For most of the twentieth century, American composers would make a pilgrimage to study with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau beginning in 1921. Among her students were Aaron Copland, Eliot Carter, Roy Harris, David Diamond, Quincy Jones, and Philip Glass. But not everyone could make it to Fontainebleau, and most composers returned to the U.S. to write and teach the next generation.
Benjamin Carl Unseld (1843-1923) was born in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Primarily self-taught, he earned a position as an organist at the Methodist church in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He continued his studies and taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used British music educator John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa method of shape note music in his classes, but the method never gained any popularity in the United States. No doubt it had stiff competition with the established New England singing school tradition using Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony by William Walker. His biggest contribution was “Twilight Is Stealing”, written with Aldine S. Kieffer. He was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2004.
Roger Craig Vogel (1943-) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attained status as an American composer of current classical music and an educator, mostly at the University of Georgia. One of the positives about teaching at a university and being a composer is there are always performers available for any compositions you want to craft. And, at times performers can request a work to be written specifically for them, for a recital. It’s a challenge to create a work depending on an ensemble’s size, performance level, technique and other factors. Perhaps you could call it a laboratory for experiments. Mr. Vogel has been awarded prizes in the choral area, the Saxophone Workshop Composition Contest, the National Flute Association, the Delius Composition Competition and the prestigious Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received commissions from Sigma Alpha Iota, an organization that has supported American composers since its founding, and now includes composers from North, Central and South America.
The NLS Music Section has “Wondrous Love: Variations on a Shape Note Hymn for Organ” by Samuel Barber at BRM35961 and BRM28963. For more information about shape notes in the audio collection, check out Christian Hymns, An Introduction to Their Story at DBM00586.
One of the many good qualities about American music, if there is such a descriptor, is composers listen and draw upon multiple sources. Whether from their local environment, their studies, their friends and acquaintances, they have an open ear for what is going on in their surroundings. And that makes for interesting and rewarding music, which makes us all happier.
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