Victor Hugo Poems
It may seem strange to think of Liszt as a song composer, so firmly is his name associated with 19th-century virtuoso pianism. But the extraordinary breadth of his musical sympathies is already clearly evident in the wide range of styles and moods in his piano compositions alone, from the bombast of the concertos and heroic feats of the Transcendental Études to the poetic reveries of his Liebestraum No. 3 and his imaginative transcriptions of Schubert lieder.
Liszt’s engagement with the song repertoire was intense and long-lasting. Over a span of 40 years he wrote over 80 songs in German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Russian, and even English. The songs based on poems by Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) date from the period 1842-1844, a time when Liszt was busy touring Europe as a piano virtuoso. The hefty keyboard textures in his earliest songs from this period (called by some “piano works with vocal accompaniment”) reflect the musical instincts of the performing pianist. Liszt later revised many of these (including the Victor Hugo songs) to re-balance the roles of voice and piano, creating simpler textures that rely more on harmonic expressiveness than pianistic muscle to get their point across. It is in these versions that they are most often performed today.
A full piano texture is still evident in the fulsome, pulsing accompaniment of Enfant, si j’étais roi, in keeping with the extravagant rhetoric of the poetic text. But the ‘big reveal’ at the end of each verse is given to the voice alone – in coy dialogue with the piano – and a coda, delicately rippling with piano arpeggios, stands in poetic contrast to the bluster of the opening.
Leaving the voice unaccompanied in many passages to thrill the listener with pure vocal tone is also the principal charm of S’il est un charmant gazon, with the piano contributing a soft, pearly chatter of harmonic support, often tapered to a whisper in delicate arpeggiated chords.
Oh! quand je dors is shot through with repeated occurrences of the four-note motive presented by the piano in the first bar. In this song, the melody line floats gently over subtly changing chromatic harmonies that tint but never mask the pure tone colours of the voice.
Comment, disaient-elles? is a question-and-answer song between men and women and is set in Spain, as evoked by the plucked-guitar accompaniment in the piano. Liszt paints the men’s questions as fidgeting nervously within a narrow range while the women luxuriate confidently in their long, lyrical phrases of reply.
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is often translated as ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’ but a better translation would be ‘Songs of a Journeyman’, referencing the practice of the medieval artisan (Geselle) who would travel from town to town, plying his trade. Mahler’s journeyman is a disappointed lover and his journey is a form of escape from his emotional pain, a theme already employed in Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. But in this narrative, the central figure eventually finds solace in the healing embrace of Nature.
The song cycle was written ca. 1884-1885, at a time when Mahler himself was bruised by his unrequited love for the soprano Johanna Richter. The text is Mahler’s own, written in the style of the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the music is shrink-wrapped to every nuance in the narrative, with frequent changes of pace and meter to reflect changes in mood and scene. Its musical style combines simple folk melodies with accompaniments of remarkable pictorial vividness and sophistication.
Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my sweetheart gets married) contrasts the lover’s grief with the beauty of the world around him. A quick circling motive in the piano, representing the wedding dance, is introduced in the piano in the first bar and haunts the song throughout, almost mocking the solemnity of the traveller’s sad song. A flowing middle section introduces the sounds of Nature, with birds trilling and the drone of the shepherd’s pipes setting the scene before the tone of sadness returns.
Nature is more fully explored in the walking song, Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld (I went over the fields this morning), much of which Mahler re-used in the opening movement of his First Symphony. The freshness of Nature is heard in the chirping sounds of birdsong, with spacious open intervals evoking the liberating influence of the woodland setting.
Peaceful as it is, though, it cannot overcome the power of the traveller’s grief, which returns as painful torment in Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (I have a glowing hot knife). The image of the hot knife describes the stabbing pain in the dejected lover’s heart, its stabbing force violently demonstrated in the piano part while a declamatory vocal line of rising intensity expresses the lacerating pain of the traveller’s anguish.
The concluding song, Die zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes), begins as a funeral march, but when the traveller finds a sheltering linden tree on his walk, a feeling of peace begins to settle over him. The music turns mostly to the major mode and the soothing power of nature makes his funeral thoughts fade into the distance. The mixture of major- and minor-mode flavouring in this song exquisitely represents the blended emotions of ebbing pain and soothing comfort that this long walk has produced.
Roger Quilter was born to a wealthy English family, educated at Eton College, and later pursued musical studies at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where Percy Grainger was also a student. He is known for his light orchestral music, theatre works, incidental music, and his more than 100 English art songs. While many of his songs fit within the genre of the Edwardian salon ballad, the elegance and richness of his settings has won him a permanent place in the repertoire of English art song.
Blow, blow thou winter wind is from Quilter’s Shakespeare Songs Op. 6 (1905). The text from As You Like It (Act II Sc. vii) features a biting verse and merry refrain, which Quilter contrasts by setting the verse sternly in the minor mode and the refrain – lighter and more dancelike – in the major.
Now sleeps the crimson petal is a setting of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Unusual is its harmonically rich and independent piano accompaniment, as well as its alternation of 5/4 and 3/4 measures that map the poem’s metrical rhythms with exquisite sensitivity.
