Remembering Sylvia Olden Lee
Amelia Boynton Robinson Remembers a Dear Friend
Schiller Institute Vice Chairwoman Amelia Boynton Robinson composed the following statement, in memory of her dear friend, and Schiller Institute stalwart, Sylvia Olden Lee.
On Saturday morning, April 10th, at 1 o'clock, an angel visited my dear friend Sylvia Olden Lee, touched her body with its spiritual wand and gently bore her spirit from labor to reward. A resting place where there is no more sickness, sorrows, pains, no death.
Sylvia had a magic touch with instruments which electrified human beings and drew out of people the will, the want, and the ability to become great musicians.
Sylvia, who lived a beautiful life, whose music has been taught from ocean to ocean, from the piney lands to the wavering palms, throughout the world, has been called from labor to reward. She gave to the world her very best, and as she took her flight beyond this disturbed world, she was greeted by relatives and friends, where they could all join the heavenly choir.
What a beautiful track record for those who are still here.
Amelia Boynton Robinson Vice Chairwoman, Schiller Institute
From Dennis Speed (from the June 28, 2004 issue of The New Federalist)
This weekend, (Saturday June 26 and Monday June, 28) in Philadelphia and New York, there will be held commemorations of the life of the great teacher, Sylvia Olden Lee. Sylvia was a very active member of the Schiller Institute, a friend of Lyndon and Helga LaRouche, and a fierce proponent of the idea of the Classical principle in music. On this occasion, we offer consideration of the Idea of Sylvia Lee, as that Idea is now passed on, through posterity, to eternity.
We first met Sylvia Lee indirectly, as a result of a film made of a recording session of Bach and Handel pieces performed by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and soprano Kathleen Battle, entitled Baroque Duet. Musician Battle, plagued by the unreasonable and post-modernist demands of a recording industry that sought to make Classical music more user-friendly to the morally deaf, was being harassed by recording engineers who had brightened the tuningthat is, raised the pitch, even affecting the very sound of the hall in the which the recording was made. This was immediately evident to the trained ear of Marsalis, who pointed it out even prior to a note being recorded. His observation was pooh-poohed by the recording engineers, who replied that we listened to your other recordings and it's the same sound quality. As a result of the artificially boosted pitch, the F-F# passage of Battles voice was being artifically taxed, leading to the complaint, laid at her feet as obviously being her fault, that your (and the trumpet's) Fs aren't matching. This was not the result of Battle's tone being flat, but of the engineering manipulation. Marsalis gently pointed out that, in his estimation, there was no real problem, other than the hall sound, but he was politely ignored.
The rattled Battle needed a friend, not really a vocal coach, but one with absolute musical authority. So she called Sylvia Lee. The film showed Sylvia forcing Battle to concentrate on the spirit of the Bach text, to the exclusion of all technical questions of vocal production. The text, a selection entitled. Jauchzet Gott im allen Enden, from a Bach cantata, required, according to Sylvia, that God be present before you sing the first note. JAUCHZET Gott, Sylvia told Battle. No matter how you feel, no matter if you feel like praising God or not, that's what you have to convey. You have to be happy. Are you happy now? You ought to be ecstatic!!"
Later, Sylvia spent time assisting in focussing Battle, Marsalis, and the instrumental ensemble. In the actual session, when, as Sylvia made the point with all assembled, Marsalis made the obligatory joke about how tough it is to find God in New York City, Sylvia interrupted him, chastising him, saying,You don't have to look for Him. He's here. Praise Him. In this way, Sylvia Lee allowed Kathleen Battle to ignore the lower demons, internal and external, that were at work against the intent of the music, in favor of the Power of Bach's Idea. That is precisely that which all great composition and performance must attain, at all costs, against all conventions. It is a very political, and truthful, approach to Art.
Why did Sylvia Lee, know she knew the Power of the Idea, for the which she so famously crusaded?
