A Celebration For Centuries And A Centennial

January 30, 2020
 

It seemed a bit out of place. Among the music history events for January 22nd, including the birthdays of composers and performers, there was an entry for the 10-year-old Mozart and his 14-year-old sister Nannerl getting over the flu and performing in The Hague, Netherlands in 1766.

When I looked into it, I learned that Nannerl’s illness was nearly fatal and that the children had performed throughout Europe for nearly 3 years at that point. Given the news events of just the past week or so, it wasn’t hard to imagine that there could have been a footnote in music history about a pair of gifted musical siblings from Salzburg who succumbed to a virus nearly 2½ centuries ago, one of whom had appeared to be a promising prodigy. 

Instead, the prodigy lived for another quarter of a century and made an extraordinary contribution to music history. And we had the chance to celebrate yet another Mozart birthday on January 27th. The “on this day” item is well worth remembering.

There was another event that took place on the same day, 154 years later. Singer, actor and music educator William Warfield was born in West Helena, Arkansas on January 22, 1920.

His father’s work as a minister brought the family to Rochester, New York. Warfield, a bass-baritone, graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and made his debut at Town Hall in New York City in 1950. He sang the role of Porgy in a European tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1952 with soprano Leontine Price. In 1963, they recorded excerpts from Porgy and Bess.

In addition to his association with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Warfield sang in a number of productions of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II/P.G.Wodehouse musical Show Boat, including the 1951 film version. He participated in premiere performancs of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs as well.

Warfield was a professor of voice at the University of Illinois School of Music from 1975 to 1990. At one point, he became Chairman of the Voice Department.

The centennial reminded me of an event that took place 30 years ago at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts . It was a musical celebration of Warfield on the occasion of his retirement from the U of I. Though a relative newcomer to WILL-FM at the time, I was asked to produce a feature story about Warfield for the national program Performance Today.

That gave me the opportunity to meet and chat with William Warfield and others who knew him well. One of those was bass-baritone Willis Patterson, who was a music professor at the University of Michigan and a long-time colleague of Warfield. He talked about the “warm, congenial, accessible” teacher, whose students called him “Uncle Bill.”  Patterson said that regardless of Warfield’s worldwide reputation, he wanted his students to deal with him “as one aspiring singer to another who has aspired longer.”

Warfield said about teaching: “It’s almost like you’re a psychiatrist. And sometimes I find students come in and it’s almost therapy to come to a lesson. They get a lot of frustrations out that way.” He added that students look to their teacher as a friend, mentor and advisor, “and when you start doing that, that means that the student is releasing some of himself to you. And you in turn, taking that on, are taking on a responsibility toward that student.”

I had already come to know one of Warfield’s students: my WILL-FM colleague Roger Cooper. He told me that people always say you can tell a Warfield student “because I guess we all assimilate some of his gestures” when singing.  Studying with Warfield was particularly fitting for him because he, like his teacher, was a low bass. “And to hear a bass, another low voice sing with the fluidity, the lyrical qualities that he can bring into his voice and all the nuances of vocal shading…that’s very unusual in a big, male low voice. And it’s all there. I’d say that he’s the only bass I know that can sing like a soprano.” Roger also observed back then that Warfield had a tremendous impact on black male students and was one of the few role models they could look up to.

I combined highlights of those Warfield, Patterson and Cooper interviews with moments of Warfield singing Copland’s setting of “Simple Gifts.” an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ from Porgy and Bess. Paul Wienke, a production engineer at WILL at the time, assisted me.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of that feature, as well as the event that inspired it. Several years later, in 1994, Warfield returned to teaching at Northwestern University. He died in 2002.  And, by the way, Willis Patterson will turn 90 this coming November.

I’m glad that the Mozart children got to feeling better. There was a lot more music history to be made, during and well beyond their time.  And I’m glad that the Warfield centennary arrived. It reminded me of more recent events in music history which occurred much closer to home. I hope it rekindled memories for those who knew Warfield during his years in Illinois.

You can enjoy centuries worth of classical music on the radio in central Illinois, along with stories and celebrations that are a part of that music. Join us for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9 to noon on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.


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