- I Sang the Unsingable: My Life in Twentieth-Century Music by Bethany Beardslee, with Minna Zallman Proctor
Bethany Beardslee, known as the voice of the duo Philomel for voice and synthesizer by Milton Babbitt, as well as for performing the American premieres of Igor Stravinsky's Threni and Alban Berg's Altenberg Lieder, shares the excitement and challenges of her forty-six-year career as a vocalist devoted to the music of her time in her memoir, I Sang the Unsingable: My Life in Twentieth-Century Music. Beardslee divides her life story into five parts, the first covering her childhood in East Lansing, Michigan, through her college education at Michigan State, where she majored in music, but only after considering science, Spanish, and history. The subsequent two sections are titled after her two great loves: "The [Jacques-Louis] Monod Era (1948–55)," in which she tells of performing music by Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern, and "Godfrey [Winham] (1956–62)." The fourth part is entitled "New Music (1963–75)" and covers what many will consider the heart of her mature career. Throughout, Beardslee shares with her reader the intricacies of learning the newest music (though without much technical language or instruction) and the nature of her most important, influential, and sustained collaborations with composers and musicians—pianists, mostly, whom I won't refer to as "accompanists," because, as Beardslee rightly states, these musicians played a role equal to hers as singer, and many of them helped her "outperform" herself through their playing and partnership (p. 355). In the final section, "Farewell and Farewell," Beardslee chronicles her life since the death of Winham and her turn toward singing the "music I loved—Berg, Ravel, Schoenberg, Mahler, Schubert, Brahms––with musicians I admired" (p. 315). [End Page 139]
As hinted by the title this volume, Beardslee emerges as both a steadfast advocate but also an ambivalent performer of new music. This was not the repertoire she left East Lansing expecting to sing. She was excited to work with living composers and fell in love with Monod, who was a composer, passionate conductor, and performer of music of the Second Viennese School. Nevertheless, she recalls,
I was twenty-seven years old and starting to wonder what all of this new music was going to get me—except a reputation as an oddball. … I felt isolated and was starting to long to do recitals of classical music. … Paradoxically, though, I was happy, for I had married a composer-performer and now I seemed to hold the unique position of 'Girl Singer' among brilliant composers in New York and Princeton. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but there were two sides to me.(p. 103)
This ambivalence is further conveyed in the way she writes about her career throughout much of the book: as if her career as a champion of new works and American premieres just sort of happened to her, rather than being a conscious, convicted choice of careers. For instance, she remarks, "In my heart it seemed that, whether I'd admitted it or not, I would always be dedicated to my mission" (p. 193). In 1962, Beardslee received the Laurel Leaf Award presented by the American Composers Alliance for "'distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music.' It had been … twelve years of singing new music. I deserved an award" (p. 222). And she certainly did, given all of her hard work. Not long after, however, she had a realization during the process of working with Martha Graham on her piece Clytemnestra. Graham was focused on "the product, the performance, whereas" Beardslee loved "working in collaboration with the creator. That was the quality of my career that ultimately made me, deeply and steadfastly, a composer's singer" (p. 196).
Beardslee's memories are fascinating in part because of the fantastic career she had...