Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op. 103
More than half of Brahms’ total output was vocal, including over two hundred art songs and an additional hundred folksong arrangements. Most of them are serious, introspective, resigned or elegiac in mood. Ardent, impulsive effusions are rare, and the musical pictorialism so dear to Schubert is likewise largely absent. But there are always exceptions to generalizations and the Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) are just that. In 1887-88, Brahms set eleven Hungarian folk texts, translated into German for him by Hugo Conrat, as vocal quartets with piano accompaniment. He described them to a friend as “excessively joyful.” Biographer Malcolm MacDonald reminds us that they “skillfully combine the appeal of his two most popular and successfully marketed works, the Hungarian Dances and the Liebeslieder Waltzes. In 1889, Brahms transcribed eight of them (omitting Nos. 8-10) for solo voice and piano. All are love songs.
Ottorino Respighi: Three Songs
Respighi’s name is so closely linked to his sensual, sensational musical portraits of Rome (the pines, fountains and festivals) that it is all too easy to overlook his contributions to the vocal repertory, which include nine operas of various dimensions and about 75 songs. The haunting “O falce di luna calante” (The setting crescent moon) is set to words by Respighi’s favourite poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and deftly captures the quality of gentle, pale light of a silver crescent in the sky. “Nebbie” (Mists), set to a poem of Ada Negri, was composed for mezzo-soprano, but tenors (including Pavarotti) have adopted it as well. This extraordinary song is sung to grim, slow-moving blocks of sound in the accompaniment while the vocal line twice rises and falls over the range of an octave and a half, simultaneously covering the dynamic range of piano to fortissimo and back. “Notte” (Night), also set to a poem of Negri, makes a perfect companion to “O falce de luna calante” with its poetic evocation of the perfumed night.
Antonin Dvořák: Four Songs, Op. 82; “Na to bych se podivala” from The Stubborn Lovers, Op. 17
Dvořák’s four songs Op. 82 were originally sketched and composed to German texts, then later translated into Czech and English. The words come from verses from the book Lyric Poems and Translations Based on Bohemian Literature and Folk Poetry by Ottilie Malybrok-Stieler. Biographer Paul Stefan describes these songs has having “great emotional intensity and lyric finish.” Concertgoers familiar with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto may recognize phrases from “Lasst mich allein!” that later went into the concerto. This is a love song in which the lady begs to be left undisturbed so as to better savour the memories of her beloved. This strophic song is justly regarded as one of Dvořák’s greatest. The remaining songs also address aspects of love, the second in the context of work bringing comfort to a pained heart, the third a reflection of the warmth and beauty of nature renewed, and the fourth a metaphor for a brook burbling along bearing the poet’s sorrow.
The aria “Na to bych se podivala” comes from the composer’s second opera, a one-act rustic comedy called Tvrdé palice in Czech. It was rendered into German as Dickschädel (Numbskull), from which it made its way into English variously as The Stubborn Lovers, The Obstinate Children or the Pig-headed Peasants. An arranged marriage has been set by two village neighbors for Toník and Lenka, who really love each other but pretend not to because their marriage has been arranged without consulting them first. The youngsters’ godfather comes up with a ruse: Toník’s father is rumored to want to marry Lenka, and Lenka’s mother wants to marry Toník. It’s totally improbable, but it gives Lenka the opportunity for a sprightly aria whose opening line, “I’ll have to look into this!”, sets the tone for what follows.
Hugo Wolf: Six Mörike Songs
Wolf may well be the only major composer who is remembered today for his songs alone. In his musical depictions of poets’ words, Wolf has few equals and no superiors. Accents, pauses, harmonic twists, modulations, textures and figurations all play a role in illuminating the text, in both the vocal and the piano writing. The essence of Wolf’s vocal compositions can be summarized in Kurt Oppens’ observation: “The singer recites a poem while singing a song.”
Wolf first became acquainted with the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) in 1878. Mosco Carner assesses the songs resulting from the Wolf-Mörike relationship as “giving the impression of having been written out of the very heart of lyricism, and this thanks to the peculiar quality of Mörike’s verses, which are irradiated by a lambent glow and evergreen freshness of imagery.” Skillful use of chromaticism and dissonance, a wide-ranging harmonic palette, and a keen sensitivity to nuance of word and tone are all qualities to be admired in these songs. The 53 songs in the Mörike collection were all written within the brief period of February to November, 1888, and all but three are about some aspect of love.
George Frideric Handel: “Dopo notte” (Ariodante); “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Rinaldo)
Between 1711, when Rinaldo was first seen on a London stage, and 1741 – thirty years later – when Deidamia was produced there, over forty operas flowed from Handel’s pen, many of them hits on the order of a Steven Spielberg film today.
Ariodante (1734) comes from near the end of this run of runaway successes. Ariodante (a male contralto role) is a prince in love with Ginerva, daughter of the King of Scotland. Through various machinations, he is tricked into believing that she has been unfaithful. Near the end of the opera, he has learned the truth about the infamous plot. In “Dopo notte”, one of Handel’s most exuberant arias, he expresses renewed confidence in life, now that his troubles appear to be over.
Fire-breathing dragons, dancing mermaids, a black cloud full of demons, a sorceress, an enchanted palace, two full armies, chariots, war machines, a “battle symphony” with four trumpets and much more went into Rinaldo, the first of Handel’s London operas. Rinaldo also holds a special place in the annals of opera in North America. In Act I, Rinaldo’s fiancé Almirena is been abducted by the evil sorceress Armida. In Act II, Almirena bewails her miserable state in one of the most famous of all Handel arias, “Lascia ch’io pianga”.
Gioachino Rossini: “Una voce poco fa” (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
Great operatic comedies are far less plentiful than operatic tragedies. The Barber of Seville (1816) indubitably stands at the very pinnacle of this repertory, and year after year ranks as one of the Top Ten most frequently performed operas in the repertory. Rosina’s entrance aria, “Una voce poco fa”, is indicative of the Barber’s irrepressible good humor and spirit of rascality. It captures to perfection the personality of the coy and clever heroine as she sings first of her secret love for the mysterious stranger Lindoro, and then of her determination to pursue the object of her desire – and woe to anyone who tries to obstruct her!
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.