Pitt to Host Symposium on Songwriter Stephen Foster April 23-24

Issue Date: 
April 19, 2010

Beautiful-DreamersThe University of Pittsburgh—home to the Stephen Foster Memorial and world repository for the largest collection of Foster materials anywhere—will hold its first-ever symposium on renowned Pittsburgh-born composer Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter, April 23 and 24.  Sponsored by Pitt’s Center for American Music and the Department of Music, the free public event will be held in Pitt’s Stephen Foster Memorial.

The gathering of scholars and musicians coincides with the production of Beautiful Dreamers, a new music drama written and directed by Martin Giles, with musical direction by Douglas Levine. It is being presented by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre April 15-May 1 in the Foster Memorial’s Charity Randall Theater. The new staged work incorporates many of Foster’s most beloved songs and ballads.

Beautiful Dreamers follows the central character, Moses Walker, in an American odyssey across the United States just before the Civil War as he experiences life, love, and loss. Along the way, Moses meets other iconic American figures—a Virginia widow, a runaway slave, Walt Whitman, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), among others. The symposium will highlight the 19th-century historical context of the play, while it strives to expand our understanding of Foster and his songs.

Pitt’s two-day symposium will highlight three themes related to Foster:

• How Foster’s songs were performed during his lifetime and what Pittsburgh was like from 1820 to 1850 (Foster lived in Pittsburgh from 1826 to 1861.);

• Perspectives on Foster’s songs when viewed from other cultures and geographical locations; and

•  How Foster’s songs have been reinterpreted in the 21st century.

“The themes were chosen because they are an integral part of Martin Giles’ script,” says Deane Root, director of Pitt’s Center for American Music, Fletcher Hodges Jr. Curator of the Foster Hall Collection, Pitt professor of music, and editor in chief of Grove Music Online, a leading Web-based resource for music research. “We’ll explore how Foster’s music is understood in fascinatingly different and sometimes conflicting ways.” By probing deeper, Root says, the experience of seeing Beautiful Dreamers should be “all the more amazing.”

The presentations/discussions are as follows:

Friday, April 23, 1-5 p.m.

• Welcoming Remarks by Deane Root;

•  Introduction by Martin Giles, playwright, Beautiful Dreamers;

• “Stephen Foster’s Pittsburgh,” Mariana Whitmer, special projects coordinator of Pitt’s Center for American Music and executive director of the Society for American Music;

• “Voices and Virtues: The Parlor Songs in Foster’s Lifetime,” Susan Key, coeditor of American Mavericks: Musical Visionaries, Pioneers, Iconoclasts (University of California Press, 2001);

• “How Foster’s Music Reached Its Public,” Deane Root; and

• “Minstrel Songs and Their Audience in the 19th Century,” Dale Cockrell, professor of musicology, Vanderbilt University.

Saturday, April 24, 9-5 p.m.

Morning Session:

• Introduction by Thomas Hampson, Metropolitan Opera baritone (via videoconference), titled “Foster’s Songs as Part of America’s Classic Vocal Repertory”;

• “The Allure of Foster’s Songs: Transcending Cultural Barriers,” Steven Saunders, professor of music, Colby College, and coeditor, Stephen Foster: Sixty Favorite Songs (Mel Bay, 2009);

• “America as Understood Through Foster’s Songs in Foreign Culture: Foster’s Music as Japanese Cultural Heritage,” Kazuko Miyashita, professor of English and American Studies, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kanoya, Japan; and

• “Southern Fried Foster: The Intersection of Race and Place in Looney Tunes’ Borrowings of Stephen Foster Songs,”  Joanna Smolko, coeditor, Stephen Foster: Sixty Favorite Songs.

Afternoon Session:

•  Introduction by Ken Emerson, author of Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture (Da Capo Press, 1998);

• “Foster’s Music in Popular Culture,” Kathryn Miller Haines, associate director, Pitt’s Center for American Music;

• “From an Idea to a Grammy: The Story Behind Putting Together Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster,”

David Macias, Nashville-based producer of 2005 Grammy Award-winning CD Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster; and

• “Foster’s Influence on America’s Traditional Music,” Joe Weed, musician, producer of the CD Swanee: The Music of Stephen Foster.

Following each day’s sessions, attendees will be encouraged to visit the Foster museum exhibition space inside the Memorial and attend an evening performance of Beautiful Dreamers. Root says that because Foster was a native of the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, his life has always interested local residents. Curiosity concerning what the city looked like when he lived here and where he grew up, often comes to the forefront when the public visits the Foster museum. According to Root, this symposium will allow the public to learn more about this important historical figure and the city in which he lived.

The event is made possible through funding from Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/symposium.htm.