Sour Notes

Good morning, it’s May 16, 2020.

As a girl growing up in Missouri, Harry and Bess Truman’s only child sang as a soloist at Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. Impressed, although perhaps not unbiased, the choir director there encouraged the young lady, Margaret Truman, to get formal voice lessons. She followed this advice both before and after attending George Washington University in the nation’s capital, where her father had a political career. On this date in 1947 she made her professional debut, singing with the Detroit Symphony. Some 15 million Americans heard the First Daughter’s debut on the ABC radio broadcast.

Image result for margaret trumanTwo-and-a-half years later, she packed Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., for a concert attended by her parents as well as a young music lover named Paul Hume. What happened next was pretty much the opposite of love at first sight. (Love at first listen?) It’s a story I’ve told in these pages before, but one worth repeating.

As a boy, Paul Hume studied piano and organ and, like Margaret Truman, took voice lessons. His greatest gift, however, may have been his ear. He was also gentle soul, a detail which bears mentioning. During World War II, the war that ended with Margaret Truman’s father as U.S. commander-in-chief, Hume was a conscientious objector — although he did play piano and sing in USO shows.

At the University of Chicago, he majored in English while also studying music history and music theory. He was fluent in French and German and said he was “comfortable” singing in Italian. He gave recitals at Washington National Cathedral, where he was also the baritone soloist in the church choir. He was the longtime director of the Georgetown University Glee Club, taught music classes at Georgetown and Yale, hosted a popular classic musical radio program, and was the longtime music critic for The Washington Post. Hume was also a published author whose books included a study of Catholic Church music and biographies of important musical figures, including Irish tenor John McCormack and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

My point in all this is that before, during, and after 1950, Paul Hume was obviously more accomplished in the field of classical music than Margaret Truman.

Not that these credentials cut any ice with Miss Truman’s father. On December 5, 1950, Harry Truman attended his daughter’s concert at Constitution Hall. The First Father liked what he heard as Margaret tackled a program that included Schumann, Schubert, and Mozart. The same could not be said about Paul Hume.

“Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality,” Hume wrote. “She is extremely attractive on stage. Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time — more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years.”

President Truman read these words in his morning newspaper. They did not go down well with his White House coffee. In tomorrow’s note, I’ll describe what happened next.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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