Carl DuPont can trace the origins of his Exploring Art Songs by Black Composers project to one weekend during his junior year at the Eastman School of Music. First, he performed for The Links, Incorporated, a social and service organization for professional Black women, through which he earned a scholarship, and later at his junior jury, after which a peer pointed out something obvious that DuPont had never considered.
A significant part of his musical repertoire consisted of songs extolling whiteness rather than his own heritage. “Having been raised in a very pro-Black household, I was alarmed, especially considering that I was the recipient of a scholarship from a professional Black women’s organization,” says DuPont, an associate professor of voice at Peabody. “I was doing exactly what was expected—singing arias by Mozart and songs by Wolf, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms, and we’re expected to do German lieder, and French mélodie and Italian arias and oratorio…. But it wasn’t necessarily my voice, and it didn’t celebrate my heritage, my history, or my culture.”
He set out to fix this gap in his repertoire, but that proved difficult. Even at Eastman’s Sibley Music Library, considered the largest in the western hemisphere, he found just one anthology of art songs by Black American composers, published in the 1970s, but the majority of the music was not suited for his bass-baritone voice.
DuPont has been on a mission ever since, collecting repertoire—compositions historically overlooked by the music and publishing industries—to be chronicled in his Exploring Art Songs book. (An art song, as defined by DuPont, is concert music for voice and piano, most often written to a defined instance of poetry, and sung by classical singers in a concert hall.)
In addition to songs by various composers for all voice types, the project will have some research-based aesthetic, artistic, and vocal pedagogical guidance on how to use the songs in the classroom with developing singers.
“A teacher of voice might want to incorporate these songs for their students, but may be afraid of appropriation or making a misstep,” DuPont says. “My goal is to hold your hand as you dive into this repertoire—if you need your hand to be held.”
DuPont was awarded a Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Research Accelerator Grant, a program the university launched to aid projects put on hold during the pandemic, which will allow him to devote more time to the book project. He has collected most of the scores he is considering and is writing scholarly articles to contextualize the repertoire in the art song world.
The art songs by Black composers meld several worlds together— European musical forms; African diasporic harmonic and melodic traditions; and poetry, including that of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and the Harlem Renaissance, which captures the experience of living in a country that denied their humanity, as well as the poetry of non-Black poets. That unique combination of capturing musical traditions and the life experience of Black America is what sets these art songs apart, DuPont says.
“We see this really beautiful portrait, I think, of what America can be,” he says.
A prolific singer and musical theater performer, DuPont says a large part of his own repertoire now consists of this music, and as one of a small number of Black music conservatory professors in the country, he’s worked to mentor students and similarly help them find their authentic voices. Peabody’s annual Art Song Competition, through his suggestion, now includes a prize for best art song by a Black composer, and the learning of such compositions has increased across the Conservatory, he says, not just among his own students.
At Peabody, DuPont was a co-chair of the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Task Force and served on the Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee. He teaches a course called Finding Your Voice at the Carey Business School, which helps business professionals develop their ability to speak with conviction through physiological understanding of the voice. His articles on the subject have been published in The Laryngoscope and Voice and Speech Review.
“Every day, I have to practice. I have to do my [vocal] stretches, I have to consider how to get my best resonance,” DuPont says. “I’d like to think that Exploring Art Songs by Black Composers will help artists and audiences find resonance within themselves and with our shared humanity. In the future, I hope that we can all find our voices more easily.”
— Marc Shapiro