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In 2019, Parnassus Records’ “Black Swans” CD recalled to life an almost forgotten aspect of Black culture, the active participation of Black musicians in classical music 100 years ago. As a follow-up, “Black Swans at Mid-Century” presents a collection of 18 fine Black singers who specialized in opera and art song, in recordings made from the late 1920s to the early 1960s.

Thanks to George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts,” for both of which the composers specified Black casts, some of the outstanding Black singers of their time achieved a certain amount of exposure. However, even today vocal enthusiasts may be surprised to hear the creators of the roles of Porgy and Bess (Todd Duncan and Anne Brown) singing music from the European art song repertoire, taken from scarce 78s. We hear Mattiwilda Dobbs, who did get a chance to shine at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1960s, dazzling an audience at a live performance in Sidney, Australia.

Carol Brice sings Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody” live at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. Robert McFerrin sings the role of Amonasro from “Aida” in live performance from Naples. Other singers represented in the collection are Adele Addison, Betty Allen, Marian Anderson (two unpublished items), Jules Bledsoe, Thomas Carey, Ellabelle Davis, Gloria Davy (music by Shulamit Ran with the composer at the piano), Ruby Elzy, Charles Holland, Inez Matthews, Margaret Tynes, William Warfield, and Camilla Williams.

Audio restoration engineer Steven Smolian, who did such amazing work with the very early recordings of “Black Swans,” has again worked his audio magic with recordings originating over a wide variety of times and locations. Biographical notes by producer Leslie Gerber help place each singer in the contexts of their places and times.

Disc 1 [Total running time 72:19]
[1] Handel: Messiah – Rejoice greatly [9:10]
Adele Addison, soprano; with: Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, Zimbler Sinfonietta, Thompson Stone, conductor
Classics Record Library SRL-4573 (stereo), 1959, originally Kapp 3.8000S
[2] Bishop: Home, Sweet Home [3:44]
[3] Anon.: Every Time I feel the Spirit [1:31]
Marian Anderson, contralto; unknown accompaniment
Voice of America 16” 33 1/3 rpm lacquer disc, unissued (1943-45)
[4] Kern: Show Boat – Old Man River [4:28]
Jules Bledsoe, baritone
Decca K 631 (78 rpm), London, c. 1932
[5] Brahms: Alto Rhapsody [13:39]
Carol Brice, contralto; with Tanglewood Men’s Choir, Boston Symphony orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, conductor (live, August 3, 1946)
[6] Mortensen: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Frost) [1:57]
Tono 28022 (mx 3166 A), 78 rpm
[7] Brockway (arr.): The Nightingale, ‘One Morning in May’ [2:45]
Tono 28036 (mx 3163 C), 78 rpm
[8] Burleigh (arr.): Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [2:11]
Tono 28021 (mx 3163 C), 78 rpm
[9] Johnson (arr.): Hold On [2:23]
Tono 28021 (mx 3164 B), 78 rpm
[10] Jordan (arr.): His Name So Sweet [2:25]
Tono 28036 (mx 3817C), 78 rpm
[11] Mortensen: Adventures of Isabel (Nash) [2:04]
Tono 28022 (mx 3165 C), 78 rpm
(Tracks 6 through 11) Anne Brown, soprano; Kjell Olson, piano (c. 1949-50)
[12] Rossini: Stabat Mater – Fac ut portem [3:45]
Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Karl Forster, conductor
HMV (Germany) SMVP 8076 (stereo), June, 1960
[13] Hayes (arr.): Sister Mary [3:29]
Thomas Carey, baritone; Lois Gauger, piano
Century 39417, LP, “Christmas on the [Oklahoma] Campus”
[14] Hayes (arr.): Little Boy [3:24]
Thomas Carey, baritone; Lois Gauger, piano
Century 39417, LP, “Christmas on the [Oklahoma] Campus”
[15] Bachelet: Chère nuit (mx AA 56502-1G) [4:21]
Ellabelle Davis, soprano; Kjell Olsson, piano
Philips A-56502 (78 rpm) (c. 1950)
[16] Sauguet: Berceuse creole (mx. AA 56502-2C [3:38]
Ellabelle Davis, soprano; Kjell Olsson, piano
Philips A-56502 (78 rpm) (c. 1950)
[17] Delibes: Lakmé – Ou va la jeune indoue (“Bell Song”) [7:29]
Mattiwilda Dobbs, soprano; Sydney Symphony Orchestra,
Joseph Post (conductor) (live performance, Sydney, 1955)
Disc 2 [Total running time 76:27]
[1] Shulamit Ran: O, the Chimneys (poems by Nelly Sachs) [17:57]
Gloria Davy, soprano; Shulamit Ran, piano; New York Philomusica Chamber Ensemble / Robert Johnson (1973)
Vox Turnabout TV 34492, stereo LP (By kind permission of Naxos)
[2] Brahms: Von ewiger Liebe [4:09]
Todd Duncan, baritone; William Allen, piano
Philips A 45403, 78 rpm
[3] Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre [3:06]
[4] Mussorgsky: The Seminarianist [3:42]
Todd Duncan, baritone; William Allen, piano
Philips A 56503, 78 rpm (c. 1950) (mx A 56503 A/B)
[5] Gershwin: Porgy and Bess – My Man’s Gone Now [4:12]
Ruby Elzy, soprano; rehearsal orchestra,
George Gershwin, conductor (July 19, 1935)
Mark56 LP (from lacquer disc)
[6] Dawson: Talk About a Child that do Love Jesus [2:18]
[7] Johnson (arr.): Honor! Honor! [2:55]
Charles Holland, tenor; Ralph Lindsey, piano
Victor 4556 (78 rpm), c. 1939
[8] Foster: Old Folks at Home [2:31]
Inez Matthews, soprano; Juanita Hall Choir
Hit Record 8078 9 (mx M-269-2)
[9] Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro – Dove sono [6:17]
Dorothy Maynor, soprano;
Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, conductor – live performance, Oct. 20, 1945
[10] Verdi: Aida – Quest’ asissa [2:19]
[11] Verdi: Aida – E in uo potere lo sto! In poser di lei! [7:26]
Robert McFerrin, baritone; Anna Maria Rovere, soprano; – Vincenzo Bellezza, conductor (Naples Opera -live, July 15, 1956)
[12] Gershwin: Porgy and Bess – Summertime [2:52]
Margaret Tynes, soprano; orchestra conducted by Warren Edward Vincent
Design DLP 110 (mono LP), 1960
[13] Rio Grande [3:42]
[14] Blow Ye Winds [1:28]
[15] Across the Western Ocean [3:41]
[16] Mobile Bay [2:03]
[17] Shenandoah [3:16]
Tracks 13 through 17: Daugherty (arr.): Sea Shanties: William Warfield, baritone; Otto Herz, pno.
Columbia 10” ML 2206 (LP), 1952
[18] Carpenter: When I bring you coloured toys (Tagore) [2:43]
Camillia Williams, soprano; Borislav Bazala, piano
MGM 10” E140 (LP), 1952

NB: These recordings were transferred from a wide variety of recording media of various fidelities. Some were from secondary sources which limits their restoration potential

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