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PROGRAM NOTES: SIR SIMON KEENLYSIDE

Johannes Brahms
Songs from Opp. 6, 72, 86 & 96

It may be surprising to learn that while Brahms is universally revered as a giant of 19th-century instrumental music, he is often listed as one of the lesser composers of 19th-century art song. This may be because the texts he chose to set were for the most part not those of the great German poets. It may also be because he was loathe to indulge in the type of word-painting that Schubert had established so effectively as a major dramatic feature of the Lied (art song) genre.

But Brahms was strongly of the view that truly great poetry had no need of music, and so he chose lesser works that his musical ideas could more easily illuminate. His musical ideal in vocal music remained the simple German folk song with one general mood, subtly varied in response to the meaning of the text. A major role in creating that mood was the piano accompaniment, as illustrated in the songs chosen by Sir Simon.

In Nachtigallen schwingen (Nightingales beat their wings) the twitter and rustling of birds is picturesquely sounded out in the piano’s chattering triplets that create an animated aural backdrop to the singer’s identification with them as he walks through the forest.

Even more vivid is the piano’s depiction of the ebb and flow of waves breaking and foaming on the shore in Verzagen (Despair).

The piano conveys the tramp-tramp-tramping of footsteps over heathery terrain in Über die Heide (Over the heather) while its gentle drowsy pulse and saturated harmonies evoke the mood of Brahms’ famous lullaby in O kühler Wald (O cool forest).

An unusual and slightly eerie alternation between major and minor captures the ear immediately in the piano introduction to Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker). It almost sounds like a mistake, but conveys brilliantly the floating psychological state of the somnambulist.

A more playful interaction between piano and singer characterizes the last song in the set, Es schauen die Blumen (The flowers gaze), in which the piano plays the role of supportive sidekick, often echoing the vocal line back to the singer, as if to say: “Hear, hear. Well said.”

Francis Poulenc
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire

Francis Poulenc was absolutely besotted with the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), originator of the terms cubism and surrealism. Apollinaire’s manner of constructing the fantastical ‘word salads’ of his poems finds its musical equivalent in the way that Poulenc composed these four settings of Apollinaire poems in 1931. Poulenc would compose isolated phrases individually, and then assemble them together as a kind of cubist collage.

The result is a kaleidoscopically colourful mix of sometimes comical non-sequiturs depicting with twinkling irony and dreamy nostalgia the somewhat louche demi-monde of society in which the composer thrived, and into which he threw himself with gay (in all senses) abandon. A pose of restrained elegance, however, keeps the aesthetic pose well this side of ‘camp’.

L’Aiguille (The eel) is a valse-musette that, in the composer’s words, “evokes the atmosphere of a shady hotel, with a rhythm inspired by little steps in felt shoes, and should be touching.

Carte postale is dedicated to Madame Cole Porter and strikes a tone of amorous mockery.

The last two works in the collection, Avant le cinema and 1904, are patter songs that rely on the straight face of the singer for their wit to come across at just the right voltage.

Francis Poulenc
Suite Française for piano

In 1935 Poulenc was commissioned to write incidental music for Edouard Bourdet’s play La Reine Margot about Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henri de Navarre (1553-1601), later crowned Henri IV of France. To get the right period feel for his music, Poulenc plundered the Livre de danceries of 16th-century French composer Claude Gervaise, whose dances he rewrote in a modern neo-classical style for chamber orchestra, much as Stravinsky had done with the music of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella. A piano version of this incidental music to La Reine Margot came out in the same year under the title Suite Française.

Like Stravinsky, Poulenc mostly kept the four-square phrasing, simple repetitive rhythms and modal harmonies of the original scores, creating variety by setting various sections for different choirs of instruments within the orchestra – a feature mimicked in the piano version. The modern sound of Poulenc’s score comes from his austerely sonorous, widely-spaced chord figurations, replete with 7ths and 9ths, as well as many acerbic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies.

The dances vary in mood, with the lively bransles, fanfare-like Petite marche militaire and celebratory Carillon alternating with the more serene and wistful Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.



