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William Warfield: Wikis


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Portrait of William Warfield by Carl Van Vechten, Feb. 7 1951

William Caesar Warfield (22 January 1920 - 26 August 2002), concert bass-baritone singer, was born in West Helena, Arkansas and grew up in Rochester, New York, where his father was called to serve as pastor of Mt. Vernon Church. He gave his recital debut in New York's Town Hall on March 19, 1950. He was quickly invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to tour that continent for 35 concerts. In 1952, Warfield performed in Porgy and Bess during a tour of Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department (he made six separate tours for the US Department of State, more than any other American solo artist.) In this production he played opposite the opera star Leontyne Price, whom he soon married, but the demands of two separate careers left them little time together. They divorced in 1972, but were featured together in a 1963 studio recording of excerpts from Porgy and Bess.

Warfield was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music. In 1975 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He later became Chairman of the Voice Department, before moving to Northwestern University's School of Music, where he stayed until his death.

He sang the premiere performances of the version for soloist and orchestra of Set I of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs in 1955, and of the version for soloist and piano of Set II of the collection in 1958. (He also recorded both sets of the songs.) His vocal talents were also featured on two recordings of Handel's "Messiah" - a classic, but heavily cut, performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy (released in 1959), and a lesser-known, drastically restructured recording made in 1956, also heavily cut, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein combined the Christmas and Resurrection sections, and ended with the arias and choruses depicting the death of Christ. The Ormandy recording featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Bernstein's the Westminster Choir.

Warfield was also accomplished in acting and poetry recitation. He played the character De Lawd in a celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of The Green Pastures, a role he played twice (these were the days of live TV, before video tape). He appeared in two Hollywood films, including a star-making performance as Joe in MGM's 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat. His other film was an overlooked item called "Old Explorers", starring James Whitmore and José Ferrer. In a nod to "Show Boat", Warfield played a cameo role as a tugboat captain. Footage of Warfield in "Show Boat" has been seen in several TV shows and/or films, notably That's Entertainment!. Warfield played his Show Boat role in two other productions of the musical - the 1966 Lincoln Center production, and a 1972 production in Vienna. And he was heard singing Ol' Man River in three different record albums of the show - the 1951 motion picture soundtrack album on MGM Records, a 1962 studio album featuring Barbara Cook and John Raitt on Columbia Masterworks, and the RCA Victor album made from the Lincoln Center production.

Warfield made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour and on a program called TV Recital Hall in 1951, the same year that he made his screen debut in Show Boat. He later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. In 1961, he appeared as a recital soloist on an episode of the Young People's Concerts, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In March 1984 he was the winner of a Grammy in the "Spoken Word" category for his outstanding narration of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait accompanied by the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra. And in the 1990s, he narrated a special jazz arrangement of music from "Show Boat", on the PRI program Riverwalk Jazz. In 1999 Warfield joined baritones Robert Sims and Benjamin Matthews in a trio by the name of "Three Generations". Managed by Arthur White, this ensemble toured the United States giving full concerts of African American Spirituals and folk songs until Warfield's death in 2002.


Vocal decline

Beginning in 1962, Warfield began to have some trouble with his voice, as he himself admitted in his autobiography. This was only slightly noticeable on the 1962 studio recording of Show Boat. By the time he made the 1966 recording of the Lincoln Center production of the musical, his voice had deepened from merely bass-baritone to a full-fledged bass, and he could not sing the climactic high note on Ol' Man River as easily as he had in the 1951 film version, though he sounded fine on his lower notes. Because of this problem, however, he compensated by learning how to sing even more expressively than he had before.

By 1976, Warfield, although still making various stage and television appearances, was not singing as much as he had in the past. He served as narrator in various orchestral works, such as Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, and occasionally performed sprechstimme roles in Mahler works.


Warfield was active in many organizations, After appearing as the featured artist at the 50th year convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM), he became active with the organization, serving as its President for two terms. He later served on the boards of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and the Schiller Institute. After joining the Schiller Institute in 1996, he began to collaborate with acclaimed vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee in a project to save the performance tradition of the Negro spiritual[1]. During the final years of his life, from 1999 to 2002, he performed regularly at Schiller Institute biannual conferences, often with Olden Lee as his accompanist, and the two of them travelled the country conducting singing workshops for members of the LaRouche Youth Movement.[2]


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