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Howard Swanson

Male | Composers

b. 1907-1978 Many African-American composers have been lauded for the high quality of their song writing. Called the American Fauré .


b. 1907-1978

Many African-American composers have been lauded for the high quality of their song writing. Particularly praised are the songs of Howard Swanson. William Flanagan, reviewing three songs of Swanson, said, "They are authentic and in the best tradition of the song-writing art--sensitive, intimate, and evocative." (Reisser 1989, 19) Virgil Thompson said, "Howard Swanson is a composer whose work singers (and pianists, too) should look into. It is refined, sophisticated of line and harmony in a way not at all common among American music writers. His songs have an acute elaboration of thought and an intensity for feeling that recall Fauré (Quillian 1951)" (Reisser, 1989, 19). Swanson's friendship with poet Langston Hughes and his subsequent setting of Hughes poetry gives insight not only to the music of the African-American community, but also gives an intimate view to the psyche of the poet. Swanson consulted the poet with regularity while setting his poetry. His compositions are considered by many to be the definitive interpretations of the poet's work. His individual song settings of the poems "Joy," "In Time of Silver Rain," "Night Song," "Pierrot," and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" reflect his intimate acquaintance with the inner workings of Hughes' poetry.

Acquaintance with the song cycle Songs for Patricia is encouraged. The poetry is by Norman Rosten (Swanson did not set a cycle using poems by Hughes). It was published in 1952 by Weintraub Music Company. The cycle is for high voice and piano. The text is that of a parent to a child. Singers attempting this cycle should be capable of high, soft singing. The voice should be lyrical. Dissonant melodic passages in the voice receive little help from an economical, often chordal accompaniment. For these reasons the difficulty level for both singer and pianist is high. Both must be steady, confident musicians.

The Poetry of Music: The Howard Swanson Papers at the Amistad Research Center

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Darling Those Are Birds

No Leaf May Fall

One Day


Howard Swanson began piano study at age twelve in Cleveland where the family had moved in 1916. While concurrently helping support the family upon the death of his father, Swanson entered the Cleveland Institute of Music full time in 1927. He received his baccaulaureate degree in music theory and went to Paris on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939. He studied there with Nadia Boulanger. The war interrupted his studies, but in 1952, he returned to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. Swanson devoted his time entirley to composition after 1945. Among his published works are: Songs for Patricia, "Pierrot," "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Cahoots," and "A Death Song": Concerto for Orchestra, Night Music, Short Symphony, and other selcted art songs.

Source: Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters; A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa:Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

Helen Thigpen sings Howard Swanson Songs




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