Howard Boatwright: An Exploration of His Songs for Voice and Piano

By Kay, Jennifer | Journal of Singing, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Howard Boatwright: An Exploration of His Songs for Voice and Piano


Kay, Jennifer, Journal of Singing


INTRODUCTION

STANDING IN A CROWDED CHURCH on a Sunday afternoon, a capacity crowd had gathered to hear American soprano Helen Boatwright in recital on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. Mrs. Boatwright, one of the original champions of the music of Charles Ives, presented a delightful recital programming a variety of American composers. But the scarcely known songs of her husband, Howard Boatwright, stood out as tiny jewels. Helen Boatwright provided access to original scores and granted personal interviews to this author, discussing the circumstances under which her husband's songs were composed.

During his career, Howard Boatwright (1918-1999) was an accomplished performer, professor, dean, music critic, theoretician, author, and composer of a significant body of works. He was also associated with some of the most influential song composers of his time, including Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Ernst Bacon, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Leonard Bernstein. Nevertheless, his compositions-polished, sophisticated, and gratifying contributions to the vocal repertoire-have been largely neglected by researchers and performers.

This article will explore the evolution of Boatwright's compositional style. For perspective, an overview of Boatwright's life is provided, including his beginnings as a budding violin virtuoso and his growth into a theoretician and composer. The central discussion is an overview of three representative song sets. It is hoped that the reader will come away with an appreciation of Boatwright's compositions for voice and piano, as well as a sense of his proper place among significant American song composers.

BIOGRAPHY

Howard Boatwright's music studies began at age eleven, when he started playing violin in the public schools. By age seventeen, he made his orchestral debut with the Richmond Symphony. He postponed college at his violin teacher's recommendation, and in 1941, at age twenty-three, Boatwright won a series of regional competitions, eventually arriving as a finalist in the National Federation of Music Clubs biennial competition, held in Los Angeles. Helen Strassburger, a twenty-five year old soprano from Wisconsin, was also a finalist at that competition. Although Boatwright was normally socially reserved, he walked right up to her and asked boldly, "Well, who are you?" Thus began "a remarkable musical-and personal-partnership that lasted for more than 50 years."1 The two were married in 1943.

During their first year of marriage, Howard Boatwright applied for an open faculty position at the University of Texas-Austin. Despite only having a high school diploma, he won the appointment of Associate Professor of Violin.

At Austin, Boatwright worked alongside renowned musicologist Donald Grout and musicologist and harpsichordist Putnam Aldrich. Both became good friends and mentors to him, encouraging him to pursue his latent interest in composition. Aldrich's advice was that, to remain in academia, one must have a college degree, adding that "the only place for [him] to get a degree was at Yale with Paul Hindemith studying composition."2 So, in 1945, Boatwright sent some examples of his compositions, including songs that he wrote for Helen, to Hindemith, and was soon after accepted to Yale University for the fall semester.

At Yale, Boatwright studied theory and composition (and also viola d'amore) with Hindemith, receiving an undergraduate degree in 1947. The following year, he received a master's degree and, with Hindemith's recommendation, he joined the faculty at Yale as Assistant Professor of Music, teaching music theory.

During this period, he became the Director of Music at St. Thomas's Church in New Haven. Boatwright's other responsibilities included "serving as Hindemith's main assistant in his courses and filling in for him when he was absent from the university."3 In addition, he conducted the Yale University Orchestra from 1952 to 1960 and was concertmaster of the New Haven Symphony from 1950 to 1962. …

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