Liebst du um Schönheit | Warum willst du andre frage | Am Strande | Lorelei
Clara Schumann (née Wieck) was a major figure in nineteenth-century music. As a child prodigy, she toured Europe with her father and teacher Friedrick Wieck, meeting Goethe in Weimar and Paganini in Paris. After her marriage to Robert Schumann in 1840 she balanced her role as super-mom to the eight children she bore with that of an internationally celebrated pianist—while still finding time to compose a considerable number of works for piano and chamber ensemble as well as more than two dozen songs.
Her love marriage to Robert Schumann was the central sustaining element in her emotional life before his death in 1856. Almost all of her songs were composed as Christmas or birthday gifts for her husband, who along with Schubert was a major influence on her compositional style. Like her husband, she wrote accompaniments that included preludes, interludes and postludes to the vocal line, making the piano into a musical commentator with an interest in the poetic text equal to that of the singer.
Their mutual sympathy in compositional style is no better demonstrated than in the joint publication of the song collection featuring their lieder entitled Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling with dual opus numbers (her Op. 12 and his Op. 37), published in 1841. Love’s Spring by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a collection of love poems written during his courtship of Luise Wiethaus, whom he married in 1821. The attraction the newly-married Schumanns must have felt for this collection of poems is obvious.
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Liebst du um Schönheit is the second song in the Schumanns’ joint publication. It poses the question of what is worth looking for when looking for love. Is it mere beauty, or youthfulness, or material wealth? No, the poet replies, love is its own reward. The pedal drone and gently rocking figures in the accompaniment are reminiscent of Chopin’s Berceuse but here they stand emblematic of the constancy that characterizes real true love.
The eleventh song in the collection, Warum willst du andre fragen asks how true love can be found and identified. And the answer is always the same: it’s in the eyes where the look of love is always unmistakable. The ‘four-squareness’ of Clara Schumann’s setting, with its uniform four-bar phrases, is offset by a harmonic inventiveness that maintains the listener’s interest from stanza to stanza.
Am Strande (1843), with a text by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) translated by Wilhelm Gerhard (1780-1858), reminds us that Clara Schumann was a piano virtuoso of the first rank. Her piano accompaniment to this lied churns up the keyboard in imitation of the churning sea that separates the lovers of the poem’s text.
Lorelei by poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) tells the tale of a siren-like maiden haunting the banks of the Rhine River who tempts distracted river voyagers to their deaths with her bewitching murmurs. Clara Schumann is reported to have possessed an autographed copy of Schubert’s famous lied Erlkönig, which evidently provided the model for the drumbeat of repeated notes, expressing the anxiety of the scene, in the piano accompaniment of this song.
Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen | Du bist wie eine Blume | Erlkönig II
The New Grove describes Emilie Mayer as “the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period” and it is easy to see why. Drawn to the larger compositional forms–which in that period only men were considered capable of mastering—her output includes numerous orchestral works (eight symphonies and four overtures), an opera, dozens of instrumental sonatas, eight string quartets, and numerous solo piano works, as well as nearly 130 songs for solo voice or vocal quartet.
Her talent and skill were honed in studies with some of the leading figures in German music, including song composer Carl Loewe (1796-1869), with whom she studied composition, and theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795-1866), with whom she studied counterpoint and fugue. Her works were widely performed in Europe during her lifetime but suffered eclipse after her death and are only now being re-discovered.
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Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen is a setting of a poem by Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856), the librettist of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe (1823) and playwright of Rosamonde (1823) for which Schubert wrote incidental music. In this poem the female speaker is enticed into passionate thoughts of love at nightfall. The highly decorated vocal line and oom-pah-pah rhythm of the piano accompaniment evokes the style of an opera aria by Bellini.
The bel canto singing style is even more evident in Mayer’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s Du bist wie eine Blume, a poem gushing with tender sentiments of love and longing, communicated by the many sigh motives in the vocal line and the occasional outburst of virtuosic display. The piano accompaniment is more than a discreet witness to the singer’s emotions, and pulses with the excitement of a heartbeat at the word Herz (heart) in the text. Mayer’s expressive use of harmony in this lied is exceptionally refined.
Goethe’s spooky folk ballad Der Erlkönig describes the theft by an alluring nature spirit of the soul of a young boy as he rides through the forest in the arms of his father on horseback. This poem has been set more than 130 times but Emilie Mayer appears to be the only composer to set it twice. Her second setting, composed 30 years after her first, eschews the classic depiction of galloping horse’s hooves to concentrate on the wind whistling through the trees, melodramatically portrayed by creeping minor scales in the bass and anxious tremolo trill figures in the mid-range. Her varied depiction of the four voices in the poem (narrator, boy, father and spirit) is utterly masterful.
Down by the Salley Gardens | The Tiger | Cradle Song | The Seal Man
Rebecca Clarke was a pioneering British composer and professional violist who spent much of her creative life in the United States. She was one of the first female students of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) at the Royal College of Music in London and one of the first female professional orchestral players. Best known for chamber works such as her much-recorded Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921), she also composed 52 songs in a variety of styles throughout her life.
