Culture Matters

Having accepted Thomas Sowell’s great thesis —that differences among peoples commonly attributed to race really reflect culture—I was struck by two CDs that have recently appeared. Both contain American music sung by men trained in the classical operatic tradition.

One is by Thomas Quasthoff, the renowned German bass-baritone now in his late forties, who has overcome serious physical handicaps caused by thalidomide to become one of the great singers of our time. Barely four feet tall, his hands resembling flippers, he has a big and flexible voice that is particularly strong in classic solo song cycles. In this respect, may I particularly recommend his DVD of Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise with English subtitles. Quasthoff’s The Jazz Album—Watch What Happens (DGG, 2007), recorded mostly with German backing musicians, contains such standards as “My Funny Valentine,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and the Gershwins’ “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.”

The other singer is Morris Robinson, a large African-American perhaps a decade younger than Quasthoff, more of a bass than a baritone, very much a star-to-be, who visibly looks like a football lineman, as indeed he once was. In the five years since I heard him singing John Cage, Robinson has appeared at New York’s Metropolitan Opera mostly in the role of a king, in part because of his immense physical size and his resonant deep voice. Among the songs in his Going Home (Decca, 2007), recorded in America, are “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Take out two CD players and listen to Quasthoff and Robinson alternately, and in a blind test—no cheating—you’ll discover that you can’t with your ears alone identify differences between them. For a while I thought a German accent in English would distinguish the two, but when my eyes told me that my ears mistook Quasthoff for Robinson, I realized that I was really hearing the more formal diction developed by opera singers. Only when I read the album notes did I recognize the differences, already noted, in their repertoire.

The similar sound of Quasthoff and Robinson reflects, of course, their common musical training and culture, notwithstanding differences in race, nationality, mother tongue, and physical size. In understanding musical art as well as society, Sowell gets it right. That he has written little, if anything, about music is a measure of his persuasive truth.

Another recent CD, Deep River (University of Wisconsin), reminds me of an opinion I’ve held for some fifty years now—that the greatest American songs are the anonymous Negro spirituals that Robinson favors. Subtitled “The Performance Encores of Robert Fountain” (conducting the University of Wisconsin Concert Choir from the 1970s into the early 1990s), these twenty songs represent in their pairing of words with music a cycle every degree as coherent as, say, Schubert’s Winterreise and just as classic. Where Schubert depends upon a piano accompaniment, as do the show tunes that others consider “the great American songs,” the spirituals are a cappella.

The individual songs include “Ain’a That Good News,” “Everytime I Feel the Spirit,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot,” and “Where You There?” (I heard Quasthoff perform “Swing Lo” as an encore during a Carnegie Hall concert in 2006. Though his pitches were wildly askew and syncopation seemed to escape him, the performance was stunning, so strong was the classic song even in his interpretation. I’d like to hear Quasthoff do it again—if not live, at least on a CD.)

Consider that the austere spirituals differ from gospel, epitomized by Mahalia Jackson, which are a kind of ecstatic music conducive to wailing that is scarcely austere (or classic, to my mind). I don’t much like gospel, which I find vulgar after appreciating spirituals. Planning to move into a neighborhood that has a black megachurch across the street, I proudly told the minister that I knew many spirituals and might like to join his choir. His curt reply was that, “We don’t do those songs much anymore.” Dammit.

The principal fault of Deep River is a failure to acknowledge the arrangements of William Levi Dawson (1902–1990), long the director of the Tuskegee Institute Choir, whom I first met at All-State (New York) fifty years ago. The current misfortune is that the performances of his choir, which I treasure on a Westminster LP from decades ago, are not currently available on CD. Indeed, Deep River closes with Dawson’s twelve-part arrangement of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” that closed our 1956 concert initially of Renaissance choral music and then spirituals. Never again in my life on any stage was the applause more than gratuitous. Dawson turned around and had us two hundred teenagers sing the classic again as an encore that I’ve not forgotten as I write this review.

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz appear in Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed, and thus overworked.

Contributor

Richard Kostelanetz

RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.

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