral groups, with music becoming a greater and greater part of group experience between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, with new forms developing—blues, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues; and, subsequently, with exposure to more significant cultural experiences, and commercial opportunities, there began an adoption and transformation of traditional European classical music, with acceptance of that music’s increasing investment in the great poetry of day. Sence You Went Away(2000), with the word since spelled idiomatically in its title, is a rich resource for those who want to learn more, and hear more, the African-American art song tradition, a tradition influenced by European classical music, diverse poetry, and Negro spirituals. The music offers beauty, spiritual refreshment, and a sense of accomplishment. It is easy to think now, if it had not occurred before, that the claiming and making of this kind of music, and of spiritual morality and tradition, were strategies as well as surrender—ways of asserting personal and cultural value. With voice and piano, calm, poetic, and smooth is Morehouse professor Wendell Whalum’s composition “Sweet Jesus,” a work both formal and intimate. Religion offers nurture but also social participation—just as music does. Which is the strongest magnet? Yet, the religious can be confining too: a limited frame of reference and interpretations, a limited number of subject positions, though some of them are very useful—as in a call for compassion and justice. In “Sweet Jesus,” the piano playing is clear, firm, with personality; and one does not have to think about anything but the music, a refuge. Louise Toppin plays piano, and Sam McKelton is featured as tenor.

On the anthology Sence You Went Away featuring diverse personnel, the soprano Anita Johnson’s voice rises high, almost alarmingly so, in “Song of the Seasons” by blind classical and jazz composer and teacher Valerie Capers, a multi-part dramatic piece, but Timothy Holley’s cello is especially appealing. Aldophus Hailstork’s “Slave Song,” a first-person recitation about the bare choices of oppression—despair, freedom, death—is sung by Alvy Powell in an articulate deep voice, low, thick, with Byron Burford’s piano accompaniment that sounds particularly modern. That modern tone makes this, appropriately, the memory of, rather than the reenactment, of the past. Aldophus Hailstork, author of the song cycle Songs of Love and Justice, was a student of Nadia Boulanger and H. Owen Reed: perhaps his modernism was influenced by those studies. Cedric Dent’s performance of “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door” as a piano solo has more than one line of movement. The loudness of James Paterson’s bass-baritone nears a tone lacking musicality—and the long, drawn-out notes can be irksome (insistent, slow)—in Eugene Hancock’s “Absalom.” It is worth thinking about the challenge that gives to one’s assumptions. Is it an experiment? The “Five Millay Songs,” Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry set to music by Oberlin graduate Leslie Adams (whose works have been performed by international symphonies), are attractive, sung by the light tenor voice of Darryl Taylor, with clear diction making these songs a highlight of the collection.

With a piano introduction for a composition that has different, progressive segments, John Carter’s “Cantata,” articulating a religious theme (citations of “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” and “Ride on King Jesus), has the appealing, dramatic singing of Ray Wade, supported by Susan Gray’s piano. The great promise of spiritual belief is similar to that of art or philosophy: it is the promise of understanding and transcendence. (John Carter is a composer who also took Medgar Evers as a subject, and set Japanese poems to music.) The song that gives the anthology its name, “Sence You Went Away,” written by Leslie Adams, is pretty, featuring soprano Louise Toppin and pianist Patrick O’Donnell; and the “Recitative and Duet” by Leslie Adams (from his opera Blake), with baritone Timothy Jones and soprano Christina Clark, is modern, conversational; and the last contribution, Wendell Whalum’s “God is a God” is obviously a tautological tribute of faith regarding an unchanging divinity, and it has a melodious refrain. The music on Sence You Went Away provides refuge from the incoherence and noise of contemporary culture. It is more mannered and sensitive—but it also lacks the particular immediacy and vitality of work that feeds off today’s energies. Do we need more of what we now have—or something else—and is the something else the work of yesterday, or work strongly influenced by yesterday?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.