Francis Poulenc
Le travail du peintre


Poulenc was a keen and enthusiastic observer of visual art. In the journal he kept on a visit to the United States he wrote enthusiastically about the paintings that captured his attention at the museums he visited. The idea of writing a song cycle about 20th-century painters that he admired first came to him after the publication in 1948 of Voir, an anthology of his friend Paul Eluard’s poems about the painters in his life. Eluard was also an art lover and an avid collector, who owned works by all the painters included in the song cycle that Poulenc eventually composed almost a decade later as settings of Eluard’s poems. Le Travail du peintre (The work of the painter) was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances of the song cycle in 1957 in Paris with the composer at the piano.

Poulenc’s settings are more a reaction to Eluard’s poems than a direct appreciation of the painters they set out musically to describe. Pablo Picasso is iron-willed, filled with invincible energy. The playful fantasy and dreamlike mischief of Marc Chagall is captured in what Poulenc called a “rambling scherzo.” Georges Braque is fondly remembered for his aquatints and etchings of birds in flight, imitated with the zesty chirping of bird sounds in the piano. The carefully composed cubist constructions of Juan Gris find their correlative in the balanced phrases of the song composed in his honour. Paul Klee receives short shrift in a quick song having little, it seems, with the painter’s actual work but inserted because of a need for contrast in the cycle as a whole.

The song devoted to Juan Miró seems fixated on that painter’s treatment of the sky. And finally, Jacques Villon, pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp (brother of the more famous Marcel) is memorialized in a litany of phrases that Poulenc sets with an even, regular pacing as a timeless contemplation of eternal human values.

Franz Schubert
Selected Lieder

Schubert is credited with single-handedly transforming the German Lied from its status as a form of home entertainment mostly cultivated by amateurs, and largely ignored by serious composers, into a worthy vehicle for artistic expression at the highest level. Not a bad item on your resumé if you were a mere teenager, as Schubert was when in 1815 at the age of 17 he composed his first epoch-making lieder, Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.

What distinguished Schubert’s contributions to the genre was the way in which he brought the full range of musical resources – harmony, texture and declamatory style – to bear on the expression of the poetic text, as the selections on Mr. Keenlyside’s program amply demonstrate.

Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem Liebesbotschaft (Message of Love) 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.

Alinde is another song combing water imagery and the theme of love’s yearning. Its gently rocking barcarolle rhythm in 6/8 time represents both the lapping of waves at the water’s edge and the lover’s impatience as he waits for his beloved to arrive. An endearing, almost cutesy touch is provided by the small run-up ornaments in the piano.

Standchen (Serenade) is a song drawn from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In the scene in which it appears none-too-bright Cloten has crept into the bedroom of Imogen, who lies sleeping, to sing her this artless song with the hope that she will awake, arise, and make him happy in the way that only a young woman in nightclothes can. Cloten’s doltish overestimation of his chances in this regard is underlined by harmonies based on pedal tones and a naively upbeat rhythmic pattern in the piano.

Pity the budding epic poet in An die Leier (To the Lyre) whose musical sidekick, his lyre, has a mind of its own and will only let him sing love songs. Anxious calls to war are conveyed in clangorous dotted rhythms of diminished 7th chords out of which sweet dominant 7ths always seem to emerge to send the music in a more amorous direction.

In Nachtstück (Night Piece) an old man slowly walks into the forest at the close of day to commune with nature and consider his own approaching death. The opening introduction depicts his slow measured gait but more consoling music intervenes when he considers the rest that death will bring.

Similar thoughts on the impermanence of human life motivate An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), a quasi-operatic solo aria, complete with recitative, bound together by a recurring ritornello in the piano. The constant presence of the moon shining down on the singer is evoked by the piano’s frequent echoing of the vocal line.

Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is Schubert’s tip of the hat to the lads and lasses who bring in the harvest. Folksong-like in the simplicity of its melody and its structuring in balanced phrases, it has an almost Handelian sense of quiet dignity and restful lyricism.