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William Butler Yeats’ poem Down by the Salley Gardens is the lament of an impetuous young man in love with a young woman who bids him to “take love easy.” But he, “being young and foolish,” persists in his ardour and pays the price in emotional pain. The simplicity and folksong-like character of the text is reflected in the sparseness of accompaniment and modal harmonies of Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 setting of this poem.
William Blake’s famous poem Tiger, Tiger stares fascinated in horror at the destructive power residing deep in the unconscious of every living thing that moves, as symbolized by the tiger. Remarkable in Rebecca Clarke’s dark expressionist setting of 1927-1931 is how completely divorced the piano ‘accompaniment’ is from the singer’s questioning persona. The piano is the tiger, ranging menacingly up and down the keyboard, seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Particularly chilling are the piano-tiger’s final growls in the closing bars.
Her treatment of Blake’s Cradle Song from 1929 is very different. Here the texture is quite simple and transparent, dominated by streams of parallel chords in the piano accompaniment, evocative of both the innocence of childhood and a child’s drowsy drifting into sleep.
The Seal Man is drawn from English poet John Masefield’s re-telling of the Celtic myth of the seal creature that takes on human form to lure women to their deaths in the sea. Rebecca Clarke’s setting is vividly dramatic with numerous atmospheric touches such as the ‘wet’ figurations in the piano that open and end the song, framing the action as a ‘sea story’ from start to finish. The vocal line is raw and dramatic, often declaimed without any piano accompaniment at all, but in the end it is the haunting overtones of the piano that devour the listener’s attention, just as the sea swallows up the poor young girl in this eerie tale about the dangers of love.
La mer est plus belle | Prière | Élégie | Cantique
French composer, pianist and conductor Nadia Boulanger studied composition with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire but she is best known as a music educator. Her students have included some of the leading composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti and Astor Piazzola, to name but a few.
She composed works for orchestra and for chamber ensembles, as well as over 30 songs. Her compositional style is similar to that of Debussy in many ways. Like Debussy, she uses whole-tone or modally-tinged scales and ambiguous but vividly coloristic harmonies in sequences of parallel chords, stabilized by long pedal tones in the bass.
La mer est plus belle by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) pays tribute to the immense power of the sea, a quality conveyed in the massively sonorous waves of piano sonority Nadia Boulanger sends sweeping over the keyboard, much in the manner of Chopin’s ‘Ocean’ Etude, Op. 25 No. 12.
Henry Bataille (1872-1922) was a very successful French playwright whose plays explored how the instinctive passions of his characters bumped up against the social norms of polite society. His poem Prière is an open-hearted enquiry into the meaning and significance of a personage such as the Virgin Mary. The opening melody’s small range, its recurring leaps of a 5th and the way the melody circles hypnotically around that leapt-to note all recall medieval religious chant, as do the drone tones at the bottom of the piano accompaniment. Passion of an almost operatic intensity erupts in the central section, however, as more vivid tonal colours and thicker textures are applied to support the singer’s expanding emotional awareness.
Albert Samain (1858-1900) was a French symbolist poet much inspired—if that is the right word—by the morbid mentality and dissolute life habits of his fellow poet Charles Baudelaire. Nadia Boulanger’s rather pretty dressing-up of Samain’s darkly nostalgic poem Élégie (the exact meaning of which is anyone’s guess) strikes the listener as typically French in its emphasis on tone colour and what classical parodist Anna Russell called French “wispiness”. Who else could set the phrase Un paradis s’est écroulé (a paradise has come crashing down) so blithely and innocently?
Cantique is a poem that appeared in the second act of the play Soeur Béatrice (1901) by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the author of the play Pelléas et Mélisande which Debussy adapted to create his opera of the same in 1902. The protagonist in this text is a nun meditating on the disappointments of love. Nadia Boulanger’s exquisitely tender melody line and discreet accompaniment of sympathetic chordal harmonies in the piano are utterly ravishing.
This Be Her Verse
After Philip Larkin | Wedding | Single Bed
Concluding this recital of songs by women about women’s experiences is This Be Her Verse, a new song cycle commissioned by Ms. Schulz from friends she first met when studying at Juilliard in New York.
Her fellow South African Kathleen Tagg is a composer-pianist whose work revolves around issues of identity and interpersonal connection. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center but is equally at home in unconventional smaller spaces – a fact that comes across clearly in the cabaret-style intimacy of this new work.
Multi-talented dramatist Lila Palmer is a classically trained soprano with a first-class degree in history from Cambridge University. She knows our city well, having twice been a vocal fellow of the Vancouver International Song Institute. Her first libretto, for the chamber opera Harbour, brought to the stage the experience of Scottish Highlanders displaced by their English overlords.
This Be Her Verse is written in a sparkling tonal idiom, with some interesting reach-into-the-piano effects in the keyboard accompaniment. Limelight Magazine notes that this song cycle “explores a very contemporary version of womanhood, with the centrepiece, Wedding, incorporating COVID in its premise.”
But The Guardian probably sums it up best in describing these new songs as “deft, upbeat, sharp and true, a celebration of the single bed and clean sheets.”
Donald G. Gíslason 2022