The name of composer, conductor, and singer George Lynn (1915-1989) is one that echoes throughout the choral atmosphere of Colorado, in particular the choral department at University of Colorado Boulder. The man established a strong legacy in the area, having not only taught at CU Boulder, but directed choirs, taught voice, and composed choral music for groups all throughout the greater Denver area. Upon learning about the George Lynn Memorial Award offered by the American Music Research Center, which sponsors CU students in their studies of Lynn’s work, I decided to submit a proposal and was pleased receive the award in 2021.
One look at the database of the George Lynn Collection (housed at the AMRC) reveals hundreds of choral compositions penned by Lynn–most of them remaining in manuscript form and therefore not published. With this wealth of material at my disposal, and in pursuit of a focused lens through which I could study Lynn’s work, I consulted with Dr. Christina Lynn-Craig, George Lynn’s daughter. She aided in my discovery that a large number of Lynn’s choral works are settings of Walt Whitman poetry, and as such, I decided to frame my study around two of his choral settings of Whitman texts. Further, I chose two works at bookends of George Lynn’s career, in an effort to explore the evolution of his style over the course of forty years: I Hear America Singing, written in 1937 during his undergraduate years at Westminster Choir College whilst studying composition with Roy Harris, and When the Full-Grown Poet Came, written in 1978, well after his formal retirement.
1937’s I Hear America Singing is a work in three parts. Part 1 sets only the first line of Whitman’s poem: I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear. Part 2–featuring the vast majority of the poem–illustrates the variety of people in America, their different roles, and the way in which they metaphorically “sing.” Lynn musically exploits Whitman’s descriptions: driving eighth and sixteenth note rhythms when the text mentions mechanics and carpenters, a lilting barcarole in 6/8 time when the text mentions boatmen, and a slow lullaby when the text mentions caring mothers. Part 3 expresses the individuality of each of these personalities: each singing what belongs to them and no one else, implying that the diverse nature of America’s population and each person’s individual expression is an important element of the country’s cultural fabric.
For the scope of my project, I focused primarily on Part 1 of I Hear America Singing. The work, in a way, reflects the nature of George Lynn’s undergraduate compositional study, having been written during his studies with Roy Harris: it illustrates an approach of a composer trying out many compositional methods at his disposal. Lynn explores the possibilities of poly-tertian texture, strict tertian harmony with chromatic and enharmonic shifts, modal mixture, and purely contrapuntal writing.
George Lynn wrote 1978’s When the Full-Grown Poet Came in tribute to his former teacher Roy Harris, subtitling the work, “Affectionately dedicated to Dr. Roy Harris on his 80th birthday–February 12, 1978.” Harris passed away one year later. Whitman’s poem explores the concept of a poet who, pulled between the opposing forces of nature and mankind, transcendently joins them through his art. Perhaps Lynn was reflecting his admiration for his teacher in choosing a text celebrating the transcendent power of a creative artist.
While I Hear America Singing reflects a young composer-in-training using many compositional tools to various effects in a single work, When the Full-Grown Poet Came reflects the opposite: a seasoned composer, using one primary compositional approach (along with other closely-related techniques) and employing it to various effects: strict modality. Lynn sets the work in a key signature of two sharps and throughout the work uses no chromaticism. He eschews any sense of tonal center through a number of means, all of which connect to an approach of modality over traditional harmonic progression; he expresses musical ideas through texture, melodic direction, and sonority, avoiding the pull of functional harmony. In this way, Lynn’s approach to text painting comes off as stoic and reverent more so than emotionally expressive.
As a result of my studies of these two works, not only do I have a stronger understanding of George Lynn and his compositional style–I also gained some valuable insight into early-twentieth-century American music. As mentioned, Roy Harris played a large part in Lynn’s compositional development, and through my studies of Harris, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of his place in the landscape of music history, as an early proponent of the “Americanist” movement, and I look forward to further exploration of his music and that of his colleagues. My project culminated in a performance of Part 1 of I Hear America Singing and When the Full-Grown Poet Came, by a small group of choral students from CU under my direction, professionally video- and audio-recorded at Summit of Peace Lutheran Church in Thornton, CO in December of 2022.
George Lynn’s catalogue of choral music is vast, and the ample amount of that which remains on the shelf in manuscript form begs to be unearthed, studied, edited, and performed. A brief look at these two Walt Whitman settings, written at bookends of his career, reveals a composer with an imagination working with a wide array of compositions tools and a strong sense of musical application. I hope that further studies of his work, generously supported by the American Music Research Center at CU Boulder and heavily encouraged by Dr. Christina Lynn-Craig, will continue to expose his compositions to choral musicians and allow his music to flourish alongside other compositional masterpieces of the twentieth century.