WITCHES, BITCHES & WOMEN IN BRITCHES

NAOMI LOUISA O'CONNELL & BRENT FUNDERBURK

These are women who live on the fringes of society and trample the restrictions of “shoulds and oughts.” They range from the feared legendary figures of temptresses, sirens and witches, to trapped women with threatened sanities, women ‘in britches’ who fight for equality and bend the boundaries of gender, to women who are murderesses, kleptomaniacs and home-wreckers.

PROGRAM NOTES

 

“How do you write women so well?”  In the movie ‘As Good As It Gets’, a gushing fan asks this of Melvin Udall, the prickly, obsessive-compulsive author played by Jack Nicholson.  Without hesitation, Udall replies, “I think of a man….and I take away reason and accountability.”

Countering Mr. Udall’s cynical, amusing equation, the remarkable women of this program span centuries and continents with one thing in common: they are all written extremely well. These are women who live on the fringes of society and trample the restrictions of “shoulds and oughts.” They range from the feared legendary figures of temptresses, sirens and witches, to trapped women with threatened sanities, women ‘in britches’ who fight for equality and bend the boundaries of gender, to women who are murderesses, kleptomaniacs and home-wreckers.  I like all of these characters, even those with less redeeming qualities, for their humour, energy, passion and strength. Having come from a family of strong, wonderful women, this particular program was a joy to put together.

We begin our journey in the forests – home to Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci, and various dangerous women from the Lieder of Mendelssohn, Zilcher and Wolf.   From the woods of Germany to the shores of France, where Poulenc’s Dame de Monte-Carlo wrestles with her past and wishes to sleep on the seabed of the Mediterranean and Honegger’s tiny jewel of a song-cycle introduces us to the world of singing sirens. We travel by sea to Ireland and England, where we meet two Irish lasses with an overwhelming urge to kill off their families and a maiden whose lilting song enchants seals living in the coastal waters.

The second half of this recital takes the form of a cabaret. I am proud and delighted to present the world premiere of ‘Saints or Witches’, written by New York-based composer Chris Berg. Not only are these songs great to perform, they contain one of the best performance directions I have ever come across: “As if you had a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.” (Research was naturally required!) From New York, we travel back in time to Berlin during the Golden Twenties. These songs by Friedrich Hollaender and Rudolf Nelson portray a time of sexual discovery, the rise of feminism, and a newfound freedom of expression. To close our program, three great American song composers portray three very different women, all with insatiable sexual appetites.

 

WOMEN OF THE WOODS

 

Charles Villiers Stanford

In 1877, the birth year of the microphone, Edison’s phonograph, and Brahms’ second symphony, a young Irish composer named Charles Villiers Stanford sat down at his desk to set the famous Keats ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ to music. Stanford had been interested in the singing voice from an early age; his life-long love of opera was born while in the audience of the Italian Opera Company’s annual performances in Dublin. At Cambridge, he was the director of the University Musical Society and in 1888 would marry Jennie Wetton, a German singer he had met while studying in Leipzig.

The simple, bardic melody of the song varies slightly from verse to verse, with the piano part initiating most of the dramatic changes as we move from scene to scene within the story. The character of La Belle Dame Sans Merci as a temptress – a ‘faery’s child’ – both beautiful and fatal, was one popular among pre-Raphaelite painters.

 

Felix Mendelssohn

One of the strong stylistic influences on the music of Charles Stanford was that of Felix Mendelssohn, who included And’res Maienlied in one of his earliest song publications, written before he turned eighteen years old. Set to the poetry of Ludwig Hölty, this song depicts the broomstick flight of witches from the doorsteps of their homes to Brocken Mountain, the highest peak of Northern Germany. Mists and fog shroud this mountain for over 300 days of the year, and it has long been associated with legends of witchcraft and devilry, making it the perfect venue for a dance party with Beelzebub.

 

Hermann Zilcher

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.

