Thomas Hampson

A Celebration of Black Music I

The first concert of the three-part series places Afro-American poet Langston Hughes in the spotlight with settings of his verse by European and American composers. Available until 2 June 2022.

»I, too, sing America«. With these powerful words, African American poet Langston Hughes expressed the right of Black people to be an equal part of American culture and society. As a member of the »Harlem Renaissance«, a dynamic movement initiated by African American artists in the 1920s, Hughes helped transform American arts and letters. With his deeply humanistic attitude, and through his intellect, sense of humour and integrity, he produced works that remain timeless and touching to this day. The concert programme »Langston Hughes: Singing Harlem in Europe« features musical settings of his texts by composers like Wilhelm Grosz, Florence Price and Leonard Bernstein, showing that humanity and truthfulness know no bounds – neither then, nor now.

Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.


Thomas Hampson: A Celebration of Black Music

An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.

Teaser »Song of America: A Celebration of Black Music«


Louise Toppin soprano
Leah Hawkins soprano
Ema Nikolovska mezzo-soprano
Lawrence Brownlee tenor
Justin Austin baritone
Thomas Hampson baritone

Howard Watkins piano
Joseph Joubert piano



»Langston Hughes: Singing Harlem in Europe«

Duration: approx. 90 minutes

Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson Louise Toppin & Thomas Hampson © Sophie Wolter
Lawrence Brownlee Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Joseph Joubert & Lawrence Brownlee Joseph Joubert & Lawrence Brownlee © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska Ema Nikolovska © Sophie Wolter
Justin Austin Justin Austin © Sophie Wolter
Howard Watkins Howard Watkins © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Hampson & Louise Toppin Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Hampson & Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter
Leah Hawkins Leah Hawkins © Sophie Wolter
Louise Toppin Louise Toppin © Sophie Wolter
Thomas Hampson Thomas Hampson © Sophie Wolter
Justin Austin Justin Austin © Sophie Wolter
Joseph Joubert Joseph Joubert © Sophie Wolter
Ema Nikolovska Ema Nikolovska © Sophie Wolter
Howard Watkins Howard Watkins © Sophie Wolter

The Artists

Louise Toppin – soprano

Louise Toppin
Louise Toppin © Romanieo Golphin

Leah Hawkins – soprano

Leah Hawkins
Leah Hawkins © Dario Acosta

Ema Nikolovska – mezzo-soprano

Ema Nikolovska
Ema Nikolovska © Kaupo Kikkas

Lawrence Brownlee – tenor

Justin Austin – baritone

Justin Austin
Justin Austin © Jessica Osber Photography

Thomas Hampson – baritone

Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson © Jiyang-Chen

Howard Watkins – piano

Howard Watkins
Howard Watkins © Dayton Opera Scott / J. Kimmins

Joseph Joubert – piano

Joseph Joubert
Joseph Joubert © Lelund Durond Thompson

Langston Hughes: From Harlem to the world :About the programme

A poet of the modern age

Langston Hughes’s (1901-1967) poetry and stories have astounded us for nearly a century. In fact, in 1922, at a time when Hughes was only 21, his poetry was already being translated into German at rapid rates—and for good reason. A pivotal figure of the New Negro Movement and heralded as »the original jazz poet« of the 20th century, Hughes tapped into a vibrant, thrilling, and profoundly modern era with his poems, somehow capturing the exciting rush of jazz and the blues in quick, stark prose.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes was primarily raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas after his father divorced his mother and left for Mexico, seeking a life away from institutionalized racism in the United States. After attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and living for a year in Mexico with his father, Langston Hughes took off for New York City to study at Columbia University. Although he had promised his father to study engineering, Hughes quickly became involved in a growing, vibrant cultural scene in Harlem, where he would live until his death.

Langston Hughes, 1936
Langston Hughes (1936) © Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Already a promising talent being recruited by African American media outlets like The Crisis while attending university, Hughes’s early poetry in the 1920s sent shockwaves across the world. The first poem to earn widespread acclaim was his 1921 anthem to Black America called »The Negro Speaks of Rivers« (1921). Rejecting the Hegelian notion that Black people were »a people with no history,« Hughes’s poem ties Black history to an ancient past in beautiful, golden prose. His 1925 poem, »I, Too, Sing America« was a profound response to Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) famous 1860 poem, »I Hear America Singing«.

