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Program Notes: Golda Schultz

Clara Schumann
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.

 

Emilie Mayer
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.

 

Rebecca Clarke
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.

 

Nadia Boulanger
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.

 

Kathleen Tagg 
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

 

Program Notes: Jakub Józef Orliński

J.J. Fux
Non t’amo per il ciel from Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario

Johann Joseph Fux was an early-18th-century Austrian court composer of the first rank, best known by musicians today for his widely studied treatise on Renaissance counterpoint entitled Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). The Hapsburg court in Vienna was the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, secular protector-in-chief of the Roman Catholic Church, so Fux’s duties centred on writing music to be performed in the Imperial Chapel for important events in the church calendar.

Fux’s Good Friday oratorio Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario (The font of salvation, opened by the grace of Calvary) was composed in 1716. In its first act the grateful musings of the repentant sinner are evoked in the aria Non t’amo per il ciel, with a mawkishly pious text that speaks (most curiously, to modern ears) of dutiful submission and fearful love – a state of mind and attitudinal posture no doubt heartily endorsed by the Austrian Emperor for adoption by his loyal subjects.

Proceeding at a dignified “Pachebel’s-Canon-ish” pace to depict calm unshakeable faith, it unfolds in the manner of a stately Handelian da capo aria in two verses, with lavish embellishments applied to the repeat of the first verse by the singer in the closing section.

Glorious long-held notes and melismatic extensions of vowels point to Fux’s skill in writing in the Italian style, a style that emphasizes beauty of tone colour, graceful flowing melodic lines, and loving cadential ornaments at phrase ends.

 

Henry Purcell
Selected songs

Henry Purcell worked in the early part of his career under the patronage of the last two Stuart kings of England, Charles I (r. 1660-1685) and James II (r. 1685-1688). But when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Purcell turned increasingly to the theatre, writing incidental music for stage plays and major musical numbers for the semi-operas popular in the period.

The semi-opera was a distinctly English genre of theatrical entertainment that flourished in England between 1670 and 1710. It responded to the English public’s distaste for Italian opera, especially its far-fetched plots, told in a foreign language, with a thick layer of musical ‘lasagna’ coating every syllable of the text from start to finish. The English preferred lighter fare. Their musical stage entertainment came in the form of adaptations of well-known plays with a spoken text performed by professional actors and musical numbers performed by professional singers, much in the way that dance numbers were inserted into early French opera.

These musical insertions, often in the form of an allegorical masque or a play-within-a-play, might allude to, or simply provide a distraction from, the main action of the drama. And Purcell was a consummate creator of such scenes, many of them composed in collaboration with the renowned Restoration poet John Dryden (1631-1700). His command of counterpoint and ability to create dancelike melodies that preserve the rhythms and energy of English prose have given these pieces a life outside the theatre and made them effective concert pieces still popular today.

Music for a while comes from John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex, staged in 1692 with incidental music by Purcell. This luxuriantly leisurely tune would surely have provided its listeners in the audience with welcome emotional relief from the bloody doings being enacted on stage, including Oedipus’ own brooch-stabbing de-oculation in the final act. Like the famous aria When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), this song is built on a ground bass consisting of a three-bar melodic pattern at the bottom of the texture that repeats throughout. Worthy of note is Purcell’s wonderfully speech-like setting of the first word in the text: Mu-u-u-sic.

Fairest Isle and the Cold Song both come from Purcell’s most successful semi-opera, King Arthur, performed at the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1791. Fairest Isle is sung as part of a masque conjured by the magician Merlin near the end of the work in which the future greatness of the British nation is foretold. This buoyant minuet-song with its patriotic text eventually became a national favourite to rank with Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia of 1742.

The Cold Song is an astonishing example of the pictorial vividness with which Purcell could invest his music. It comes from the so-called Frost Scene in the third act and as its name implies, it paints the bone-chilling effects of a Winnipeg-style winter on some of the inhabitants of King Arthur’s Britain. Just like the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons, a steady pulse of 8th notes in the accompaniment paints the nippiness of the winter wind to set up the dramatic entrance of the vocal line, which quivers and shivers up and down in synch with the accompaniment, chillingly intense and relentlessly chromatic in its tonal wanderings.

Strike the viol is from Purcell’s birthday ode to Queen Mary entitled Come Ye Sons of Art (1694). Here again Purcell uses a ground bass, eight bars in length, modulating from minor to major. In the text, a number of musical instruments are exhorted to sing and play in joyous celebration of their “patroness” (i.e. Queen Mary). Their unbounded delight in the occasion breaks out with a long melisma on the word “cheerful”.

Your awful voice I hear is from a masque inserted into a 1695 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This being a story of shipwrecks and miraculous sea-changes, musical numbers referencing the weather and the aquatic environment form natural musical side-panels to the main dramatic action. In this air the mythological figure Aeolus, representing the wind, sings to his lord Neptune, “brother to Jove and monarch of the sea.” While the fugal counterpoint that permeates this setting would not be unusual in a piece by Purcell, scholars have cast doubt on his authorship because of the song’s overtly Italianate style of writing.

