Cân yr arad goch (Ceiriog)
The Welsh poet John Hughes (1832-1887), who took the bardic name Ceiriog, is known as the “Robert Burns of Wales.” Like the great Scottish poet, he sought to express his love for his homeland through poems written in the simple, sincere language of the common people, drawing upon themes of patriotism, the joys of country life, and the simple pleasures of love. His poem Cân yr arad goch (Song of the red plough) sings the praises of rural life through the eyes of the traditional farmer and his daily companion, the plough. It was set to music by Idris Lewis (1889-1952), the son of a Welsh coal miner who became an important figure in Welsh music, principally for his pioneering work as musical director of the BBC for the Cardiff region, as well as for his film scores and choral arrangements.
Gwynfyd – Y Cymro
The pianist, organist, conductor, and composer William Robert Williams (1901- 1976), who early in life took the name Meirion, was a major contributor to the development of Welsh art song. A musical patriot, he was much attracted to the simple pleasures of the Welsh countryside and the native virtues of his fellow Welshmen, which he expressed in a passionate, melodious style that has much in common with the late Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss. It would be easy to conclude that the “land of beauty and of peace” in his Gwynfyd (Paradise) is Wales, while no intuition at all is required to recognize the patriotic fervour behind his stirring setting of Y Cymro (The Welshman).
Sul y blodau
Owen Williams (1877-1956) was a Welshman of humble origins but great musical gifts. He became a village shoemaker, like his father, but attracted a large following as a local music teacher. Palm Sunday in Wales is traditionally a day in which flowers are brought to the graves of loved ones. Williams’ setting of Eifion Wyn’s tribute to his baby brother Goronwy is a lullaby both touching and mournful.
Salt Water Ballads
The “Britishness” of Britain is seated deep in its status as an island, surrounded by the sea, and few poets can claim to express the nation’s fascination with the seafaring life as did John Masefield (1878-1967), English poet laureate from 1930 to 1967. His introduction into English poetry of the salty dialectal speech of mariners was a shock to the literary establishment but won him the devotion of the English public.
It was a happy pairing of interests, then, when Frederick Keel (1871-1954), head of the vocal department at the Royal College of Music and a prominent member of the Folk Song Society, set three poems from Masefield’s Salt Water Ballads (1902) to music and published them in 1919. Port of Many Ships captures well the minor-mode merriment of the sea shanty genre. Trade Winds, pictorially evocative of the pleasant breezes experienced on a long sea voyage, is one of Keel’s most popular songs. Mother Carey describes the cruel supernatural figure who is responsible for the fearsome storms that sailors encounter, along with her husband Davy Jones, whose ‘locker’ is the bottom of the sea.
Chansons de Don Quichotte
In 1932, Jacques Ibert was approached to write film music for a cinematic treatment of the Don Quixote story, with the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. The four songs that he composed for the film exude a distinctly Spanish character in the wailing flourishes of flamenco emotionalism of the vocal part and in the frequent imitation of guitar figuration in the piano accompaniment. Don Quixote is the first-person speaker in all four scenes of the collection, the first a setting of a poem by the French poet Pierre Ronsard (1523-1585), the remaining three settings of more modern poems by Alexandre Arnoux (1884-1973).
The Chanson du départ de Don Quichotte describes, in symbolic terms, the noble motives that drive Don Quixote to venture out on his journey. His love of chivalric honour, as described in the many fantastical medieval romances he has read, finds him fixated on a sturdy castle, symbolic of knightly virtue and manly valour. The Chanson à Dulcinée is his song of devotion to the love of his life. The Chanson du Duc sees him fantasizing with considerable swagger over the ideal kind of ladylove that would be suitable for a knight such as himself. The last song, the Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte, has him bidding a noble farewell to his devoted companion, Sancho Panza.
