In 1996 Deutsche Grammophon released an album called, “Honey and Rue” featuring soprano Kathleen Battle, then at the summit of her career. I purchased it at an independent record store during the final year of my undergraduate vocal studies at a small, southern college. I can still remember the CD cover. Kathleen Battle, sporting a 1960s-era flip, resting her chin on her hands and looking like the girl next door.
It was an album of American music, offering Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915”, selections from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and a new work by André Previn. I listened and loved it. Yet, the song cycle by Previn was curious to me. The little American art song that I’d encountered within my voice studies – Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland, John Duke – was strophic, straightforward, and colloquial. This group of six songs by Previn and Morrison didn’t seem to follow traditional song forms. I heard jazz idioms, chromaticism, asymmetrical voice-leading, unpredictable phrase contour, and changing meter. The poetry was obscure at times. I had read Morrison’s Bluest Eye in high school, but even the title of the song cycle eluded me. What did she mean by rue?
Years later as a doctoral student I would revisit Previn’s “Honey and Rue.” I would travel to Pittsburgh to talk with Previn face-to-face after watching him conduct a rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall. Mahler 9. Previn himself was fascinating. A German immigrant who came to Hollywood via the S.S. Manhattan in 1939 after the election of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, he learned his craft from other brilliant musicians who had fled Europe too. As a teenager he played chamber music with violinist Joseph Szigeti and studied piano with Max Rabinowitsch. A career composing and conducting at MGM was accompanied by a life of glamour, rubbing elbows with movie stars, the Academy Awards, and a marriage to Mia Farrow – a fact which consequently led me down the rabbit hole to search out all of Woody Allen’s films.
I would have a conversation over the phone with Toni Morrison – a girl from Lorraine, Ohio, born only one year after Previn, who grew up in a steel town filled with European immigrants and Southern blacks – and learn that while collaborating with Previn her intent was “to let the words hold the music, but not be the music.” (Readers would discover this aural style within her 1992 historical novel Jazz as well.) Like a best girlfriend chatting over coffee, Morrison revealed to me the connotation of each poem. I would learn that “I Am Not Seaworthy” was about Ophelia and her last thoughts while drowning in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I would discover that “Whose House Is This?” was Morrison’s take on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper, a small literary masterpiece that was published within the pages New England Magazine 1892. Nearly every poem held an arcane and mysterious nuance that way.
This unlikely collaboration between André Previn and Toni Morrison was the result of a commission by the Carnegie Hall corporation as part of its centennial celebration. The first performance took place on January 5, 1992. With Previn on the podium, Kathleen Battle performed the songs with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. But “Honey and Rue” was more than a song cycle. It was the catalyst for operatic works that would soon follow. Previn quickly set to work on his opera A Streetcar Named Desire (1998) which premiered with an all-star cast at the San Francisco Opera while his second opera, A Brief Encounter (2009) was produced by the Houston Grand Opera. In 1996, Morrison partnered with composer Richard Danielpour to write the opera Margaret Garner, based upon the same material as that which had provided the foundation for her first, best-selling novel.
It’s Summer 2019 and Toni Morrison just passed away. Previn left this world in February. How poignant. How coincidental. How unlikely a collaboration between two artists of such inestimable value.
rue1 /ro͞o/v.t. To feel sorrow or remorse for; regret extremely, – v.i. To feel sorrow or remorse; be regretful. See synonyms under MOURN. – rue2 n. Sorrowful remembrance, regret