Howard Swanson

In October 1978, Leontyne Price performed for an enthusiastic audience at the Carter White House.  “Dazzling a White House audience” read the Washington Post review the next day. Her program included arias by Haendel, Puccini, and Strauss’ Four Last Songs; but it was the performance of American composers’ works that brought down the house.  Among the American composers represented was Howard Swanson, who would pass away just weeks later. 

Howard Swanson was best known for his art songs based on the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, but he composed three symphonies, music for strings, piano music, a suite for cello and piano, and other symphonic and chamber works.  He was one of the composers who was on Nadia Boulanger’s roster of students, yet started his professional life working first as a postmaster in Cleveland, and then with the Internal Revenue Service. 

Swanson was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1907, to a musically educated family, and all three boys ended up going to college.  Although he sang often with his mother in church, his formal music study as a pianist began after the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1916.  The year he graduated from high school, his father died, and it was up to Howard to work to support the family.  He spent the 10 years after high school in the Cleveland Post Office. 

As his circumstances improved, Swanson decided to continue his education.  He attended the Cleveland Institute of Music on piano, and where his teachers, aware of his talent, persuaded him to work at night to be able to take a full course of study during the day.  Yet trying to hold a full time job and become a concert pianist took its toll; Swanson realized he simply didn’t have the hours he needed to practice and began to study composition. 

In 1938, Swanson received a Rosenwald Fellowship which allowed him to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and planned to pursue further graduate studies there.  But in 1941 he was forced to leave as the German Army overran France, and upon his return to the United States got a job with the Internal Revenue Service while studying and composing music on the side. It wasn’t until 1950, at the age of 43, that Howard Swanson produced his first significant composition,  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a musical set to Langston Hughes’s famous poem of that name.  

The composition was performed in Carnegie Hall by Marian Anderson that year, and then his songs began to be performed with increasing regularity. When Dimitri Mitropoulos heard his music, he immediately programmed the work “Short Symphony” (Symphony No. 2) to be premiered by the New York Philharmonic that same year. In 1952, a grant from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship enabled him to return to Europe. He lived in Paris and in Vienna for the next 14 years, returning to New York in 1966. 

Howard Swanson’s style was neoclassical, drawing mostly from western European styles but incorporating African American styles with the addition of rhythmic complexity and syncopation. His friendship with poet Langston Hughes let to the creation of many songs; despite the poet’s friendships and collaborations with numerous other composers, Swanson’s are considered by many to be the definitive interpretations of the poet's work. 

#blackcomposers 

Night Song (to a poem by Langston Hughes) 

In the dark 

Before the tall Moon came 

Little short Dusk 

Was walking Along. 

In the Dark 

Before the tall Moon came. 

Little short Dusk 

Was singing a song. 

In the dark 

Before the tall Moon came 

A lady named Day 

Fainted away 

In the Dark 

Before the tall Moon came.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WT84Mkm_Sn8

 

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