The last song in Sir Simon’s selection of Schubert songs is Abschied (Farewell) from the Schwanengesang song collection. This parting song is remarkable for its complete absence of melancholy. The singer is obviously leaving on his own terms and happy to do so. We can just see him, trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of his mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

PROGRAM NOTES: TARA ERRAUGHT & JAMES BAILLIEU

Franz Liszt
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.

Gustav Mahler
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
Three Songs

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?”

Richard Strauss
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.

Gioachino Rossini
Giovanna d’Arco

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

PROGRAM NOTES: FLORIAN BOESCH AND MIAH PERSSON

The Songs of Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann was a composer steeped in literature. His compositions bear the dual imprint of both German musical and literary Romanticism. Literature was the family business, one might say, as his father, August Schumann, was both a publisher and a bookseller in Zwickau, Saxony, where the composer grew up. He began to write about the aesthetics of music when he was barely into his teens, at the same time as he was composing—an early indication of his future activity as a founding editor of Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, one of Germany’s most important music journals, still published today.

So it was natural that when writing his first songs as a teenager he should try his hand at writing poetry, as well. In Sehnsucht (Longing), written in 1827 to his own song text, is a typical product of German Romanticism, with its heightened awareness of the natural world as an echo chamber of the poet’s inner thoughts and emotions. Many of the features that would become standard in Schumann’s song settings were already in place in his early songs, including the “framing” of the sung text within a musically significant opening piano introduction and closing piano ‘postlude’.

Another early song, Gesanges Erwachen (Song’s awakening) of 1828 is a good example of how Schumann likes to wrap the voice in the attentive embrace of its keyboard companion. In this strophic song the piano also provides instrumental interludes between the verses, and even aspires to the status of a duet partner as it trades melodic phrases back and forth with the voice.

After composing a good dozen songs in the late 1820s it became obvious to Schumann that his real interest was the piano and he wrote for nothing else during the entire decade of the 1830s. The lyrical impulse of song, however, would remain a strong influence on him even during this time, evident in his use of music from his early songs in the piano sonatas Opp. 11 and 22 and in his quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte in his Fantasie Op. 17 for piano.

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The year 1840 marked Schumann’s so-called “Year of Song” (Liederjahr), in which he produced over 125 songs, more than half his total output.

The songs from his Liederkreis Op. 39 are based on the nature poems of Joseph von Eichendorff. Waldesgespräch (Forest dialogue) depicts a dramatic meeting between a hunter and the seductive forest spirit Lorelei, who bewitches men and brings them to an early death. The nonchalant postlude of this song, a reprise of the pleasant hunting music of the opening, has the childlike innocence of a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Mondnacht (Moonlit night) by contrast is pure scene painting, untroubled by any thoughts of danger or magical mischief. It depicts the earth and sky as joining together for a lover’s kiss, with the high and low registers of the keyboard as stand-ins for the natural elements. A different kind of scene painting is featured in Schöne Fremde (A beautiful foreign land), with its rapturous depiction in the piano accompaniment of both the wind rustling in the treetops and the poet’s blood coursing through his veins. The last song in this set, Frühlingsnacht (Spring night), features an even more feverish piano accompaniment to convey the unanimous opinion of all forest creatures large and small that the poet’s love life is on a definite upswing. The accompaniment in this song could easily be a stand-alone piano piece.

Dein Angesicht (Your face) explores darker territory, but in a typically Romantic way, combining the innocence of a dream with the fear of losing a loved one. The placid pulse of a gently swaying accompaniment leaves the drama of this text to be conveyed by unexpected changes in harmony.

The songs from the collection entitled Frauenliebe und Leben (A woman’s love and life) Op. 42 all deal with a woman’s emotional life. Concern has been expressed in modern critical circles that “the woman in these poems is really too much of a doormat” to her hero husband, but the tone may well have been an accurate description of the relationship Schumann had with his wife Clara, who was nine years his junior.

Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him) describes the ‘blindness’ of a woman in love. The halting pace and low register of the piano accompaniment imitates the tentative steps of a person lost in the darkness. Helft mir ihr Schwestern (Help me, O sisters) describes the excitement of a woman being dressed on her wedding day, with hints of a wedding march throughout that are made explicit in the piano postlude. Nun hast du mir (Now you have caused me my first pain) is an utter contrast in mood, a dramatic monologue of loss and despair as a woman faces burying her dead husband. The tragic chords of the piano provide scant support for the voice, left as isolated and alone in the musical texture as the woman pictured in text.

The songs of Schumann’s Op. 35 take us back to the world of nature. Erstes Grün (First green) is a delicate evocation of the coming of spring, unusual in its play of major and minor tonalities. Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend (Woodland longing) is an evocation of nostalgia for the woods, birds & streams of the poet’s homeland, richly conveyed in a rolling accompaniment in the low register that won this song the admiration of Brahms. Even deeper and richer in low piano tone is Stille Tränen (Silent tears) with its sustained melody and throbbing chordal accompaniment.

The voice stands in bold relief against the piano, however, in Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint (Heaven shed a tear) that sees a tear from heaven made into a pearl as symbolic of the love that a lover guards preciously inside. The tone of this song is noble, but with more than a touch of sentimentality. Piano and voice return to a duet texture in O ihr Herren (O you lords) with another accompaniment that could be a piano piece on its own. Herbstlied (Autumn song) expresses the contrasting emotions brought on by the change of seasons. It has a two-part structure: the passing of summer is regretted solemnly in the minor mode with a Bachian contrapuntal accompaniment until the mood brightens with major-mode thoughts of how winter will preserve everything till spring.

The first half of this recital ends with the great Biblical narrative of Belsatzar (Belshazzar), the Babylonian ruler whose jubilant feasting in celebration of his conquest of Jerusalem is interrupted by a the appearance of a mysterious message from the Almighty written on the wall. The score follows the narrated events of the tale with picturesque evocations of the flickering torches, the martial menace of the warriors in attendance, the sounds of riotous banqueting and the shock and awe of the story’s dramatic conclusion.

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The duet Liebesgram (Love’s sorrows) is a serious song, in keeping with its subject: death. The contrast between life and death is played out in the contrast between the major and minor mode, with the piano providing both serious contrapuntal and plangent harmonic comment on the text.

Exquisite delicacy characterizes Schneeglöcklein (Snow drop) which plays on the double sense of the name for the flower with the bell-shaped head that presages the coming of spring, here pictured as both a source of melting “snow drops” and the light tintinnabulation of a tinkling bell, charmingly portrayed in the high register of the piano. Equally cute is the naïve childlike enthusiasm for the arrival of spring in Er ist’s (Spring is here) with its twinkling accompaniment in the high register and imitation of the harp with—what else?–arpeggios.

Harplike sounds abound as well in the Goethe poems of Schumann’s Harfenspielerlieder. The tone of Wer sich der Einsamket ergibt (He who gives himself up to solitude) is serious, with a tortured melody and very little phrase repetition ranging widely over a harmonically restless accompaniment. More sober still is An die Türen will ich schleichen (I shall steal from door to door), which describes with great pathos the slow awkward gate of a wandering beggar.

Scholars are still puzzled by the text of Liebeslied (Love song), which may have been a secret coded message from Schumann to his wife Clara. This song is infinitely romantic, with the piano rapturously enveloping the voice’s voluptuous melody in a luxury of sympathetic swells of harmony and echoing its sighs. A more turbulent relationship is described in Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (A storm rages in the evening sky) that features a meteorological love affair between a cloud and the sun, with the piano vividly portraying the black cloud’s dark billowing presence. An eerie stillness returns in Nachtlied (Night song) with a virtually impassive melody drifting over a solemn succession of chords in the piano. Aufträge (Messages) is another nature song, this time on the theme of “Who will take this message to my love?” Will it be a wave, a bird, or the moon? The piano simply froths with excitement trying to find out.