Love’s philosophy sets a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley on the subject of love. If rivers and winds mingle in Nature, the poet asks, why then should we be any different? The piano score ripples with the amorous movements of natural forces in support of the singer’s discussion of “all these kissings” but rises to its peak of voluptuousness when the singer asks, in a distinctly personal vein, what all this means “if thou kiss not me?”
Songs Opp. 10, 17 & 27
Richard Strauss’ life as a composer is bookended with song. His first composition was a Weihnachtslied (Christmas carol) that he wrote the age of 6, and his last work is the justly famous Four Last Songs in the final year of his life. He composed over 200 songs, most written for – and championed – by his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, who he frequently accompanied at the piano, or conducted from the podium.
As an ardent fan of Wagner, he exploited the expanded musical vocabulary of Late Romanticism, bringing chromatic harmonic colouring to the forefront as a major expressive force in his work. And while he could write atonally, his home base was traditional diatonic harmony, to which he always returned. But in this regard, Strauss’ harmonic instincts seem to be the polar opposite of those of Rachmaninoff. While Rachmaninoff’s native mood and tone is dark, pulled ever downward to the “flat side” by an obsession with the low tolling of bells and the deep sounds of the Russian male chorus, Richard Strauss’ aesthetic ideal is the bright sound of the soprano voice; his music tends ever higher to the “sharp side” to create luminous effects with his harmonies.
Presented on this program are songs on the subject of romantic love from Strauss’ early career. His Op. 10 is, in fact, his first published song collection, written in 1885 when the composer was 21 years old.
Allerseelen (All Souls Day) frames lost love within the context of a commemoration for the dead. It illustrates well both Strauss’ use of chromatic harmony within a traditional diatonic framework, and his preference for reaching the melodic climax in his songs just before their end.
The rich, rolling piano accompaniment of Zueignung (Dedication) reveals the orchestral thinking behind Strauss’ keyboard textures. Many of his songs, once written for voice and piano, he later orchestrated, and this is one of them.
Die Nacht has been much praised for its atmospheric evocation of nighttime stillness, especially the opening, in which the sound of the piano slyly expands into earshot just before the voice steals into the texture like a thief in the night. The idea of stealing, central to the imagery in the text, is harmonically reinforced by the ‘shifty’ harmonies of the closing bars.
Ständchen (Serenade) from Strauss’ Op. 17 song collection is remarkable for its iridescent piano accompaniment, emblematic of the visceral excitement shared by every leaf in the forest, every bird on the bough.
Morgen from Strauss’ Op. 27 song collection of 1894 throbs with the classic harmonic device of Romantic music: emphatic dissonances on the strong beat of the bar, are expressive of the kind of heartfelt yearning that wafts up from the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In this rapturous love song, the voice waits some considerable time before entering, almost absent-mindedly, on the word “and,” as if caught in dreamy mid-thought. Just as ingenious is the succession of dominant 7th and 9th chords that never resolve, painting the inner elation of a lover staring in wonder at the face of the beloved.
Cäcilie and the previous Morgen were part of the four-part Op. 27 song collection from 1894 which Strauss presented to his wife on their wedding day. In Cäcilie, Strauss pulls out all the stops with a passionately churning accompaniment and soaring vocal line that express what the love of his wife means to this ecstatically happy husband.
In 1829, Gioachino Rossini, the most famous opera composer of his time, retired from the opera stage at the top of his game after the production of his epoch-making Guillaume Tell at the Paris Opéra. He was 39 years old. He did not, however, retire entirely from composition and in the 40 years of life remaining to him, a number of smaller works dropped from his pen.
“I write because I cannot stop myself,” he explained later in life.
One of these works was the cantata (a small operatic scene for chamber performance) for soprano and piano on the subject of France’s most famous heroine, Joan of Arc (1412-1431), whose military valour in defence of the King of France during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) earned her a sainthood from the Catholic Church, and the eternal gratitude of the French nation.
Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco was written in 1832 and dedicated to his mistress (later his wife), Olympe Pélissier, whose own heroic qualities had recently been amply demonstrated when she tended to him in saint-like fashion during a particularly difficult recovery from a venereal disease acquired from a prostitute some years before.
The text, by an anonymous author, shows us the Maid of Orléans as she resolves to follow the glorious fate that awaits her. The work is structured in two arias, each preceded by a recitative and opens with a mysterious piano introduction that paints the stillness of the night and the strange sounds in it. Joan then enters to contemplate this stillness in dramatic recitative and the dire necessity that calls “the shepherdess from her flocks.”
Her first aria finds her thinking of her poor mother at home who will miss her, but who will be amply rewarded when hearing of her daughter’s exploits. In the recitative that follows, she sees the Angel of Death arrive in a blaze of light to summon her to battle, a summons she accepts with radiant enthusiasm in the concluding aria of the work.
In this aria e cabaletta, Rossini is fully back in the saddle as an opera composer, writing dazzling display passages for his singer and ending with his trademark audience-pleasing accelerando.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017