Sylvia Olden Lee's father was a minister. Daddy was born in 1884 and was the youngest of four children. Like Mama, Daddy had to work his way through Fisk where he arrived in 1906. Part of Daddy's scholarship was to serve as a waiter, as well as to lead the singing in Sunday morning chapel. Many times they had visiting ministers.... Nobody knew what [they were] going to say. When the minister sat down after speaking, it was Daddy's job to break out a cappella in the choir with the very first thing that came into his head from the sermon, like, I never been to Heaven, but I been told.... Then the whole church would join in unaccompanied: I know the Lord's laid His hands on me. Oh the gates are of pearl and the streets are gold.... It was a kind of a cappella Negro Spiritual. There weren't more than ten musicians in the congregation, but everybody sang four-part harmony. He sees all you do, Daddy'd sing, and they'd respond, He hears all you say.... Every Sunday a different one! 1
Divorced from its setting in the church, the Spiritual is as impossible to understand, as it is impossible to understand Bach's St. Matthew Passion as . concert performance piece. And Jauchzet Gott requires the same conviction, and spontaneous joy, as Sylvia's father had to glean, as an antiphonal counterpoint, from the Sunday sermon.
Her Family History
Sylvia's paternal grandfather was a slave who ran away from the Oldham plantation in Kentucky to fight with the Union Army at the beginning of the war. Her great-grandfather, Nelson Merry, was the founder of what was called the First Colored Baptist Church in Nashville, in 1853. He was also a slave, born in 1824, and freed in 1845, after being taught to read, against the law, by the pastor of the First Baptist Church. (The First Colored Baptist Church was the segregated spin-off of the original church to which he was passed on, as property, by the wife of his former master, upon her death in 1840.)
Nelson Merry got to Nashville as a result of the refusal of his Indian mother, Sylvia's paternal great-great-grandmother, refusing to continue to walk to Oklahoma in Andrew Jacksons and Martin van Buren's genocidal Trail of Tears, the attempted extermination, through deportation, of the Cherokee Nation of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Because she refused to walk any further, the children, including Sylvia's great-grandfather, were sold to various masters. Sylvia's grandfather, father, and mother were also students at Fisk College, founded by members of the American Missionary Association to provide the basis for a Classical education to former slaves, in 1866.
The Fisk University education was emphatically not to educate the newly freed slaves to their expected station. It was not post-slavery skills 101. In the music curriculum at Fisk, for example, it was noted by this author, in 1994, that the section of the curriculum which discussed prerequisites for competence in piano, emphasized the students' study of Bach's two-voiced and three-voiced inventions, not today's musically illiterate two- and three-part inventions. Students were offered, and encouraged to study, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, often in relation to religious study, but also for basic literacy.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Sylvia's Civil War veteran grandfather had a sister, Elizabeth Merry, who also attended Fisk, and was part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the group that was responsible, more than any other, for making the African-American Spirituals known throughout the world. In two remarkable and exhaustive tours, they acquainted particularly Germany, Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic, as well as Slovakia), and England, with these songs, not as a specialty, but as embedded in Classical repertoire programs, of the which all the members of the ensemble were accomplished performers. The Spirituals would be, less than 20 years later, the basis for the attempt by Johannes Brahms and his associate, Antonin Dvorak, to create an American practice of Classical musical composition in the United States through Jeanette Thurber's National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak's devoted study of the Negro Spiritual, as conveyed to him by the singer, musician, and composer Harry Burleigh, won Dvorak the undying enmity of those in both Europe and America committed to the lie of black cultural inferiority. Although aborted, echoes of Dvorak's and Brahms's efforts would persist up through their destruction by the Frankfurt School and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Sylvia's mother, a formidable pianist and vocalist, was offered the opportunity to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1912, but refused, when she was informed that she, who had blonde hair and blue eyes, would be expected to pass for white"to deny that she was of African-American ethnic origin. Her father, a member of the legendary Fisk Quartet, which also included the extraordinary singer Roland Hayes (1887-1977), became a minister and civil rights organizer, who was run out of Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan when Sylvia was a young child, in the 1920s. He later successfully forced the first performance by an African-American conductor, heading a Classical orchestra, below the Mason-Dixon line, in 1953. The conductor was Everett Lee, Sylvia's husband and a master violinist.