Die Sennin (The cowgirl) features a gently yodelling melody that with its memorable leaps conveys the expansive feeling of being outdoors. The free and easy feel of this song’s opening is tempered by the bittersweet thought that “all things pass.” Sadness also tinges Meine Rose (My rose), a song which despite its comfortable ‘slow waltz’ pulse manages to rise to an almost operatic level of passion. Requiem is a reverent but passionate tribute to the life of German poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) with a translated text attributed to the 12th-century abbess Héloïse about her lover, the philosopher-poet Peter Abelard.

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Schumann’s songs take a darker turn near the end of his creative life. In Abendlied (Evening song) we hear both the hope for a better future in heaven and disturbing echoes of life on earth, especially in the piano’s pulsing triplet chords in 6/4 while the singer sings in 4/4. Even more unsettling is the storyline in Warnung (Warning): a bird is told to be silent lest by attracting the attention of the owl it become its prey, an obvious hint at the approach of death. Even more eerie is the way in which the piano and singer seem to inhabit separate worlds, the piano in the underworld, the voice a lonely presence still back on earth.

With Abschied von der Welt (Farewell to the world) we arrive at the last of Schumann’s compositions. The piano plays the role of the orchestra in a dramatic operatic recitative, punctuating the singer’s plangent pleas and its own heartbreaking commentary on the existential questions: What use is the time I have left? Who will remember me? More heartrending still is the very moving Gebet (Prayer), with its implacably stern piano chords and the singer’s increasingly urge pleas for help. It was shortly after completing this song that musical Romanticism’s most sensitive poet, Robert Schumann, attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was confined to an asylum, where he died three years later.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

The collection of German folk poetry published between 1805 and 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) had an enormous influence on the development of German lyric poetry and song in the 19th century, and the artless simplicity of these verses was particularly attractive to Gustav Mahler. Over half of his solo songs derive from this collection, many in both chamber and orchestral versions, and some even found their way into his symphonies, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies in particular.

Growing up in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, Mahler heard a great deal of military music when young and a number of his settings reflect his early fascination with this kind of music. There is, however, a tragic undertow in the military songs he chose to set from the Wunderhorn collection. Their mood is sombre, occasionally even macabre. They glint with an irony that pays tribute to the dark subtext lying beneath their childlike surface of story-telling.

Revelge (Reveille) marches to the tramping beat of a drummer wounded in battle who rouses the mortal remains of his fallen comrades to a ghastly advance against the foe. The mock-gleeful refrain of tralali, tralaley underscores the eerie ‘esprit de corpse’ of this grotesque procession.

Der Tamboursg’sell (The drummer boy) features another doomed drummer, this time marching to the gallows for the crime of desertion. Regular drum rolls mark the pace of this funeral procession while major-minor alternations in the harmony give voice to the boy’s wavering psychological state.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the splendid trumpets sound) is a variant of the medieval Tagelied, depicting the reluctant separation of lovers at dawn. Distant trumpet fanfares symbolize the soldier’s call of duty but the “green heath” of battle he must hasten to will be his new home, in death.

 

Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

The death of the promising 28-year-old composer-turned-soldier Rudi Stephan, victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Eastern Front, is one of the great losses that WWI inflicted on Western music. His song collection Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) sets poems by Gerda von Robertus, the pseudonym of Gertrud Emily von Schlieben (1873-1939). Hohelied is the German term for the Song of Solomon and Stephan’s sultry and sensual settings attempt to express the power of love as both spiritual and erotic, in imitation of the Biblical text.

These songs, with their simple piano accompaniments, are exquisite miniatures that move forward in unhurried waves of emotion, luminously depicting in gently dissonant but firmly tonal harmonies the bittersweet yearning and imaginative wanderings of the lover’s heart.

The background strumming of the ancient lyre and the rippling of the ocean waves can be heard in the piano part of Kythere (Cythera), that describes a voyage to the perfume-scented isle of the love-goddess Venus. The pouncing potential of the lover-as-panther can be heard in the jumpy rhythms of Pantherlied (Panther song). Infinite delicacy in both the voice and piano parts of Abendfrieden (Evening peace) evokes the stillness of the twilight hours.

