Date of this Version
The songs of ROBERT OWENS (b. 1925) constitute a relatively unknown body of twentieth century American music. Born in Denison, Texas, and raised in Berkeley, California, Owens has written the majority of his vocal music since moving to Munich, Germany in 1958. His work appears in anthologies of songs of African American composers, but has not yet been widely recorded or performed. The material presented in this article results from interviews conducted by the author during a residency and subsequent performances with Mr. Owens in 2007.
Owens's songs reflect two major artistic influences in his life: live theater (he is also a professional actor) and early Romantic German lied. His ability to understand and set texts of superb poets, married with a modern interpretation of the German compositional style, produces songs that are both distinctly modern and evocative of a beloved catalog of vocal repertoire.
The majority--and most widely recognized--of Owens's songs are settings of the poems of Harlem poet Langston Hughes. Owens, however, did not choose these texts merely because they were written by a fellow African American; in fact, he prefers that his music not be categorized or interpreted through the lens of the African American experience. He also has composed songs to poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edna St.Vincent Millay, and Hugo von Hoffmansthal.