Sylvia was to force the Metropolitan Opera to allow accomplished musicians of African-American origin through its doors, by first becoming a vocal coach at the Met, and then suggesting, to Met director Rudolf Bing, in 1955, that an American of African descent sing the role of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. It was Marian Anderson who actually performed that role that year, which opened the American Classical stage to all those who had been forced away from this field from the time that Dvorak had been driven out of the United States, in 1895. This was followed by the great Robert McFerrin singing at the Met that same year. Sylvia became, through the years, the premier consultant for literally hundreds of singers, and had, as of 1993, become more familiar as Kathleen Battle's teacher.
With the Schiller Institute
The Schiller Institute worked with Sylvia Lee for just over ten years. Her pedagogical method was instantly identified as identical with that of the best of humanist thinkers and teachers. It was witheringly honest, often hilarious, and always focussed on the essentials. In the last years, she most loved working with the LaRouche Youth Movement, which she had the opportunity to do on the West Coast and in Philadelphia She was not merely in agreement with LaRouche on cultural matters"; she was a financial contributor to the LaRouche Presidential campaign, and actively supported it whenever she could. Through the LaRouche Youth Movement, her greatest wish, that there be groups of non-professional singers that gather each week, and perform the Spirituals, anthems, and work songs and folk songs, together with Lieder, motets, etc., will be realized.
1 From The Memoirs of Sylvia Olden, Premier African-American Classical Vocal Coach: Who Is Sylvia, by Sylvia Olden Lee and Elizabeth Nash, The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., Lampeter, Wales, U.K., 2001.
The Artist, Sylvia Olden Lee
Schiller Institute Message Read to
June 26, 2004 Memorial Service in Philadelphia, PA
The German Lied, is the Rosetta Stone of Classical music. The project, initiated by Ludwig Van Beethoven, and advanced and perfected by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, to spread the highest expression of Classical artistic principles of composition to the widest possible audience, through these songs, was not limited to the German language, as Beethoven's settings of Irish, Scottish and Welsh songs, as well as the Robert Burns settings done by several composers, attest. It is, however, in the German Lied, that the Song achieved its highest expression.
Sylvia Lee was a master of the art of Lieder performance. It was her extraordinary integrity as a musician, that led her to achieve this level of perfection. Her studies with Gerhard Husch in Germany were essential for this. Husch recognized that Sylvia could understand what many missthe Classical composers' appreciation of what America's Edgar Allan Poe once termed The Power of Words. When teaching German Lieder, Gerhard Husch insisted that his students speak the lyrics as dramatic monologues before singing them, Sylvia told author Elizabeth Nash.
These Lieder, properly performed, embody the principle of Classical Theater. Tragedy is often their subject, but Tragedy viewed from the standpoint of the Sublime. Brahms. Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, a song that Sylvia, and singer Elvira Green, often performed for Schiller Institute programs in Europe and America in 1994, perfectly illustrates the Idea of the Sublime, without flinching from a wrenching portrayal of the tragic. Many often quote John Keats' famous Ode On A Grecian Urn, that Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, but how do we reconcile that with the Tragic? That demands artistry. That was the successful mission of the life of the Artist, Sylvia Olden Lee.
Since the 1873 and 1877 visits of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Europe, there has been a trans-Atlantic discussion process among Classical artists, including Brahms and Dvorak, with American musicians, and particularly many musicians of African heritage, on the identity of the Idea of the Sublime, embodied in the German Lied and the Negro Spiritual. Contrary to the unfortunate commentaries written by those who have failed to comprehend the Classical composers' devotion to the Poetic Principle, this is not . multi-cultural issue. If one listens, for example, to contralto Marian Anderson and pianist Franz Rupp perform Schumann's Stille Traenen, followed by the Spiritual,Crucifixion, the identity of intention that imbues the spirit of the two performances, is audible. It cannot be so, not if the performances are truthful, unless the substance of the message behind the words, is also identical. It was George Shirley, William Warfield, Sylvia Lee, and Robert McFerrin, who insisted, on the behalf of Musical Truth, that this identity in Intention, of both the Lied, and the Spiritual, be the standard of performance, in their 1990s performances and teaching, with the Schiller Institute.
