It's the early 1940s.
One imagines Minneapolis-born John Robb and his daughter driving
out to remote New Mexico villages. The car is kitted out with an expensive German
wire recorder hitched to the car battery. There are wine bottles
clinking at the back. He charms, bribes, entreats and cajoles
villager after villager to sing traditional folksongs into his
microphone. Some of these songs will have their roots in the
Iberian homeland of the Conquistadores and others in autochthonous
culture. At home he transcribes the songs. He has just given
up practising in New York in international law. He has left the law behind and
is now embarked on a career as composer and music academician.
In 1942 he was appointed Professor of Music and Chair of the
School of Music of the
New Mexico. Between
legal work he has composed and studied with Hindemith, Harris,
Parker and Boulanger. His folksong collecting activity was to
take him throughout the American South-West as well as to South
America and Nepal. In total
he collected 3000 songs and dances. The New Mexico songs or a selection
of them were published in Robb's 1954 book Hispanic Folk
songs of New Mexico.
They are available in versions for voice and piano and as here
for voice and orchestra. Robb took great satisfaction from his
work as ethnomusicologist and deserves to be counted in the
company of Vaughan Williams, Moeran, Grainger, Bartók, Kodály
The first five Hispanic
songs here are religious; the remainder secular. Leslie Umphrey
who debuted as Susannah in Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah
has a darkly umber tone. Cuando por el oriente trembles
with devotion while De la real jerusalen is more canorially
lissom. As you may expect, none of these songs is particularly
fast and that is perhaps one of their weaknesses as a group.
Vamos todos a Belen (i.e. Bethlehem) is a steady carol and most beautifully performed and
recorded. Jannotta's orchestrations are tasteful and allows
what I take to be the light of the original to shine through.
Ofrecimiento is stately and regal. After such devotional
concentration it is a joy to encounter the bright-eyed and good-hearted
and the other secular songs. Now we encounter an open
air atmosphere, the oxygen of hard work in open spaces, a humane
tenderness - as in Palomita - and Latino exuberance.
These songs would pair well with Copland's Old American Songs.
Sandovalito bears the imprint of the vitality of forthright
1940s Americana. This collection would have benefited from more of the
Randall Thompson style exhilaration radiated by this song. The
art songs set various poets including Herrick (To Electra)
and Robb (Goodnight) himself. There is about these songs
a slow blooming grandeur and sincerity that makes me want to
hear more of them. The I am very old tonight includes
a central vocalise recalling Villa-Lobos. Tonight my heart
is on the hill and Tears are narrative unrhymed
poems which are easefully set in a manner lying somewhere South
of Barber's Knoxville. The lullaby love-song Goodnight is simple and
glowingly orchestrated and paced in the sweetest equipoise.
Cradle Song sets words by Katherine G Bennitt. Surprisingly
it lacks intimacy being set to a tune which is intrinsically
bluff and has an incongruous sense of public address rather
than private expression.
and arrangements are by Roger Jannotta.
Very full English-only
notes are provided complete with sung texts and translations
into English. Such a pity that we are given no idea when these
songs were written. My guess is the 1940s and 1950s.
Allowing for a dash
of vibrato here and there Leslie Umphrey does justice to these
fascinating tonal songs. They should appeal to any student of
1940s Americana and
to those who rejoice in the orchestral songs of Canteloube and
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