The Heart of the Song, an article from Etude magazine, January 1948, pp.24, 54-55.


The Heart of the Song

From a Conference with Clara Edwards, Well-Known American Composer of By the Bend in the River, A Love Song, With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair

Secured expressly for The Etude by Leroy V. Brant

CLARA EDWARDS is one of America's most famous and best loved living song writers. From her New York Riverside Drive studio she has poured forth more than one hundred beautiful, singable, inspirational songs; songs which touch the hearts of men and women of everyday walks of life, and yet which satisfy the exacting demands of the technically informed professional musician. On the concert stage, on the screen, over the air, and in the legitimate theater one hears By the Bend of the River, The Wind and the Rain in Your Hair, The Fisher's Widow, and scores of other gems of loveliness. Not since Mrs. H. H. A. Beach wrote The Year's at the Spring, or Oley Speaks wrote Sylvia, has any American composer caught the beauty, charm, and fancy of those who live for music.

Dates are unimportant in the life of a composer. Clara Edwards has trained her mind to disregard age or dates. They really mean little to her. The music she has woven into her life is far more important. Clara Edwards began to study piano at an age which she calls "ridiculously early," and later became interested in singing. She studied at the State Normal School in Mankato, Minnesota; after her graduation there she went to the Cosmopolitan School of Music in Chicago, but was not graduated from that institution because of her marriage. She states modestly, "I also studied privately in Vienna, and did some work in Stockholm. I had many marvelous opportunities in Vienna, Paris, London. My technical training is not outstanding, but my life experience is most interesting. But, after all, I want my music to speak for me, as it has done very well!"

How came Clara Edwards to write music? Picture these things: a child of glorious musical talent, first at the piano, then as a singer. Picture that child growing into womanhood, still following music as her great love. Picture her marrying a physician, with him living an idyllic life. Picture a lovely daughter born to the two in Vienna. Picture the husband passing on soon after the birth of the daughter, the mother confronted with the necessity of earning a livelihood. Picture a return to New York, a search for employment. Picture all these things leading up to a Christmas Eve.

"I had found employment in a large department store, and I worked there as never had I worked before, because Jane Ann (my daughter) and I needed the money to live on. Christmas was approaching and I wanted a little money for Christmas spending, as well as to pay our bills. I worked so hard that the floorwalker thought I was after her job, and on Christmas Eve, after hours, when I went for my pay envelope, I found that I had been discharged!

"You can imagine my horror. There is no other word for it - horror! Christmas Eve, my baby at home, no job - my world had collapsed about me and only darkness lay ahead.

"I became very ill; opiates were administered because of the intense pain I suffered. During my illness I thought through the situation as best I could, but still I could see only blackness. Then one night I refused the opiates; I lay alternately reading a favorite book of poetry and tossing. Still I was unable to see the future - it was three in the morning. One of the poems kept singing itself through my mind until finally I arose, crept painfully from my bedroom, found no music paper, but scratched staves on the blank spaces of an old song, wrote on those poorly drawn staves the melody that had been haunting me, and soon I had my first song.

"As dawn broke that morning I knew that the die was cast. I would compose. My life would henceforth be devoted to the creating of songs. Within a week I had written six more songs. All of them were accepted for publication."

Affluence did not follow the publications, however. Mrs. Edwards smiled ruefully as she told me that her royalty checks for the first year totaled eighteen dollars. The second year the amount was doubled (thirty-six dollars) and the third year it more than doubled again, for the princely total of her remuneration that year was ninety-six dollars. In three years, America's first song writer, as of today, had made one hundred and fifty dollars and had used up most of the tiny capital left by her deceased husband for the rearing of Jane Ann.

