WORDS TO LOVE & LIVE BY
Naomi Louisa O'Connell & Brent Funderburk
LESSONS IN LOVE
One of the unsung heroes of German vocal literature, Hermann Zilcher was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1881 and began piano lessons with his father at the age of five. He performed his first musical compositions in concert at the age of fifteen and went on to study at the Frankfurt conservatory of music. In 1901, he moved to Berlin and became one of the most sought-after accompanists in the city. In the next twenty years he moved between Frankfurt and Munich, before settling in Würzburg, where he became director of the music conservatory in 1920. In addition to his vast output of orchestral works, chamber and piano music, he wrote a total of eighty-two Lieder with piano.
The Opus 12 songs are typical of Zilcher’s late romantic style. Three of the songs are set to the verses of German lyric poet Detlev von Liliencron, famous in his day and a great influence on the writers who came after him, including a young Rainer Maria Rilke. These songs deal with love: love in the moment, the loss of it, and the remembrance of it. The line that gets me every time is in Frühgang: “Wir träumten ohn’ Ermessen” – “We dreamed without limit or boundary.” How wonderful to dream without limits – certainly something we should all practice every day!
The third poem, Leuchtende Tage, was written by German poet Ludwig Jacobowski, whose vast output of work reflected the turmoil of the time in his ongoing battle to defend Jewish rights. In this poem he speaks of good times that have passed: “Nicht weinen, weil sie vorüber! Lächeln, weil sie gewesen!” – “Don’t cry because they are over! Smile, because they happened!” I’m sure we’ve all heard this advice before, usually at a time when we don’t want to hear it, yet nonetheless it remains a true and comforting thought.
Arthur Honegger’s settings of these Apollinaire poems are testament to his mastery of the miniature. A series of vignettes, each song allows us a brief yet crystal-clear glimpse into its own distinct musical world. As a performer, I enjoy Honegger’s work for similar reasons that I enjoy Hugo Wolf’s Lieder – these are thoughts of an operatic scale set in a miniature form, that demand both clarity and commitment to each ‘scene’ played.
Extracted from Guillaume Apollinaire’s first major publication of poetry Alcools in 1913, Honegger wrote these songs over a period of two years from 1915 – 1917, when he moved from Zurich to Paris in his early twenties. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he chose to set poems dealing with transition in some form or another. Autumn – that season of shedding old for new – is a recurring theme throughout the set, and the end of love affairs is charted in Les Cloches, L’Adieu and Clotilde. The passage of time is measured in the first song A la “Santé” – “How slowly the hours pass, as slowly as a funeral. You will weep for the hour when you weep, which will pass too quickly, as all the hours do.”
GOING TO HEAVEN
Aaron Copland wrote these settings of Emily Dickinson’s poems at Sneden’s Landing, New York between 1949 and 1950. In his preface to the score, the composer writes, “The poems centre about no single theme, but they treat of subject matter particularly close to Miss Dickinson: nature, death, life, eternity.” The cycle was premiered by singer Alice Howland, with Aaron Copland himself as pianist, at Columbia University in 1950. Following the premiere, Copland wrote to a friend- “The songs went well with composer friends and audience but got roasted in the press… I’m pleased with them- and everybody seemed to think it was a real song-cycle -which pleases me also.” Since then, critics have applauded the work and Copland’s setting of the text. Singer Phyllis Curtin said, “It is the pattern of Emily’s remarkable speech that Aaron understood absolutely.” The music echoes the unique style of Emily Dickinson’s word setting with abrupt changes in meter and leaps in the vocal line to match her use of dashes and pauses.
I have chosen six of the twelve songs, which focus on the themes of heaven, death and loss. The words of Emily Dickinson have always been a comfort to me – the simplicity of her writing, the truth of it and, (perhaps most of all) the kindness that is apparent in every line. For me, this is music that heals.
BIG FEELINGS, LITTLE WISDOMS
Alfred Bachelet worked as a conductor at the Paris Opéra for most of his early career before becoming director of the Conservatoire at Nancy. In song repertoire, he is known mostly for Chère Nuit, which he wrote for the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Set to the poetry of his contemporary Eugène Adénis-Colombeau, this song is lush; rich in sentiment, big in feeling.
For our first ‘little wisdom’ we have Daphénéo from the Trois Mélodies of Erik Satie, set to a text written by the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of his friends, Mimi Godebska. The song concerns a nonsensical exchange between Chrysaline and Daphénéo. Carol Kimball writes, “Their dialogue is a play on words involving the sounds of “un noisetier” – a hazel-tree – and the liaison that makes “un oisetier” – a nonexistent word which would mean “bird-tree”- sound the same.”
These three songs of Hugo Wolf were written between 1888 and 1891, during a bout of particular productivity. The first one we hear is perhaps one of Wolf’s most famous songs, Anakreon’s Grab. Set to the poetry of Goethe, the subject is the grave of the Greek poet Anacreon, traditionally the laureate of nature, love, wine and song. The third song, Er ist’s, is extrovert in comparison – a rushing, effusive setting of a simple poem proclaiming the arrival of spring by Eduard Mörike.
The second song, Auch kleine Dinge is (like many of Wolf’s songs) exquisite in its simplicity. The text by Paul Heyse, which speaks of finding joy in the little things of life, was one of the first that came to my mind when I was putting together this program. It says it all, really – take your time and find your happiness in the small fortunes of everyday life.
Michael Head was an English composer, pianist, organist and singer whose vast output consisted mainly of vocal music. The Estuary was written by English poet Ruth Pitter, the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955. The song was first published in 1945 and I love it for the way it whisks us up on one side and leaves us down a little wiser on the other.
Frank Bridge wrote Love went a-riding during the early part of his composing career. A riot of a song, it sets the text of Mary Coleridge, with a vocal line soaring above the galloping piano depicting the Greek mythical winged horse Pegasus.
Charles Ives wrote both the text and music for Memories in 1897, while he was still a student at Yale. The song is comprised of two distinct sections, the first filled with the giddiness of waiting for the curtain to rise at the opera house, the second a simple tune in the style of a Victorian parlour song.
William Bolcom, who was named the 2007 Composer of the Year by Musical America, wrote the Cabaret Songs for his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Set to the poetry of his friend Arnold Weinstein, they are snippets of the opera of our everyday lives. From the inquisitive kid who has too many questions buzzing around his head to fall asleep in Love in the Thirties to the flamboyant and wonderful George, the characters in these songs jump off the page and tell the stories of our ordinary yet extraordinary lives.
© Naomi O’Connell, 2012