Elfe and Die Musikantin are taken from his Eichendorff-Zyklus Op. 60, composed in 1927. From Eichendorff’s collection Frühling und Liebe (Spring and Love), Elfe invites us to come join the dance under the moonlit sky where we will be sure to find the most beautiful girl. One such girl is Die Musikantin, a woman dancing alone with her tambourine, who sings to banish away the anguish of her heart. This woman is displaced; her heart is far away and she describes her song as ‘ein Angstruf’ (a cry of fear). Her wild dance and the swing of the tambourine are portrayed in the piano part, while the fading echoes of the tambourine are reminiscent of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

 

Hugo Wolf

Composed between 1886 and 1896, these three songs of Hugo Wolf are a perfect example of the composer’s ability to crystallize an entire character in a couple of pages of music. Das Köhlerweib ist trunken is a poem by Keller that tells the story of a once beautiful woman who dallied too long in choosing a husband, ended up marrying the charcoal burner, became an alchoholic and now goes singing drunk in the woods by herself. The song is a clear depiction of both the Köhlerweib and the character who tells us about her: a bitchy, gossiping woman only too eager to point out the downfall of her peer. Die Zigeunerin is taken from Eichendorff’s Wanderlieder and is the most mysterious character of these three women. We see this wandering gypsy woman only at twilight and dawn, never during the day. Her wordless singing is the recurring theme; her character seems at once aloof, intuitive and extremely dangerous. From Heyse’s Italienisches Liederbuch, the song Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen is often described as the female version of the catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In this case, our ‘Donna Juana’ has lovers stashed in towns all over Italy: in Penna, Maremma, Ancona, Viterbo, Casentino, Magione, four in La Fratta, and TEN in Castiglione!

 

IN THE OCEAN’S EMBRACE

 

Francis Poulenc

In 1961, Francis Poulenc wrote in his diary “A phantom [has] invaded my music! Monte Carlo! Monte Carlo, the Venice of my twenties!!” On a recent trip to Cannes, he had come across a book containing Jean Cocteau’s monologue, originally intended for the singing actress Marianne Oswald (who was an inspiration not only for Cocteau and Poulenc, but also for Arthur Honegger.) Poulenc saw it as the perfect vehicle for Denise Duval, who had recently created the role of Elle in La voix humaine, and scored La dame de Monte Carlo for a similar, but smaller, orchestra. This piece is a dramatic scene portraying a woman who has reached ‘the end of her day’; she is the epitome of faded elegance; life has battered her, the casinos have bled her dry. “Yes, gentlemen,’” she says, “This is what is left for cowards and bastards.” Her mind meanders between the past and the present, which is represented by the many swift changes in musical texture. It is certainly operatic in scale; Poulenc himself said, “It needs to be sung like the prayer scene in Tosca.”

 

Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger wrote the Trois Chansons de la Petite Siréne for the singer Régine de Lormoy, who premiered the work in Paris on March 26th, 1926. Honegger’s contemporary René Morax adapted the text from extracts of the book La Petite Sirène by Hans Christian Andersen, the same story that was later adapted by Disney in the 1989 film ‘The Little Mermaid’. And though there are no singing crabs in this short song cycle, the last song is as light-hearted as the first two are ethereal, telling a nonsense story about picking pears with a clever rhyming structure. Painting with a whole-tone sound palette, Honegger creates an atmosphere of magical otherworldliness in the first two songs. In Chanson des Sirènes, sirens sing to the sailors from underwater, urging them to “come to us, immortal soul”. The second song is a lullaby, also intended for the sailors where they are summoned to “dance with us in the ocean, dive with us into the foam.”

 

THE IRISH ROSE GROWS A THORN

 

Havelock Nelson

Havelock Nelson was one of Northern Ireland’s leading musicians. A composer, pianist and conductor, he studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Trinity College, Dublin. In 1947, he joined the BBC in Northern Ireland and was awarded an OBE for his services to music in 1966. ‘Dirty Work’ was written for the late Irish mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy, and tells the story of Maria Jane, a woman with great botanical knowledge and even greater murderous ambitions. The poem is written by John o’the North – a pseudonym for Harry T Browne – a writer from Larne in County Antrim.

 

Granville Bantock

Sir Granville Bantock was a British composer, whose writing was often influenced by folk songs of the Hebrides. The poet Sir Harold Boulton was a writer with a great interest in song literature, and published a number of valuable song collections of the time. First recorded by the Irish tenor John McCormack, this song features a sea maid who lures seals to the shore with her singing of the refrain “Hoiran, oiran, oiran, oiro”. A note printed on the sheet music tells us that, “the refrain of this song was actually used recently on an Hebridean Island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing.”

