Song Spotlight: “Straightway Beauty On Me Waits” – Richard Hundley
It’s a delightfully dark and drizzly spring morning here in Central Ohio – perfect for enjoying today’s song. I’m on the cusp of finishing off the academic year and excited about the potential for Ohio Song Project events over the summer and into the next season. Just a friendly reminder that if you want to get involved, we would love to have you! Whether you’re a singer or pianist, poet or composer, or have any other talents that you’d like to lend to the success of our mission, please drop us a line using the contact section of this website.
Now, on to the music.
For this post, we’ll be listening to a song that is a product of two Ohio natives, Richard Hundley (b. Cincinnati) and James Purdy (b. Hicksville). The marriage of poem and music in this song is about as harmonious as any can be. There is a certain irony and humor, intentional or not, in Purdy’s use of weather images to depict romance, given how much we all love talking about the weather in this state. Whether the poet or composer ever considered this is doubtful, but clearly this poem did have quite an impact on Hundley, who composed this captivating setting (published 1993).
Richard Hundley’s songs have been favorites of mine since first discovering his work years ago, and I am not alone in that. Hundley is a well-known name in vocal music communities and his songs are adored for their instinctive lyricism and wide variety of styles and emotions. He passed away in February of 2018, which prompted me to take a closer look at his songs and get to know several that were new to me. I found myself instantly drawn to “Straightway Beauty On Me Waits” for the piano writing which is playful, sonorous, stark, and comforting all within one three-minute song. I was so enamored with the piano writing on my first listen that I barely noticed the vocal line. Perhaps this is due to how easy it sounds and how nicely it fits the text. This is not a unique quality among Hundley’s works – every singer I’ve coached on this music has deeply enjoyed singing these songs, and that is most certainly due to Hundley’s gifts as a lyrical composer. Hundley has credited his intuitive vocal writing to the years he spent working as a singer in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and accompanying the voice studio of the great soprano Zinka Milanov.
Read more about Hundley’s upbringing and experience here.
It’s also worthwhile to read these words by American tenor Paul Sperry, a champion of Hundley’s music and American Art Song in general, on Hundley’s compositions. Do take a listen to some of the other songs that Sperry mentions in this passage. Each is just as charming or witty or poignant as the next!
Richard Hundley says his objective as a composer is “to crystallize emotion.” He succeeds amazingly well. Some of his pieces I find heartstoppingly beautiful: “The Astronomers,” “Come Ready and See Me,” “Waterbird.” He has mastered the art of agonizing over details until he produces something that sounds simple, even inevitable. I think he has taken the apparent simplicity of his teacher and friend Virgil Thomson and invested it with more urgent emotion. His melodies stay in the mind. In his harmonies and open spacings he sounds American in the sense that Copland created a recognizably American sound. And he has the American gift for exuberance and humor: look at “Epitaph on a Wife,” “Some Sheep are Loving,” “Postcard from Spain,” and “I Do!” for examples.
Hundley’s training differs from many other Americans – he never went abroad to study, and he credits his three years in the Metropolitan Opera chorus and his even longer stint as accompanist for Zinka Milanov’s lessons as formative to his gifts as a song writer. There is no question that he understands both the voice and piano perfectly. And singers love his songs. My only regret is that more of them aren’t published.
His songs, like Schubert’s, are easy to fuse into wonderful recital groups – he writes every kind of song: slow, fast, wet, dry, funny, moving, waltzes, fox-trots, major statements, little bonbons. His set of songs, “Octaves and Sweet Sounds,” is the only collection he has put together and suggested that they be performed as a group. They can also be excerpted but they work very well as an entity. Happily, Hundley is still producing marvelous pieces; as I write this I am about to premiere what we hope is the final version of a delightful setting of Vachel Lindsay’s “The Whales of California.” I say we hope it’s the final version because he likes to make adjustments until he’s sure he’s got it right. When he does get it right, it certainly is right – I’ve been singing “The Astronomers” for nearly thirty years and haven’t grown tired of it. As crystallized emotion, it is a gem.
Here is the original text of Purdy’s poem. As with all poems, take a moment to read the poem aloud once or twice. Consider the music of the words, the flow from line to line, and the interesting but sparse use of punctuation in this poem. Once you’ve heard the poem, consider more deeply what statement Purdy is trying to make, if any. To me, it’s the poet admiring and appreciating the fact that love can be as unpredictable as the weather. He’s comparing lovers in love to flowers in the open air.
Straightway beauty on me waits
rain in the morning or sunshine late
when, say the wind the airs can blow
the sun came up and down fell the snow.
The wind blows wet the sleet falls hard
Love waxes great
or dies, like the flower.
From Collected Poems
(Athenaeum-Polack & Van Gennep)
Copyright 1990 by James Purdy
Here is a beautiful recording by Mary Ann Hart, mezzo-soprano and Dennis Helmrich, piano. It opens with a statement that somehow feels both lyrical and declamatory, representative of Hundley’s gifts as a composer. Sparkling and rich sonorities in the piano are another hallmark of Hundley’s work, and they are found in spades in this song. Quick harmonic shifts to distant keys are frequent but happen effortlessly so the listener almost doesn’t notice them. Notice how closely Hundley followed the punctuation in the poem, and how he chose to set each word. Hundley chose to set the opening two lines of the poem once more at the conclusion of the song, which I think helps to remind us that the poet was writing about a beautiful thing despite his use of harsh weather images. Do you think Hundley’s song matches the intent of the poem?