About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

June 16, 2018

Susanna Phillips, Gretna Music, July 8; Program Notes

Samuel BarberHermit Songs

We don't know whether Samuel Barber, born in nearby West Chester in 1910, ever made it to the Mt. Gretna Jigger Shop in a summer of his youth, or heard the Flonzaley String Quartet when they played in the Playhouse early in the last century. His father was a physician and his mother a pianist whose family had lived in the US since the Revolutionary War. His aunt was a Met contralto, Louise Homer. 

At the age of nine, he wrote to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer. . . Don’t ask me to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this unpleasant thing so much that it makes me mad (not very).” He began composing seriously during his teenage years and at the Curtis Institute was a triple prodigy in composition, voice, and piano. He met his life partner there, composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Both are among the most celebrated composers of the Twentieth Century, Barber especially, writing in a lyrical, romantic style while others wrote with angularity and dissonance. Adagio for Strings from Barber's string quartet has become the default music for sad occasions in America.

Barber composed Hermit Songs, a cycle of ten songs for voice and piano, in 1953. He based it on a collection of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13thcenturies translated by W. H. Auden, Seán Ó Faoláin, and others. They were, as other Barber songs, premiered by the great Leontyne Price with Barber himself on the piano at the Library of Congress. In Barber's words (I think):

These songs are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, witty, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life they led - close to nature, their animals and to God. Some are literal translations and others were translated (where existing translations seemed inadequate). Robin Flower wrote in The Irish Tradition: “It was not only that these scribes and anchorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by a continual spiritual exercise that they had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.”


Robert SchumannFrauenliebe und Leben

Like Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann stands out as a historical figure by reason of his eminence in two domains, composition and writing. He "encouraged his readers to look for more than sensory stimulation in music, but rather seek in it the same mental and spiritual delight they sought in literature. In this, he swam distinctly not only against the tide of the Enlightenment, which had relegated music (in the words of Kant) to the category of 'enjoyment more than culture' but rather that it has a complexity of meaning, an 'intellectual substance.'" (Taruskin) That substance was not in the sense that music has a literary plot line or 'program.'

He most clearly and convincingly aimed at this complexity in his character pieces for piano and his songs, the private genres in which Franz Schubert had set the standard. Schumann was very conscious of Schubert as a forebear – "exceptionally so for the time when most German composers sought preceptors chiefly in Beethoven and Bach," according to Taruskin. "At the outset of his career. . . he was among the few who found special inspiration in Schubert, in whom he saw a sort of musical novelist." Schumann wrote, "What a diary is to others, in which they set down their momentary feelings, etc., music paper really was to Schubert, to which he entrusted his every mood, and his whole soul, musical through-and-through, wrote notes where others use words." Taruskin continues, "prompted by Schubert's example, Schumann went further and became the master of the unconsummated harmonic gesture, one of the most potent of all romantic 'musico-literary' effects." 

Not surprisingly, love permeated most of his songs. According to Ian Bostridge, "it's probably true to say that all Schumann's most famous songs were written in one emotionally momentous year, that of his marriage, 1840." The 9-year romance of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck has become legendary, on a level with anything that Shakespeare might have imagined. As the wedding day approached (when Clara would turn 21), Robert's love intensified; he wrote no fewer than 138 songs, most of them masterpieces. "Ah, Clara, the bliss of writing songs!" he wrote. Having found a place to begin their married life and paid the first rent installment, he turned his attention to his most "domestic" cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben ("A woman's love and life"). It is his only true cycle, the only song collection to begin and end with the same melody. Its cyclical form expresses the symbolic eternity of their love that is the subject of the work's most famous song, Du Ring an meinem Finger.

Words are by Chamisso, a Frenchman, who at the age of nine fled the Revolution to live in Prussia. When he wrote these poems, he had just married a girl many years his junior. The cycle allowed ordinary women to articulate their most intimate feelings. Four of the eight songs are marked innig, to denote something akin to "fervently and tenderly."


