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Information about Susanna and Myra’s Recital Tour 2013
Franz Schubert – Ellen’s Songs
Published in 1810, The Lady of the Lake was a great success for the writer Sir Walter Scott, enthusiastically received throughout Europe and abroad. Schubert set seven of the songs from the epic poem (three for solo soprano), intending that they be able to be performed in both German and English, and hoping that the sensation surrounding Scott’s text would help to increase his own notoriety outside of Austria. He began composing the songs in 1825, and dedicated them to Sofie, Countess Weissenwolf of Steyregg, whom Schubert fondly described as ‘a great admirer of my humble self’.
The preface for “Ellens Gesang I (Raste Krieger)” reads, “She sung, and still a harp unseen/Filled up the symphony between;” at this point in his compositional development Schubert’s mastery is evident. Using the rondo form (ABACA), he colorfully conjures the gentle plucking of the harp strings, the galloping of horses, and the ebb and flow of restless sleep.
“Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd” is a shining example of Schubert’s elegant, refined simplicity of style. The melodic line weaves with clear horn-calls to create a full yet uncluttered atmosphere for the listener. Somehow this song always makes me smile.
If the first two songs are unfamiliar to you, the Ellens Gesang III will most certainly ring a bell. “Ave Maria” is Schubert’s most famous song, often performed as a Latin prayer. In this context however, Ellen prays to the Virgin on behalf of her kinsmen who are about to go to battle to defend their land against royal forces. Though secular, this “prayer” evokes tremendous power in its feeling.
Chausson – Selected Songs
Pressured by his father, Chausson began a successful career in law before realizing his dream and making is mark in musical composition. He became the secretary of Paris’s Societé Nationale de Musique, hosting luminaries such as Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, Claude Monet, Isaac Albéniz (a Catalan composer, and contemporary of Granados), and Henri Duparc. This musical atmosphere, rich with impressionism and harmonic experimentation, was (created?) a ripe environment for Chausson’s talent. A student of Massenet, Chausson’s unique style synthesized operatic drama, impressionistic color, and French elegance. He died tragically in a bicycle accident at a young age, just at the beginning of his bourgeoning career. I wonder what would have come next.
Many of the poems Chausson chose to set depicted metaphors of the human condition. “Le colibri” is Chausson’s most famous song, radiant in its beauty. The lilting vocal line melody, sensual feeling, and complex yet swaying rhythm seem to coalesce flawlessly. Gautier’s poem “Les papillons” is a great example of his emphasis on “L’art pour l’art” (Art for Art’s sake). As Baricelli writes in his book Ernest Chausson: The composer’s Life and works, “Gautier’s idea was that all things, especially poetry, are beautiful in inverse proportion to their usefulness. Poetry must serve no didactic or moralistic ends; Roses are as necessary as potatoes!”
“Oraison” is the last of the Serres chaudes, a set of 5 songs about greenhouses that evoke the heat of passion. This last song is a poignant prayer where the protagonist begs God to show him the path. In the poem, Maeterlinck writes “Des fleurs mauvaises de la terre” (Evil flowers of the Earth) invokes Baudelaire’s volume of poetry, Les fleurs du mal – the seminal work for the entire symbolist movement.
Lastly, “Le temps des lilas” is the final piece in Chausson’s pivotal Poème de l’amour et de la mer, dedicated to Henri Duparc. Chausson later arranged this song to be performed separately.
Berg – Seven Early Songs or Seven Youthful Songs
Alban Berg was an enthusiastic student of Schoenberg, and under his tutelage Berg produced this cycle of seven songs. In these songs he shows the influence of Strauss, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and Wagner. However, at the same time he began to find his compositional voice, “creeping” from tonality to tonality without regard to traditional rules.
He opens with an atmospheric poem by Carl Hauptmann’s entitled “Nacht”. Berg treats the poet’s somber celebration of solitude with sweeping phrases and breadth of breath, never overextending. “Schilflied” describes a youth’s innocent preoccupation with his love, sensing her in every moment. Easily the most well known song, “Die Nachtigall” is operatic in its sweep. “Traumgekrönt” depicts an act of love, on the Day of the Chrysanthemums, a flower often used in funerals. As Rilke’s puzzling poem leaves room for interpretation, perhaps the Day of the Chrysanthemums symbolizes the loss/death of innocence, and the birth of love. My personal favorite, “Im Zimmer” is touching in its conversational simplicity. The last two songs are the most expansive, “Liebesode” in its Wagnerian style, and “Sommertage” in its soaring revelry, brimming with love. Written originally for voice and piano, these songs were later revised and orchestrated for high voice and orchestra in 1928.
Messiaen – Poemes pour Mi, book ii
Olivier Messiaen composed these songs as a wedding gift for his first wife Claire Delbos, whom he affectionately called “Mi”. A man of faith, Messaien viewed this moment of marriage inextricably linked with his relationship with God, and his poetry blends the two relationships until they are deeply indivisible. Messiaen explores both relationships with an intense fascination, especially in this second book of songs (v-ix). Like Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder, they were originally written for soprano and piano in 1936, and later orchestrated in 1937.
“L’épouse” begins in a clear, definitive description of each relationship, ending with a moment of quiet reverence. Messiaen’s love of nature, especially birdsong, pervades “Ta Voix”. The haunting opening melody explores the idea of the voice of the bird joining the voices of the angels: nature and spirit as one. “Le deux guerriers” strikes me as an exuberant and developed version of “Onward Christian Soldiers”, with its jubilant call to arms. Fascination guides “Le Collier” as Messiaen describes Mi’s arms as a necklace around his neck “wedded to the cool morning air”. Messiaen’s final prayer, “Prière exaucée”, runs the gamut of chant-like prayer to overwhelming exuberance at the thought that “Joy has returned”. The prayerful vocal line seems to take on the sharp edges of birdsong, merging nature and spirit in a final burst of elation.
Myra and I recorded the full set of Poèmes pour Mi, as well as songs by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré on our recording, “Paysages”, released by Bridge Records in 2011. It is available online and on iTunes!
Quite well known in his native Spain and throughout Europe as a pianist, as well as for his piano compositions, Enrique Granados was also a prolific composer of vocal music including songs and operas. He expanded his seminal work “Goyescas”, written for piano in 1911, into an opera, based on the striking paintings of Francisco de Goya. The opera (by the same name) premiered in New York City in 1916. While in the United States he accepted an invitation to the White House to play for President Woodrow Wilson, causing Granados to miss his originally scheduled boat back to Spain. He was re-routed through England; and while navigating the English Channel, a torpedo struck the ship, and he drowned trying to save his wife of 24 years, Amparo. Ironically, Granados had a deep fear of drowning his whole life, and this was among his first oceanic trips.
The first two songs (“El Majo Discreto” and “El Mirar de la Maja”) are from a collection of Tonadillas, or “little songs”. The texts describe majos and majas (men and women of Madrid) and their various interactions. The music is simple, but full of the spark and passion of Spanish culture. “Elegia Eterna” is written in the Catalan dialect, and tells of unrequited love (a theme common in Mestres’ opera librettos). It was dedicated to and performed by Maria Barrientos, an outstanding soprano of her time. “Gracia Mia” is taken from Granados’s Canciones Amatorias, a cycle of seven songs. In some ways, this seems to epitomize Granados’ style: relevant folk music elevated by classical composition. The melody lilts and weaves, almost characterizing the love lost and then found.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. Through his worldly travels he observed and commented on life, and became a notable philosophic humorist. As the composer Gordon Myers says, “I submit that the humor of Mark Twain is remarkable for much of it is sparkling fresh and new even today.” I certainly hope so!