The poem If music be the food of love, by the would-be poet Col. Henry Heveningham MP (1651-1700), borrows the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and then takes its meaning in an entirely different direction. While Shakespeare’s Duke Orsini hopes to gorge on a feast of music to sate and thus quell the yearnings of his lovesickness, randy old Col. Henry has quite the opposite intention: to spur on the lust for sexual conquest through seduction. And in typical Restoration style his poem contains many a panting phrase and ‘wink-wink-know-whadda-mean’ double entendre.

Purcell made three settings of this poem and we are gratified to know that Mr. Orliński chooses to sing the outrageously florid 3rd version of 1695, with its many contrasts of dramatic semi-recitative and pictorial melismatic melody. Purcell’s warbling word-painting on the syllables of jo-o-oy and ple-e-ea-sure represent musical peacock-preening of the first order.

 

Henryk Czyż
Pożegnania (Farewells)

Henryk Czyż was a Polish conductor and composer known for championing the music of his Polish contemporaries, especially Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), whose St Luke Passion and The Devils from Loudun received their first performances under his baton.

His song cycle Pożegnania (Farewells), a setting of three poems by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), dates from 1948 and was originally written for the bass voice. In this work Czyż uses the Scriabinesque harmonic vocabulary of late Romanticism to create dramatic settings with a direct emotional appeal, emphasizing sustained lyrical melody in the vocal line and accompaniments closely wrapped round the singer’s voice.

Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet, displays in these poems his ability to convey powerful complex emotions that combine psychological opposites. In Kochałem Panią, a Polish translation of his famous poem Я вас любил (I loved you once), it is the opposition between a former lover’s disappointment and his generosity of spirit. In Na wzgórzach Gruzji (Over the hills of Georgia) the poet feels “both sorrowful and light-hearted.”  And in Ostatni raz (For the last time) his thoughts of love arrive “with anguished, bashful tenderness.”

 

Mieczysław Karłowicz
Selected songs

Mieczysław Karłowicz is often cited as a leading proponent of the ideals of the Young Poland movement (1890-1918) which sought to forge a distinctly Polish personality in the arts by assimilating new modernist trends into national traditions. As a literary movement it embraced the fin-de-siècle attraction to decadence and a generally dark view of human existence.

The songs composed by Karłowicz in his student years between 1895 and 1896 reflect well the bleakness of this worldview. Many of them are set to melancholy poetic texts by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1865-1940), a leading poet of the Young Poland movement.

Karłowicz’s harmonic language is an extension of that used by Chopin, whom he revered, and heavily influenced by the morose emotionalism of Tchaikovsky as represented in his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony No. 6. His attraction to the music of Wagner, especially to Tristan und Isolde, is evident in his frequent use of tonally ambiguous harmonies (German sixth chords, augmented triads) to express the kind of infinite yearning evoked in Wagner’s Tristan. This slippery chromaticism well suits the Wagnerian themes of love and death that radiate out from Przerwa-Tetmajer’s poems in lines such as: These words flowing toward me / Are like a prayer at my coffin. / And in the heart of death they make me thrill.

Dark as these poetic texts are, the luscious harmonic richness of Karłowicz’s textures allows us to enjoy a strangely ‘decadent’ pleasure when hearing them sung.

 

Stanisław Moniuszko
Selected songs

Stanisław Moniuszko was the leading composer of Polish opera in the 19th century. But apart from his more than 20 operas and operettas, he also wrote a good 360 songs for domestic use issued in several sets entitled Śpiewnik domowy (‘Home Songbook’) beginning in 1843.

His musical language is essentially conservative, and a strong vein of Polish nationalism runs through his work, often expressed in melodies that sound like Polish folk songs and rhythms borrowed from Polish dances such as the polonaise, mazurka and krakowiak.

Moniuszko’s gift for soulful lyrical melody is on full display in Łza (The Tear), a strophic song of lament from the last Home Songbook, published posthumously in 1876, four years after the composer’s death. Its melancholy message of loss and the pain of remembrance finds expression in the song’s falling musical lines and painful dissonances in the piano accompaniment.

Prząśniczka (The Spinning Girl) comes from the third edition of Moniuszko’s Home Songbook (1851). It paints a scene of parting between young lovers, one of whom, like Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, is busy at her spinning wheel. Highly dramatic in form, it begins with a slow introduction that sets up the entry of the whirling spinning wheel motif in the piano accompaniment. This signals a new point of view on the story, as scraps of folk-song melody ironically imply that the girl’s affections can turn as fast as her spinning wheel.

 

George Frideric Handel
Alleluia, Amen in D minor  HWV 269

There is a mystery concerning the two dozen or so virtuoso arias on the words “Alleluia and “Amen” that Handel wrote over a period of more than 20 years beginning in the 1720s. No one knows, you see, why he wrote them. They are far too elaborate for use in public church services, so it has been proposed that they were intended for private devotional use.

Intended as contemplative vocal meditations on personal religious faith, they are nevertheless outstanding display vehicles for the singer’s voice. Structured as a da capo aria, the Alleluia and Amen in D minor HWV 269 features long held notes to showcase the tone colour of the singer’s voice, extended melismatic passages in 16ths to display breath control, and trills aplenty in the melodic line to show off the singer’s vocal technique and agility.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

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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