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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

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