Another Lee Hoiby quote

Amer­i­can com­poser Lee Hoiby passed away in late March. Since I had pre­vi­ously posted a great quote by him and am a fan of his vocal works, his obit­u­ary in the New York Times caught my eye. In the arti­cle, he is described as “…a com­poser of operas and songs that bal­ance unabashed lyri­cism and care­ful crafts­man­ship.” Indeed!

Coin­ci­den­tally, at about the same time the obit­u­ary was pub­lished, I was thanked (thanked!) by a singer for pay­ing atten­tion to words and writ­ing music that allows the singer to best express art in a nat­ural way. I was puz­zled by this, and the singer explained that not every com­poser seems to be work­ing with the voice.

So this quote of Hoiby really struck me:

Singers, you can’t fool them,” he said. “When they hear a song, they can tell right away if it’s going to make them sound good. And mine do.”

One can appre­ci­ate the con­fi­dence with which such a state­ment is made! But it is also worth con­sid­er­ing the merit behind this idea. Instru­men­tal­ists, espe­cially in an ensem­ble, can sim­ply play the notes in front of them and trust that there is some inter­nal logic in what­ever the com­poser has writ­ten. (That’s not always true, by the way.)

But there is so much more at stake for a singer. Singers are much more sen­si­tive to the nat­ural rise and fall of lan­guage and the inher­ent drama in the music. They have to “get it” if they are to stand in front of an audi­ence and suc­cess­fully offer a musi­cal expe­ri­ence. When any of this fails, the singer is not likely to sound good, how­ever pol­ished the performance.

I would sug­gest that Hoiby should have taken the quote a step fur­ther: Audi­ences can eas­ily be fooled, but are less likely to be fooled by a song.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.