‘Missing’ one-act opera found in CAAS holdings

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Music Prof. James Dapogny. Photo courtesy School of Music

Scholars and devotees of jazz have lamented its loss for 50 years. Its skeleton has been unearthed, and a musical artist at the University has reconstructed its body.

In the late 1930s, major jazz pianist and composer James P. Johnson (1891–1955) and the poet/novelist/playwright/columnist Langston Hughes (1902–67) collaborated on a one-act opera, De Organizer.

Subtitled A blues opera, “the work was based on the theme of organizing sharecroppers into a union, a subject in which Hughes was particularly interested and which had a particular topicality in a time of very active labor organizing,” says James Dapogny, professor of music theory.

The work was written for eight solo voices, chorus and orchestra, and performed only once. Then it was lost. The sole performance took place May 31, 1940, in Carnegie Hall, with Leonard DePaur conducting the ILGWU Negro Chorus and Symphony Orchestra as part of an evening’s entertainment at the 26th annual International Ladies Garment Workers Union convention.

“The text enthusiastically supports self-help and union organizing,” Dapogny says, “as well as both recognizing race differences and showing how a start can be made in eliminating them. So this was an apt subject for a work performed under ILGWU sponsorship.”

The text, in drafts in Hughes’ papers and published in an anthology of Harlem Renaissance plays, has been known for years. But the music was lost.

“The sense of loss was deepened by the quality of the sole surviving piece, ‘Hungry Blues,’” Dapogny says. “It’s a distinctive and beautiful lament about the intersection of race and poverty, which Johnson recorded with a singer and seven-piece band in 1938.”

The late Eva Jessye, a professional choral director whose credits included preparing the chorus for the original performance of Porgy and Bess, was apparently the choral director for the single performance of De Organizer. Jessye gave some of her papers to organizations at the U-M—the Black Music Students’ Association and the Center for African and Afroamerican Studies (CAAS).

CAAS is the custodian of the Jessye materials, and when it moved into new quarters in West Hall in 1997, more of the less-glamorous, and still uncatalogued, material became accessible. Among that material was a vocal score of the piece, a music copyist’s manuscript that Jessye had used to prepare the chorus, and perhaps the soloists for the one performance of De Organizer.

In two places this score—in an attractive, professional hand and containing very few errors—is signed “L. DeP”(or perhaps “S. DeP”) by the copyist. “This could be conductor Leonard Depaur, of course,” Dapogny says, “but, from elements of its notation, the score looks to be the work of a jazz musician. If so, this is almost surely jazz trumpeter Sidney DeParis. In both cases where the score is so signed it is also dated, January and May of 1940.”

While this legendary lost work does exist in the form of a vocal score, in its present incomplete state it is not performable as it consists of only the sung notes of the piece. “There is not a bit of instrumental music, not even a conventional piano reduction of the orchestral accompaniment such as would be used at rehearsals,” Dapogny says. “Nor does the score bear any tempo indications or dynamic markings. Of course the solo and choral pieces are by far the largest and most significant component of the piece. Still, without the accompaniment, the work is incomplete. Much of it is solo melody, and, as a performable piece, still nonexistent. Nevertheless, the musical value and character of the work are entirely clear.”

What is missing then is the entire accompaniment, much of whose harmonic outline, if not texture, can be deduced from the extant vocal music and the orchestral interludes and transitions. “With the instrumental music totally absent,” Dapogny explains, “this purely vocal score makes clear only the lengths of orchestral segments and what they must accomplish in changing key and, surely, tempo.”

The missing, purely instrumental music, including a prelude and postlude, each 10 measures long, totals about 80 measures of the work’s approximately 980 measures. Barry Glover, James P. Johnson’s grandson, curator of the composer’s remaining manuscript materials and executive director of the James P. Johnson Foundation, has made available to Dapogny all the known surviving material for the opera. This consists primarily of Johnson’s piano or piano-vocal manuscript sketches of about 250 of the opera’s 980 measures and his working copy of the libretto, a carbon copy of an original believed to have been typed by Langston Hughes.

On this copy, Johnson made notations on planned musical treatment and effect, motivic development and text setting. Another single page reveals Johnson’s wishes for the instrumental makeup of the orchestra of about 45 players: conventional orchestra winds in pairs—flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four saxophones, two French horns, trios of trumpets and trombones, tuba, percussion, piano, and conventional five-part orchestral strings—first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses.

Since September 1999, on a senior fellowship at the Institute for the Humanities, Dapogny has worked to restore this lost work to performable condition. “I used whatever Johnson material I had and composed material wherever it was lacking, realizing the project as nearly as possible to what I think Johnson would have wanted,” Dapogny says. “As a composer by academic training, a jazz pianist long familiar with Johnson’s music and the milieu in which it existed, and a music scholar particularly interested in the first half of jazz music’s history, I believe that I am in a good position to carry this out both effectively and authentically.”

Plans are being made to perform the restored work at the U-M during the 2000–2001 academic year. MUSA (Music of the USA), the publishing enterprise of the American Musicological Society, has expressed an interest in publishing the restored work, which will be in demand even outside the United States as the work of both Johnson and Hughes is quite well known in Europe.

“I believe that this piece, a collaboration of two important, successful African American artists, is both aesthetically appealing and historically and socially significant,” Dapogny says. “As a one-act opera using fairly modest force, it will be a unique, ‘new’ item of very useable repertoire for the world.”


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