The mysterious exoticism of In Nachbars Garten (In the neighbours garden) paints the painful joy of witnessing love from afar. The steady pace of Glück zu Zweien counts the steps of a pair of lovers climbing ever higher to take in the vistas that their own togetherness presents to them. And finally, the unearthly stillness of Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) evokes night as the geographic centre of love’s domain.

 

George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

Many a British soldier in the Great War carried with him to the front a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and the attraction would be easy to see. The poems in this collection by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896, were written in the straightforward language of the English farmer, laid out in the simple rhythmic patterns of English folk song. They present an idealized picture of country life, used as a lens through which to view the harsh realities of war and death. The stark fatalism of these poems, studded with their nostalgic reminders of home, would have appealed to those living in the trenches in France, many of them destined to be, in Housman’s casually chilling phrase, “lads that will never be old.”

George Butterworth, a graduate of Eton, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, was killed in the Great War. A few years before the outbreak of hostilities, he composed two sets of songs to the poems in this collection, the first of which we will hear this evening. These settings give pride of place to the voice, to which the piano offers an extremely sparse accompaniment, with many modal turns

of harmony that evoke a folk-song-like style of expression. None more so than the last and most celebrated song of the set, Is my team ploughing?, an almost speech-like rendering in dialogue of the meeting between a dead soldier’s ghost and his best friend, still alive, who is reluctant to reveal with whose sweetheart he now lays down at night.

 

Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

Kurt Weill is best known for his hit tune “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, which he composed in collaboration with Bertold Brecht in 1928 as reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. As a successful Jewish composer of stage music he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and was forced to flee in 1933. He eventually settled in New York in 1935, where he took to his new home with relish and began to write for the Broadway stage.

Immediately after Pearl Harbour, he set to work on a contribution to the war effort: composing songs to texts by the American poet Walt Whitman. Three Whitman songs were completed in 1942. A fourth was added in 1947. All four deal with the most compelling event of Whitman’s time, the American Civil War.

Beat! Beat! Drums! is a vigorous call to battle that Weill sets as a stomping march in a modernist idiom very close to the polemical style of his earlier theatre works.

O Captain! My Captain! is Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Its style is definitely Broadway, which gives this lament an all-the-more common touch as a tribute piece.

Come up from the Fields, Father tells the story of the arrival of a letter from the army to tell a family that their only son is dead. The fulsome piano accompaniment gives this tragic scene its full measure of dignity.

Dirge for Two Veterans commemorates the death of a father and son in the same battle, juxtaposing the beauty of a landscape at dusk with the sense of loss that these twin deaths brings. In painting the scene, Weill gives each sentiment a different harmonic colouring.

 

Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote poetry in Scots dialect in his poems for children, and in standard English in his more serious verse. Benjamin Britten used both kinds of poems by Soutar in his Who Are These Children, a work that jarringly contrasts the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with the destructive power of war. It is this latter power, the power to destroy, that occupies the four songs in standard English from this song cycle being presented by Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Du this evening.

Nightmare is ostensibly about the chopping down of a tree by “a dark shape,” but its symbolic resonance is much more powerful. Britten paints the tree’s dreamlike existence in the piano’s right-hand ostinato figures, the “murderer” of that dream in ominously low left-hand octaves.

Slaughter pits the voice, struggling to tell its tale, against a restless toccata- chatter of piano cuts and thrusts ranging widely over the keyboard, emblematic of the disconnect between the power to destroy and the power of bearing witness to that destruction. This is a scene in which “wise men are made dumb.”

Who are these children? paints a country scene as absurd as it is gallingly immoral: an elegant fox-hunting party rides through town on horseback during a world war that sees bombs falling on cities. Britten first paints the prancing procession of rich folk before switching his musical sympathies to the children onlookers, recently escaped from “fire and smoke,” whose uncomprehending stare sums up the poet’s indignation.

An eerie calm pervades The Children, a song that pictures the bodies of children lying in the streets after a bombing raid. The world seems unconcerned, and “the stars move to their places” as if nothing unusual had happened. Britten’s use of a rippling ostinato figure in the treble of the piano part represents the moral bewilderment that such a horrific scene would provoke in any thinking person.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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