When I heard of Carlisle Floyd’s passing on Thursday, I thought of “Ain’t it a pretty night.” That aria, from Floyd’s opera Susannah, poured into my head. Was he a one-hit wonder? Was either the opera or, worse, the aria his only hit? No. But “Ain’t it a pretty night” will always be associated with him, and vice versa.
The composer passed away at ninety-five in Tallahassee, Florida. His biographer, Thomas Holliday, supplied an obituary.
“Floyd’s American roots were deep and widespread,” Holliday writes. “His first immigrant ancestor arrived at Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1623. Over succeeding generations, most of the family settled in agrarian regions of South Carolina.” Floyd himself was born in a little South Carolina town called Latta.
For more than twenty-five years, Floyd taught at Florida State, and later at the University of Houston. He had a close association with the Houston Grand Opera, which has functioned as a home of American opera—that is, of operas composed by Americans.
Thomas Holliday writes the following, of his subject:
His compositional idiom is a highly personal blend of accessible melody, polytonality, and Americana, reflecting the Southern garden bed of his English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh transplantings. As his own librettist, he was America’s avatar of Richard Wagner’s total work of art: words and music by Carlisle Floyd.
Back to “Ain’t it a pretty night.” I have a question: Is it the most famous American aria? That is, apart from the arias, or songs, from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—e.g., “Summertime”? A lot depends on what you mean by “aria.”
I consulted an album that Renée Fleming, the great American soprano, made in 1998: I Want Magic. This is a collection of American arias. The title is taken from an aria in André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire (a treatment of the Tennessee Williams play, of course). What else is on that album?
The Letter Aria, from The Ballad of Baby Doe (Douglas Moore). “He has come . . . Do not utter a word,” from Vanessa (Samuel Barber). “Glitter and be gay,” from Candide (Leonard Bernstein). Hey, speaking of Bernstein: does “Somewhere” count as an aria? (That song is in West Side Story, as you know.)
Fleming throws in a ringer—counting Igor Stravinsky as an American. (Why not?) She sings “No word from Tom,” that showstopper from The Rake’s Progress.
And, naturally, she sings “Ain’t it a pretty night,” plus another aria from Susannah: “The trees on the mountain.”
I will not bother ranking. “Ain’t it a pretty night” is one of the most famous, and best, American arias. It will be sung for as long as people sing, and it will stand for America, worldwide. The aria is tender, rhapsodic, inward, and thrilling. Also: thoroughly American.