Solidarity through translation

It is interesting and perhaps unsurprising, then, that the first generation to translate Hughes’s poetry into German were German Jews. Led by the formidable Anna Nussbaum (1887-1931), a friend and ally of African American civil rights leader and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), this generation of translators felt a strong sense of solidarity with African Americans and were profoundly inspired by their writings. They were the most eager to showcase the works of the New Negro movement and its articulations of a growing Black consciousness. It was this community of translators that provided the first texts of Hughes to a new generation of modern composers such as Kurt Pahlen (1907-2003), Hermann Reutter (1900-1985), Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), and Wilhelm Grosz (1894-1939).

Wilhelm Grosz
Wilhelm Grosz © Foto Fayer / Arnold Schönberg Center

German settings of Hughes’s poetry from the 1920s and 30s embraced the modernity of jazz and the blues in their musical settings, while staying true to their own compositional styles and techniques of instrumentation. Choosing to arrange Hughes’s poetry for piano and voice, for example, Hermann Reutter’s lieder participate in the long tradition of German vocal music dating back to Franz Schubert, yet Reutter’s treatment of the piano is intentionally percussive in his song »Trommel« (1957) and occasionally atonal in »Lied für ein dunkles Mädchen« (1957). Wilhelm Grosz’s musical works, on the other hand, take full advantage of an orchestra to highlight Hughes’s words. Grosz’s »Afrika Songs« (1929) are often lush and golden, like a setting sun, occasionally reminiscent of George Gershwin’s »Summertime,« among other works.

Works by African American Composers

African American composers also found a new muse in Hughes. Their thrilling compositions brought together a new generation of Black poetry into conversation with the dynamic and flourishing African American art musical world of the mid-twentieth century. Their varied settings on Hughes’s poetry embody its sonic range—musical illustrations of moonlight, rivers, and dreams abound. Out of all of the settings for »The Negro Speaks Of Rivers,« Howard Swanson’s (1907-1978) is perhaps the most dramatic and stormy. Florence B. Price (1887-1953), a composer who is finally becoming a more permanent staple on concert programs, demonstrates her sensitivity to Hughes’s lyrical poetry and her commitment to using modernist compositional techniques similar to Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and other composers, making her music a style that is uniquely her own. Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) captures the effervescent quality of Hughes’s poetry in both the »Three Dream Portraits« (1959) and »Song of the Seasons« (1955), and songs such as »Winter Moon« (1955) perfectly evoke the silvery moonlight that scatters across the snow in deep winter.

Florence Price
Florence Price © G. Nelidoff / Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries

Robert Owens (1925-2017), an African American composer who settled in Germany in the 1950s and resided there until his death, made it his mission to set countless Hughes poems to music. Owens’s »In Time of Silver Rain« (1958) arrangements are just so very clever and fun, bringing in influences from Latin American dance and American popular music.  In contrast, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker’s (1922-2018) »In Time of Silver Rain« (1992) sounds almost pointillistic in its depiction of raindrops falling from the sky (as does Hale Smith’s (1925-2009) »March Moon« (1970)). Compositions by contemporary composers such as Brandon J. Spencer (b. 1992) and Damien Sneed (b. 1977) show us how Hughes’s poetry still lives on today in their rich and moving settings of Hughes’s »Dream Variations« (2015) and »I Dream A World« (2017).

Margaret Bonds (1956)
Margaret Bonds (1956) © Carl van Vechten

As a Black intellectual who had traveled extensively through continental Europe, Russia, Central Asia, and Africa, Hughes was always aware of his global reception. And while he celebrated African Americans who left the United States in search of a better life, he was also sometimes ambivalent about what African American lives abroad looked like. Yet Langston Hughes was also always insistent that the »New Negro« was a global citizen that had much more to offer the world than what American racism allowed. Part of a greater phenomenon of African American migration to Europe that dates back to at least the 1870s, Hughes’s own life and poetry illustrate the rich, beautiful fullness of African American life and culture that has so generously enriched our world and that has inspired generations of composers to celebrate it.

Text: Kira Thurman
German Translation: Özlem Karuç

In collaboration with the Hampsong Foundation

Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg

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