Nevertheless, with the faith which is said to move mountains, and which certainly can see into the almost impenetrable veil of the future, Clara Edwards followed the light which had come into her life, the light of belief in her future as a composer. Today that light has led her into the broad fields of the music of the whole world. Men and women who have sung her songs include such world figures as Paul Althouse, Florence Easton, Helen Jepson, John McCormack, Grace Moore, Sigrid Onegin, Lily Pons, Gladys Swarthout, John Charles Thomas, Lawrence Tibbett, Ezio Pinza - and hundreds of others. Choral societies sing her songs, wax discs carry her songs, the whole world loves her songs - and she has written the words to most of them herself, as well as the music.

Clara Edwards has sung before the Queen of Sweden. She was offered a place in the Stockholm Opera Company. Her songs have been sung in almost every country in the world. She may write a song in half an hour or she may spend a year on it. But at heart she is just a lovely woman, with all the feminine instincts that make American womanhood great.

Clara Edwards' comments upon song writing which follow should prove valuable and inspiring to young composers, some of whom may be struggling with difficult burdens.


Musical composition and the method of procedure to bring it about seems to be a subject of intense interest to people in general, especially to those outside of the musical profession. The thought seems to be prevalent that a song is a direct result of some experience of the composer, or that the composer's works are an expression of events in his life. I am very often asked what river I had in mind when I wrote By the Bend of the River, or what occasion brought forth With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair, or what deep experience produced Into the Night. I cannot honestly answer these questions, for I do not know. I would not go to the other extreme, however, and say that a composer's personal life has nothing to do with his work. I feel sure that our expressions, be they depicted in picture, story, or song are in some way the outcome of our life experiences; but that they are direct results of some sad or gay event has not been my experience.

As we look back over the growth of music, we find that the age in which a composer lived is most important and indicative of results. Let us take, for example, Bach, who turned out endless scores, apparently on a moment's notice, with an eye always on the Church, and the ruling monarch, who gave him his livelihood and to whom he was little more than a paid servant. We cannot see the real Bach in the compositions born under these driving circumstances.

Consider also, Mozart, who lived much of his short life in dire poverty and want, but who gave us such gay and charming music-such exquisite and incomparable melodies which tell us nothing of his life of constant struggle. In his Alleluia he reaches the height of spiritual exaltation, and with its pianistic accompaniment he has given us a masterpiece. His own development and growth, and the musical development of the country, with existing conditions, are plainly shown, however, in his operas and larger works.

World Conditions Affect Composers
With Beethoven, conditions are very much changed, both politically and economically, and we find a burning intensity for freedom of expression which shines with a steady flame through everything he wrote, and which influenced nearly every form of music. Beethoven, the man, though harrassed by disappointments and ill fortune, and finally stricken with complete deafness, gave us the matchless Ode to Joy; which finally was interpolated into his Ninth Symphony, conceded to be the greatest of all. His sense of the extreme dramatic is shown when the Ode to Joy first appears, and all instrumentation is abruptly stopped, but is again resumed when the voices have gradually brought it to a height of exaltation, and we are carried away by the beauty and wonder of it.

In the great romantic period of German song a change took place. Music and poetry, heretofore, had been mostly separate, but with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, we find them closely wedded - voice, piano, and text joined in beautiful harmony. Great individualism and se1f-expression are introduced. Take, for example, Schubert's well known Erl-King, with words by Goethe. Here is an emotional outburst, seldom so intensely depicted in song. We are introduced first, by the piano, to the wild night ride on horseback, then to the pleading of the terrified child in his father's arms, and the howling of the wind. We hear the voice of the Erl-King, soft and compelling, and then the voice of the frightened child; next the voice of the anguished father trying to calm his child, and urging his horse ever faster, while telling him it is only the sound of the willows that he hears. Then again we hear the Er1-King, now threatening, then the voice of the terrified child. All the while the constantly running accompaniment and the vocal part, where the voice at times declaims the words, carry us along to an increasing pitch of excitement, which suddenly stops - and in a few intensely dramatic measures we are made to feel the horror of the father at finding his child dead!