Hugo Wolf, Mignon Lieder, from Goethe Lieder

Another composer-critic like Robert Schumann, the Slovenian-born Austrian, Hugo Wolf, wrote primarily vocal music, mostly songs for one voice. You may never have heard of him because he wrote hardly any orchestral works and only a smattering of chamber music, including a string quartet that has been played here several times during our 44 years. The fact that his songs have been recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Evelyn Lear, Hans Hotter,  Ian Bostridge, Dawn Upshaw – and Barbra Streisand! – is evidence that, despite a relatively sparse output, he is a composer to be reckoned with. In the words of Ian Bostridge (2006),

"It is hard to believe, but Hugo Wolf is still an underrated composer. Known for his songs, he is seen as the province of the aficionado, a minority taste, a footnote to late Romanticism. . . .  He didn't write successfully on a grand scale, or without words. Yet, in the lieder repertoire, he is every bit the equal of his great predecessors, Schubert and Schumann. The self-conscious mastery of a miniaturist form - in the age of Japonisme or of Chekhov's short stories - may well have been a response to Wagnerian gigantism. As Nietzsche put it, while recovering from his intoxication with Wagner: "What can be done well today, what can be masterly, is only what is small. . . his motto was encapsulated in the first song of the Italian Songbook - Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken (Even Small Things Can Delight Us)."

Combining the eroticism of Wagner and genius of Schumann, Hugo Wolf's lieder are mini-masterpieces. He wrote 51 Goethe songs in 1875 and we will hear the four called The Mignon Songs

Mignon (old Fr. def: small, pretty, dainty) was a character in Goethe's 1795 romantic Bildungsroman (a novel about its author growing up), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. (Lehrjahre translates roughly as "apprenticeship.") With our modern insight, we can suspect Mignon to have been a victim of early abduction and abuse. Goethe's character fascinated and inspired dozens of writers and composers, including Schubert and Schumann. About Wilhelm, Goethe writes:
". . . he was going upstairs to his room when a young creature jumped out at him and immediately attracted his attention. The child was neatly dressed in a short silk bodice with slashed Spanish sleeves and puffed-out long, slim trousers. Its long black hair was curled and wound in locks and braids on its head. He looked at the figure with amazement, uncertain whether it was a boy or a girl. . .  
Wilhelm could not take his eyes off her; her whole appearance and the mystery that surrounded her completely absorbed his mind and feelings. He thought she was probably twelve or thirteen years old. She was well-built, but her limbs suggested further development was to come, which possibly had been arrested. Her features were not regular, but striking: her forehead seemed to veil some secret, her nose was unusually beautiful, her mouth, though too tight-lipped for her age and inclined to twitch at times on one side, had a certain winsome charm about it.

. . . Mignon attracted him more and more. There was something strange about everything she did. She never walked up or down stairs, she always ran. She climbed up on to banisters, and before one knew it, there she was on top of a closet, sitting quite still. Wilhelm also noticed that she had a different greeting for everybody. For some time now she had been greeting him with arms folded on her breast. Some days she would be completely silent; on others she would answer certain questions, but always strangely so that it was difficult to decide whether it was a joke or her German mixed with French and Italian was intentional or the result of an imperfect knowledge of German. She was tireless in Wilhelm’s service, getting up at sunrise but retiring early to rest on the bare floor of one of the rooms. Nothing could persuade her to sleep in a bed or on a straw mattress.

She wept with such tears as no tongue can describe. Her long hair hung loosely around her as she wept, and her whole body seemed to be dissolving into a steady flood of tears. Her rigid limbs unfroze, her whole inner self poured itself out, and in the confusion of the moment Wilhelm feared that she might melt away in his arms so that nothing of her would remain. He grasped her more and more firmly to himself. “My child!” he cried, “My child! You are mine. Let that console you. You are mine! I will keep you. I will never leave you!” Her tears continued.
Finally she raised her head, and a gentle serenity lit up her face. -“My father!” she cried. “You will never leave me! You will be my father! - and I am your child!” . . . holding his child ever close in his arms, [Wilhelm] experienced a feeling of the most perfect, indescribable bliss.
 The next day Mignon sings her first of four songs to Wilhelm. Dozens of composers have imagined the music to the four Goethe poems about the land from which she has been stolen:  Bid me not speak, Only he who knows longing, So let me seem, and Do you know the land? 

