The Wandering Musician

Perhaps no other genre in classical music is as intensely Romantic as the Wanderlieder cycle, the song cycle depicting the adventurous peregrinations of a young wayfarer.*    Such cycles represent the epitome of 19th century male subject position as poet, composer, performer, and listener – just read male critics on Ian Bostridge’s Winterreise!  I thought of this genre as soon as I started listening to a wonderful new work, This Land Sings:  Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2016), by my friend and colleague at Michigan, Michael Daugherty (1954), released earlier this year.

It is an absorbing musico-theatrical tribute to the legendary American singer, song writer, and activist which consists of 11 songs, based on poems by the composer and others, and 6 instrumental interludes, performed by soprano, baritone, and a seven-piece ensemble.  It chronicles the wanderings of the “Dust Bowl troubadour,” Woody Guthrie (1912-67), from coast to coast during the Great Depression and World War II as he travels with his guitar and harmonica for some twenty years, performing his self as consummate protest musician and singing about personal, social, and political issues.  This restless Woody is a man always ready to hitch a ride, a “Perpetual Motion Man” (#3), a man constantly on the go, a “Wayfaring Stranger” (#17).  We follow him as he is wandering across times, places, communities, jobs, and above all across numerous musical genres – hymns, folk, country, blues, jazz, rock, mariachi, klezmer, and more.

The seventy-minute work is structured like a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast with optional announcer.  However, instead of a radio stage show, I hear a classical song cycle, like the one invented and cultivated in German-speaking lands in the early 19th century.  Following in the footsteps of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, this Romantic wanderer too leaves home in a personal, artistic, and intellectual quest for wholeness, unity, recognition, and reconciliation.  What makes his journey exceptionally fascinating is that he traverses most idioms of the American musical vernacular.  Thus, he is constantly looking not only for another town, lady, drink, venue, and audience but also for the kind of musical style that is right for the topic and the occasion.  Daugherty’s magisterial command of compositional and performative codes surveys the landscape of American tradition, offering both a codification and a concise introduction to it.  His wayfarer leaves behind the natural world of Schubert, Mahler, and Krenek to travel “through this world of woe” (poverty, exploitation, racism, pollution, guns), seeking each time the right political and musical idiom to lament and denounce it.

Daugherty’s Woody Guthrie reminded me of another iconic American wandering musician, the inimitable Harry Partch (1901-74), who also spent his life traveling from coast to coast looking for another love, drink, venue, instrument, and his own vision of total music.  Above everything else, the work that comes to mind is U.S. Highball:  A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip, composed in 1943 for voice and adapted guitar, and revised for various ensembles of Partch’s own microtonal instruments over the years until 1955.  It chronicles the two-week freight journey from California to Chicago of Mac, a young hobo, through a polyphonic soundscape of economic depression created around snatches of conversation, comments, signs, and inscriptions at a time when the composer believed that music should match the musicality of speech.   Scored for two speakers and seven instrumentalists, the composition became part of The Wayward (1941-55), a cycle of four autobiographical works based on Partch’s hobo years.

It would be interesting to compare the intense interest in American linguistic and musical idioms shared by Guthrie and Partch, and further explored by Michael Daugherty throughout his distinguished career, which has been promoting civic awareness and hope for over three decades.  Note that all three composers early on left behind the home of the European musical tradition to experiment with American techniques of composition and comportment.  Since my focus here is the wanderer song cycle, I should conclude by emphasizing that Daugherty himself is an inveterate wayfarer as evidenced not only in compositions such as Route 66 (1998) and Sunset Strip (1999) but also in the notes accompanying many of his recordings, where he talks about the several trips he takes to research a work and find out how “this land sings.”  To compose, he too needs to wander, both physically and culturally, across styles, discourses, domains, and soundscapes.  At some point the journeys of the song cycle and the life cycle begin to overlap.

P.S. On another occasion I may write on the wanderer in the Greek tradition, a figure that can be traced in ancient literature and philosophy (Silvia Montiglio:  Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture, Chicago UP, 2005), Baroque poetry as well as modern drama (Παναγιώτης Σούτσος:  Ο οδοιπόρος, «δραματικόν ποίημα», 1831), song cycle (Μάνος Χατζιδάκις:  Ο οδοιπόρος, το μεθυσμένο κορίτσι και ο Αλκιβιάδης, op. 31, 1973), and photography (Χρήστος Χρυσόπουλος:  Η συνείδηση του πλάνητα:  Disjunction-Απορρύθμιση, Οκτώ, 2015).  This material could be part of a collaborative course.

*  A few representative compositions that may be considered wanderer song cycles:

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826):  Leyer und Schwert, op. 42 (1814), 6 songs for male chorus based on poems by Theodor Körne.

Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1949): Neun Wanderlieder von Uhland, op. 34 (1818), 9 songs for baritone and piano based on poems by Ludwig Uhland (1813).

Schubert (1797-1828): Winterreise, D. 911 (1827), 24 songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller (1824).

Schumann (1810-56): Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner: Eine Liederreihe, op. 35 (1841), 12 songs for baritone and piano.

Gustav Mahler:  Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-85), 4 songs for medium voice and piano on the composer’s own words.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Songs of Travel (1901-4), 9 songs for baritone and piano on poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection of the same name (1896).

John Ireland (1879-1962): Songs of a Wayfarer (1903-11), 5 songs for baritone and piano by various poets.

Ernst Krenek (1900-91):  Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, op. 62 (1929), 20 songs for baritone and piano on the composer’s own words.

Harry Partch (1901-74): U.S. Highball:  A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943-55) for voice and custom-made instruments.

Ridion Shchedrin (1932): The Enchanted Wanderer (2002), a “concert opera” on the composer’s libretto based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel by the same name (1873).

30 July 2020

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