A Medley of Welsh Folksongs
Bryan Davies (1934–2011), son of a coal miner, and student of Vaughn Williams, Aram Khachaturian, Vlado Perlemutter and Aaron Copland, is one of the most remarkable musicians that Wales has produced. A consummate pianist, he served as accompanist to many of the world’s leading opera singers, and as a vocal and instrumental coach speeded generations of young musicians on to professional careers on the stage. A prolific arranger, he is particularly remembered for his contributions to the repertoire of the Welsh male choir. In 2004 and 2005 he performed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland accompanying Bryn Terfel, with whom he was very close.
In his last days he was delighted to receive a call to his hospital room from New York. It was Mr. Terfel, who sang to him over the phone. His eyes twinkled when a fellow patient from the next bed over was remarked: “That boy’s got a voice. He should go on X Factor.”
Belsatzar Op. 57
Lieder Belsatzar is a retelling by the German poet Heinrich Heine of the Biblical tale of Belshazzar, the dissolute son of Nebuchadnezzar, who is justly struck down by the vengeful hand of God after a night of blasphemous revels. Heine’s poem is structured as a ballad that unfolds at a breathless pace in rhyming couplets, each giving us a single image in the rapid-fire slide-show of the narrative.
Schumann sets the poem as an accelerating storm of musical images that reach their climax with the appearance of a mysterious hand that writes a fiery message on the wall. The atmosphere of unbridled revelry and feverish celebration is created largely by the exceptionally dense swirl of piano figuration, more reminiscent of the composer’s solo piano works than of a typical song accompaniment. All the more dramatic, then, is the manner in which the work ends, with the hushed piano a frightened onlooker to the stunned horror of the voice’s recitative.
A much brighter mood emanates from Zwei Venetianische Lieder (Two Venetian Songs) from the collection entitled Myrthen (Myrtles), which Schumann presented to his wife Clara in the year they were married, 1840. (The aromatic flowers of the myrtle were traditionally considered sacred to Venus and often used to make bridal wreaths.) In Leis’ rudern hier (Row gently here) the singer bids his gondolier to row softly as they approach the balcony of his beloved. Wenn durch die Piazzetta is set during the Carnival season when, disguised as a simple boatman, the singer-lover promises to sweep his beloved off over the Lagoon.
The German art song, or Lied, is virtually the creation of Franz Schubert alone. From his first essays in the form in 1814 till his death in 1828 he produced an astonishing variety of works for solo voice and piano, over 600 in all, that brought a new vividness and immediacy of expression to musical settings of lyric and narrative poetry. His range of poetic interests was wide, as reflected in this selection of lieder from the middle and end of his career.
Schubert’s setting of Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Group from Tartarus) by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) exemplifies well the power of his pictorial imagination. Tartarus is the underworld zone of eternal torment in Greek mythology. The muffled groans of the suffering undead are evoked by the piano in Dantesque rumbles of chromatic tremolos, while the vocal line wanders in a steady succession of chromatic intervals, virtually destroying any sense of key—a musical representation of the hopeless bewilderment of these denizens of deep despair.
Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) is from Schwanengesang, a collection of songs published after Schubert’s death, and is diametrically opposite in mood. Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.
The subtle ironies of Heinrich Heine’s Das Fischermädchen (The Fisher Maiden) are well observed in Schubert’s setting of this poem, also from Schwanengesang. With its gently rocking rhythm it both proclaims the innocence of the young man and imitates the action of the young fisher maiden as she rows ashore. Inviting her to trade the dangers of “the turbulent sea” for the oceanic depths hidden within his equally turbulent heart, he offers a curious proposal: to exchange known risks for unknown pleasures.
The flickering major-minor inflections in the impromptu-like piano accompaniment of Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To Be Sung Upon the Waters) convey with admirable poetic clarity the flecks of sunlight glinting from the waves around the singer-protagonist in his boat. The strophic repetitions in this song fit perfectly with the message of timeless psychological drifting while in the embrace of Nature.
Finally, in Die Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) from Schwanengesang we have another love-message song, but the messenger this time is a carrier pigeon who acts as an aviary postal go-between for two young people in love. The buoyant optimism and lovestruck cheerfulness of the young man is perfectly conveyed by the infectious rhythm of the piano accompaniment, with its pert little off-beat accents and coy Viennese lilt.
Donald G. Gíslason