 

Tom Lehrer

While studying at Harvard for an MA in Mathematics, Tom Lehrer would entertain his friends with satirical songs he wrote and performed from the piano. He recorded and toured during the 1950s and 60s, and though his musical career was relatively brief, he had a huge following across the world. A genius of comic timing, his songs often parody popular song styles – in this case, the Irish ballad. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of California, teaching an introductory course entitled ‘The Nature of Mathematics’ to liberal arts majors, a course which Lehrer promptly nicknamed ‘Math for Tenors’.

 

‘SAINTS OR WITCHES’

 

Chris Berg

It is our great pleasure to present the world premiere of ‘Saints or Witches’, a song cycle written by New York-based composer Chris Berg. An acclaimed composer of song, Chris Berg’s works include the celebrated ‘Songs on Poems of Frank O’Hara’, the orchestral cycle ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, and Portrait en Miniature de Madame de Sévigné, which premiered in Paris in 2002. He has collaborated with such artists as Paul Sperry, Elaine Stritch and the Mirror Vision Ensemble. The New York Festival of Song featured his O’Hara settings in their 2003-04 season opening concert ‘The New York Poets’. Brent and I first met Chris when Margo Garrett invited him as a guest lecturer to our Vocal Accompanying class at The Juilliard School in 2010. We both enjoyed his music very much and were delighted when he agreed to write us some songs for this program.

The poems I chose for this set were ones that, once I had read, I couldn’t stop thinking about. The witch in Anne Sexton’s ‘Her Kind’ is a woman who is misunderstood. A queasy feeling of being different and therefore wrong, of being a woman but “not a woman, quite” pervades the poem, juxtaposed with a steely determination and fierce pride. My mother, Hilde, introduced me to the beautiful Philip Hobsbaum poem, which suggests that a witch is not someone to be feared, but to be looked up to. The imagery in Clare Pollard’s poem is razor-sharp, uncomfortable and brilliant; the line “If he is she, if wrong feels right” makes this Bearded Lady Miss Lupin a most fascinating woman ‘in britches’. Sophie Hannah’s ‘Don’t Say I Said’ made me laugh out loud to read it, because it felt just like getting a haircut after a break-up (which is really never a good idea.)

Chris Berg writes about composing ‘Saints or Witches’:

“When Naomi showed me the four poems she had assembled for me to set to music, each one immediately suggested its “natural” musical setting. The Sexton poem, with its three verses and insistent refrain line, seemed to be a sultry blues; Philip Hobsbaum’s spare lines a slow, rapturous art song, with moments of vocal gorgeousness; Clare Pollard’s sprawling monologue a circus barker’s spiel; and Sophie Hannah’s a sophisticated show tune, suitable for performance before a crowd of hard drinkers in elegant (though fading) surroundings. And as an erstwhile collaborator of mine once said, “Never overlook the obvious!” Of course in the writing, changes were rung on these generic ideas. “Her Kind” is a 15- (rather than 12-) bar blues that changes keys several times and, while starting in the American South, ends up with Satan on a creaking horse-cart in medieval Europe. “Can I Fly Too?” begins with a Thomas Adès-inspired descending chromatic piano solo that introduces a vocal setting that may call to mind Duparc. Clare Pollard’s barkering bearded lady engages directly and aggressively with her potential customer. And Sophie Hannah’s sophisticated lady sings not a strophic show tune but four completely different “verses” in the Broadway sense — introductory and prosy — which are supposed to lead to the main “refrain” — but in this case come to their conclusion before ever getting to the tune. What fun they were to write!”

 

DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION

 

Friedrich Hollaender

As a young child in London, Friedrich Hollaender spent hours at the Barnum and Bailey Circus, where his father worked as musical director. For the rest of his life, he would never be far from a theatre, setting up his own ‘Tingel Tangel Theater’ in Berlin in 1931. The song Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt (‘Falling in Love Again’), performed by Marlene Dietrich in the 1929 film Der blaue Engel, brought him fame and recognition. Hollaender emigrated to the United States in 1934 and found his reputation had preceded him; he established himself quickly as a film composer and director, receiving four Academy Award nominations for his compositions. In 1956, he returned to Germany and made his home in Munich, where he died in 1976.