Dvorak spoke of the same identity of Classical intention to his friend, musician Harry Burleigh, who introduced Dvorak to the Spirituals, by singing them to him for hours at a time. Dvorak exclaimed to Burleigh, that he heard the same Idea behind the Spirituals, as he heard behind Beethoven's great symphonic themes. Roland Hayes proved this to initially hostile, and then adoring, German audiences in 1927, much to the chagrin of certain of his American counterparts who were a bit surprised when the now-converted German audience members exclaimed,At last! An American who can actually sing our songs! Hayes recognized what Sylvia Lee practiced all the time, and what Gerhard Husch must have appreciated about her from their first meeting. They were not the songs of the Germans they were merely also the songs of the Germans. These were, like the Spirituals, songs of, and for, all people everywhere.
Of course, therefore, Sylvia and the Schiller Institute would have to meet. Of course, she would find herself a closer and closer interlocutor with Lyndon LaRouche and Helga LaRouche, whose love of the German Lied mirrors their love of humanity, as Sylvia's love of humanity mirrors her love of music. The present tense is appropriate here, for the Artist never dies. All Nature sings the song of the Artist, always, for the Artist, as Schiller taught us, is he who stands at the shoulders of God in his Creation, for whom all things are new, and all things renewed, forever.
"Ueber mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
drin dingt die junge Nachtigall;
sie singt von lauter Liebe,
Ich hoer es sogar im Traum."
"Over my bed, there rises a tree;
in it the young nightingale sings;
It sings of nothing but love, of nothing but love;
I hear it, I hear it even in my dreams, even in my dreams."
So may we all, hear Sylvia, even in our dreams, of a better world, that will be of her, and the Artist's, making.
At the conclusion of the memorial, the assembled sang Hes Got the Whole World in his Hands.
In MemoriamSylvia Olden Lee, April 15, 2004
by Mark Fairchild
It is with a great sense of personal loss that I write about the death of Sylvia Olden Lee. Indeed, mankind itself has suffered a great loss. Sylvia was a kind of cultural warrior, fighting against degradation and banality, upholding the highest standards of truthfulness in her art, and demanding the same from everyone with whom she came into contact.
Others may chronicle her life and accomplishments she was the first AfricanAmerican vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; she played for an inauguration ceremony of Franklin Roosevelt; she coached many of the most famous singers of the twentieth century: a description of her accolades would be lengthy.
But I would like to attempt to convey Sylvia's method, having had the fantastic privilege of working closely with her for the period of perhaps three years, during which she coached three of my friends and me, who formed a quartet dedicated to the singing of Negro Spirituals, as part of Lyndon LaRouche's efforts to revive and promote a classical cultural renaissance.
To say that Sylvia was . vocal coach is actually inadequate and even misleading, although this is how she is probably most often described. Although she knew a great deal about the human voice, she left the subject matter of voice training. placement of the voice, warmup exercises, and so on to others.
Sylvia was without a doubt one of the nation's foremost experts in the performance of the Negro Spiritual, songs that LaRouche has maintained belong properly to the classical repertoire. Sylvia was certainly as comfortable with and as knowledgeable about German Lieder and Italian arias as she was with the Spirituals. But her expertise in the Spirituals went far beyond simply knowing all the facts and history; rather it was rooted in emotionally reliving the experience of the struggle for freedom and dignity.
So, who was Sylvia? She lived to help singers convey ideas. Even though I don't know if she ever read the dialogues of Plato, she was one of the most Socratic people I've ever known. She would ask a singer a series of seemingly simple, almost naive questions about the meaning of a song. What is the mood of the person singing this song?. Swing low, sweet chariot What does that refer to?. Who is speaking in this portion of the song?. Aren't you actually quoting someone here? She then demanded that the performance be dedicated to the communication of those ideas.
She had very little tolerance for simply . pretty sound, or a singer who would merely attempt to show off. She would often describe such folly as pitiful with such an almost indescribable facial expression of reproach that you wanted to die rather than commit such an offense.
Often, when coaching someone on how to sing a particular Spiritual, she would tell vivid stories of what it was like to be a slave, and direct the students to imagine themselves to be in that situation, and then, think about how they would sing the song from that standpoint. She was proud of the fact that her grandfather had been a slave, who escaped to fight in the Civil War for the Union cause. Sometimes, the stories she told were so heartwrenching that the student was moved to tears.