For contrast let us turn to Brahms, that honest spirit, disdainful of public opinion and somewhat of a musical enigma, who was to be really appreciated later on, as now. We are told he wrote two hundred songs during his lifetime. These songs do not always show the perfect synchronization as found in the Erl-King, but nevertheless, they are good music. The best known, and no doubt the best beloved, of Brahms' songs is the Wiegenlied. It is entirely lacking in dramatic force, and paints no exciting picture, but on the contrary, one of serene calmness. With a simple folk-like melody, and an equally simple accompaniment, Brahms has given us some thing quite perfect and satisfying, even though lacking in drama. No doubt he has written greater songs, but surely none with more appeal to the masses than the lovely Cradle Song.

Although Puccini was not what is termed a song or lieder composer, solos from his operas are popular on the concert stage and can be called concert music. In his operas we find vivid action and intense passion, rather than musical worth, with the orchestra consistently depicting what is taking place on the stage. There is always a plausible treatment of an every day emotion, be it jealousy, fear, love, or anger. One of the most popular arias, Un bel di, is found in "Madam Butterfly" and sung by the soprano. Here Puccini has used broad, sweeping phrases for both voice and orchestra - a continuous melody which leads to the climax when Butterfly, carried away by emotion and imagination, sees Pinkerton coming to her. The sweeping music leaves us almost speechless by its theatrical effect. These dramatic situations occur in various forms in "Tosca" and "La Boheme."

In the song world, the name of Richard Strauss must certainly be considered most important. We invariably connect with him his tone poems, but his song literature, though sometimes difficult and hard to grasp, is bold, colorful, and brilliant. His musical life began at an early age and was nurtured, by his horn playing father, on Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven and finally Liszt and Wagner - all this at a time when the country had gone though a revolutionary crisis which had its direct effect on such an impressionable nature. His songs vary from the simple which are never as simple as they seem to the most intricate, with little thought of vocal limitations, while the piano accompaniments are difficult to a degree. Always however, there is a fidelity to the poetic theme. I mention the lovely Serenade, which is vivacious and joyous, both vocally and pianistically, but requires a sure technique from both singer and accompanist. Perhaps better known is Zueignung, or Devotion, as it is sometimes called, which, built on simpler lines, has a richness and intentness which, with its rapturous climax, becomes one of our favorite concert numbers.

Of the many composers who have written beautiful songs in our country, only one, due to lack of space, may be considered - Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. While Mrs. Beach has written many pieces in various forms, some of which are pretentious and deserve first place, the two songs, Ah, Love But a Day, with its moods so well depicted, has great warmth and feeling, while The Year's at the Spring is joyous and jubilant, with a rushing flow of music which makes it welcome to singers and the public alike.

Folk Music a Basis
Folk music is a topic that requires more time and space than may be taken here. Much great music the world over has been built on folk music. Of this we have numberless proofs. In our country we have a variety of music which can be classed as folk music. Countless communities have their own distinct and particular expression. Some of this has been brought from their own countries by early settlers and has been adapted by us. People are concerning themselves more and more about folk music, both here and abroad, and it is no more a closed book. Invariably our thoughts turn to Stephen Foster, who has probably given us the best expression of what we call American Folk Music. Although he was a Northerner and only in his later years lived in the South, he seemed to prefer writing about the South and the Southern Negro. We must conclude that he absorbed this atmosphere from various travelling minstrels and Negroes on the wharves of the inland rivers. His expression is sincere and simple, with a universal appeal, as evidenced in My Old Kentucky Home and Old Folks at Home. Music must have been to him an entirely natural language, for there is no record of his study of it. Unfortunately, the returns from his efforts were very meager, in comparison with their subsequent importance. He died in want, like Schubert, although he left simple works from which many others reaped fortunes.

"The Heart of a Song", when all is said and done, is a thing which defies classification or definition. Spiritual values never can be adequately described in mere words. I have tried, however, as best I might, to excite the mind of the reader to think for himself where he might find that well-spring of beauty which I have called the heart of the song, knowing full well that when any lover of beauty approaches that heart he has attained for himself a wealth of musical riches which will be adequate for his spiritual needs all the days of his life.