In ‘Desiring Berlin’, Dorothy Rowe writes about the city in pre-war years: “Berlin had become a metaphor for a modernity both feared and desired, and as such it had become embodied in the figure of a sensuous woman.” The songs on this program are a small sample of both Hollaender’s artistry as a songwriter and of the rapidly changing political climate in which these songs were born. We meet the unashamed, quirky Kleptomanin and are swept into the soft, all-enveloping arms of Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt. During these years, the freedom to criticize social and political issues from the cabaret stages was of huge importance, and Raus mit den Männern aus dem Reichstag is a song that pulls no punches. The extraordinarily witty text describes an uprising of women across the world; they wish to throw men out of all the government houses, from the Reichstag (Berlin’s Parliament House) to the smaller Herrenhaus (local office, or literally man’s house), which will be replaced with a Frauenhaus (woman’s house.)

 

Rudolf Nelson

Rudolf Nelson fell in love with the music of the Berlin cabaret at a young age and spent his early career working in well-known houses such as the Chat Noir, before opening his own ‘Nelson-Theater’ in 1920. During the war, he emigrated to Amsterdam and later was interned in the Westerbork concentration camp. In 1949, Nelson returned to live in Berlin and opened the Nelson-Revue-Gastspiel. Die Dame von der alten Schule is a song from the 1932 revue Es Hat Geklingelt, and tells the story of a woman who is trapped in the narrow confines of an old-fashioned, respectable lifestyle. Her wishes are simple: just once, she would like say something mean, just once, she would like to act out. But she knows it cannot be and sighs, “Ich bin verflucht und zugenäht,” which literally translates as “I am cursed and sewn up tight,” but can also be used as a mild swear word. Perhaps our Dame von der alten Schule doesn’t know of any juicier swear words, though she would certainly love to find out about them.

 

WHAT WOMEN WANT

 

Jake Heggie

American composer Jake Heggie is renowned for both his operatic works, which include ‘Dead Man Walking’ and ‘At the Statue of Venus’ (libretti by Terrence McNally) and his many song collections. ‘An ardent champion of writers,’ Heggie has set the texts of poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou, Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson.  ‘Animal Passion’ is taken from his ‘Faces of Love’ collection, set to the poetry of California-based writer Gini Savage.

In the foreword of the song collection, he writes: “What an amazing time it is for American art song! After years of being either ignored or squeezed into recitals as novelty items or encores, songs by American composers are now celebrated and featured in concerts and recordings throughout the world. How thrilling to sit in a concert hall and hear American performers singing songs in their own language, and to feel the audience’s immediate understanding and connection with the text and music. There is a tremendously rich legacy of art song in this country, and I feel fortunate to find myself writing songs at this time.”

 

Arthur Schwartz

Arthur Schwartz was a New York-based composer and film producer, whose collaborations with songwriter Dorothy Fields included the Broadway shows ‘Stars In Your Eyes’ and ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, where the song ‘Make The Man Love Me’ is sung by the character of Katie Nolan, after her first romantic encounter with a man. The original Broadway show opened in 1951 and ran for 267 performances. It was revived in 2005 in an Encores! production at New York City Center.

 

Marc Blitzstein

“Music must have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses,” wrote Marc Blitzstein in 1935. His works include the political opera ‘The Cradle Will Rock’, the radio play ‘I’ve Got The Tune’, the Airborne Symphony, and his adaptation of the Weill/Brecht Threepenny Opera. The song ‘Modest Maid’ was written in 1943, while he was working as music director of the American broadcasting station in London. The dry wit and delicious rhymes of the text certainly have an English lilt to them. This ‘prim and modest’ maid is our final lady of the evening and from her we can learn to “temper witchery with wit” and “make with bitchery a bit.”

© Naomi O’Connell, 2013

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PRESS QUOTES

March 15, 2013
Ms. O’Connell, who recently finished graduate studies at Juilliard, proved a natural in the recital format, winning over the audience with her rich, silvery voice and charming stage presence.  
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In the title role and looking delectable, Naomi O’Connell’s creamy tone and elegant phrasing ravished the ear.

Seen & Heard International, 2012