She had the most expressive face capable of conveying the widest range of emotions with often hilarious irony, and as often, profound pathos. She would wield this capability in her effort to educate. Many singers had their egos bruised in the process, because Sylvia frequently used a certain kind of biting irony that startled as it educated, but it was always from the standpoint of a dedication to a higher principle always in the service of conveying the idea in question.
Once, when coaching us on the singing of the song Steal Away, she asked what we thought was meant by the words tombstones aburstin', poor sinner stands atremblin'.A discussion ensued of the Judgment Day, and the awe and terror of seeing skeletons rising up out of the ground, and reconstituting themselves into people, to stand judgment before God. Sylvia then reproached us on the way we had been singing this passage, by responding to our reflections in an exaggerated and sarcastic Southern accent,Well, it don' seem to bother you none! We erupted in embarrassed laughter.
She had the capacity to educate, simply by being herself. Anyone who observed her speaking and reflecting on the significance of a song, was inspired to want to be able to be as expressive, as enthusiastic, as truthful, as she was. She was an example of what the great poet of freedomFriedrich Schiller referred to as . beautiful soul in which one's emotions and intellect are in harmony.
Even though I don't remember her ever saying it in such words, she inculcated the concept that a singer was to be a kind of instrument of a higher power, through whom would flow profound ideas ideas of passionate love, of defiance in the face of tyranny, of awe of the Divine, of the immortality of the soul, of compassion for the downtrodden, of the sublime human capacity to overcome the most hideous persecution.
She was insistent that the Negro Spiritual was not to be performed in some formal, phony, overpronounced way. At times, her attention to detail in the pronunciation of a particular word or words seemed tedious, but it was always informed by the idea of historical specificity. Lyndon LaRouche has often written about Shakespeare, and how, in order to be truthful in the performance of his plays, you must be faithful to the specifics of the history involved. So it was with Sylvia, and her beloved Spirituals.
Sylvia was a consummate storyteller. And she inspired her students to become this as well. The singer was to convey the story, the idea. I'll never forget my sense of wonder, in the contrast between how I thought about a particular song as simply a nice melody or series of notes, and after coaching by Sylvia, that same song became an exalted statement of the human condition. The difference was so profound, that I often found myself shaking my head in amazement.
Under her direction, one no longer wanted to simply hit the right notes, in the right rhythm, and with the proper placement of the voice, but in a character voice that distinguished the narrator, for example, from the various other people in the unfolding drama of the story of the song. In Little Boy, for example, Sylvia wanted to hear the a difference voice for the little boy (breathy, innocent), the narrator (yourself), and the rabbi's (oldersounding voices) who were demanding to know,How old are you? In Go Down, Mosesyou have the narrator, the voice of God, and the voice of Moses. The Negro Spirituals are uniquely rich, in American culture, in terms of this kind of content.
But this also meant, that before you were ready to work with Sylvia, you had to have a song memorized in its entirety: notes, timing, dynamics, pronunciation and so on, including the words. She was rather impatient with you, if you didn't have all this done. Because knowing all of this was just the starting point for the proper interpretation of a Spiritual. Time and again, I was amazed to discover that a song that I thought I knew thoroughly, I had in fact not even begun to appreciate, in terms of its dramatic and idea content, until I began to work with Sylvia.
Sylvia was fond of saying, that the Negro Spirituals have contained within them every possible human emotion. Some people have the mistaken idea that the Spirituals are sorrowsongs. In fact, the range of emotions of the repertoire of the Spiritual covers the entire spectrum from agony to joy, from the sublime to the humorous. Moreover, although many, perhaps even a majority of the spirituals have the element of sorrow or suffering, that sorrow is always implicitly or explicitly overcome and transcended in the very essence of the idea behind the song. These songs were born out of a struggle for freedom. They are not slave songs they are freedom songs.
I grieve the loss of this precious friend. At the same time, I am so happy and feel so proud that I had the honor of calling her my friend. We had her with us for a short time. Now, I am determined to do honor to her memory by carrying on her work.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.