Compared with Schubert's more than 600 songs, Wolf wrote only about 300 before he died in an asylum in Vienna in 1903 at the age of 42 (as did Schumann at age 46).

"If you go back and listen to the early recordings of Wolf from the 1930s, put out by the Hugo Wolf Society and bought by music-lovers on subscription, the first sensation is of an old world, of something unfamiliar. Then you start to hear the sheer variety of vocal styles among the various singers and the sense of freedom. That's what one strives for in singing this music today: an interpretative freedom which can draw inspiration, if not technique, as much from popular vocalists such as Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan as from the operatic tradition. Wolf's songs are about modulating music with words, and vice versa, something that great popular vocalists are masters of. Classical singers have a lot to learn from the best of them." (Bostridge)


Libby Larsen, Try Me Good King – Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII

I am pleased to say that tonight's performance will not be the first work of Libby (Elizabeth Brown) Larson to be heard at Gretna Music. Women composers are beginning to be heard (and conductors to conduct). Although one of the first composers in modern Western culture was the Greek, Sappho, her tradition in about 600 BCE failed to continue. So we don't know whether Clara Schumann could have composed at the level of her husband Robert because composition then was 'not expected' of women – and because Clara was busy raising the couple's 8 Children, caring for the increasingly ill Robert, and putting food on their table by endless concert tours as a pianist. We have, of course, performed in Gretna the works of many women, including Clara Schumann (excepting Sappho), and you can find more than a few women among our 2018 artists and composers.

Like Barber, Libby Larsen is another "locally-born" composer -- in 1950 in Wilmington DE. She is one of America’s most performed living composers, having created a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre from intimate vocal and chamber music to massive orchestral works and over 15 operas. Her works have been widely recorded and among over 50 CD’s, several have won Grammy Awards. As a vigorous, articulate advocate for the music and musicians of our time, in 1973 Larsen co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composer’s Forum, which has become an invaluable aid for composers in a transitional time for American arts.  A former holder of the Papamarkou Chair at John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, Larsen has also held residencies with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, and the Colorado Symphony.

Though history is said to repeat itself, it probably is fruitless to recap the 16th-Century story of Henry and his six wives. Larsen wrote Try Me Good King on a commission from the Marilyn Horn Foundation and it was premiered in 2001 by the soprano, Meagan Miller at the Juilliard Theater in New York. The composer writes:
"Divorce, behead, die, divorce, behead, die. This grade school memory game is how I first came to know about the six wives of Henry the VIII, King of England from 1509 to 1547. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the personal consequences of power that befell the Tudor family and the circle of political intrigue of both church and state which caused such a wrenching in the private lives of the seven people—Henry and his six wives. 
Try Me, Good King is a group of five songs drawn from the final letters and gallows speeches of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, outlived him and brought some domestic and spiritual peace into Henry’s immediate family. Although her written devotions are numerous, and her role in the story of the six wives of Henry VIII is that of a peaceful catalyst. In these songs, I chose to focus on the intimate crises of the heart that affected the first five of the six wives. In a sense, this group is a monodrama of anguish and power. 
I’ve interwoven a lute song into each song, including John Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell (Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Howard), Dowland’s If My Complaints (Anne Boleyn), Praetorius’ Lo, how a Rose E’er Blooming (Jane Seymour), and Thomas Campion’s I Care Not for these Ladies (Anne of Cleves). These songs were composed during the reign of Elizabeth I, and while they are cast as some of the finest examples of the golden age, they also create a tapestry of unsung words which comment on the real situation of each doomed queen.
Two other musical gestures unify the songs, firstly, the repeated note, which recalls the lute and creates psychological tension. The second device I created is abstract bell-tolling, which punctuates each song and releases the spiritual meaning of the words."

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