WORDS TO LOVE & LIVE BY
Naomi Louisa O'Connell & Brent Funderburk
LESSONS IN LOVE
HERMANN ZILCHER (1881 – 1948)
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. 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 makes the deepest impression on me 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 it remains a true and comforting thought.
GOING TO HEAVEN
AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990)
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 at Columbia University in 1950 with Copland himself as pianist. 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 five of the twelve songs of this cycle. The words of Emily Dickinson have been a comfort to me since I first encountered her work in high school. I enjoy the simplicity of her writing, the clarity of the imagery she uses, and how the universal truth of her work shines a mirror into my own life. I find it remarkable how gently she talks to herself in ‘Heart, we will forget him’ and her timeless description of death in ‘The Chariot’ never fails to give me chills. For me, this is music that heals.
BIG FEELINGS, LITTLE WISDOMS
ALFRED BACHELET (1864 – 1944)
Alfred Bachelet worked as a conductor at l’Opéra de Paris 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 texture, big in feeling.
ERIK SATIE (1866 – 1925)
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.”
HUGO WOLF (1860 – 1903)
These three songs of Hugo Wolf were written during a bout of particular productivity between 1888 and 1891. The first one we hear is Anakreons 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. This was the first Wolf song I ever heard, and I promptly fell in love with the crystalline nature of his writing. 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 (1900 – 1976)
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 image of a ship coming home to shore is a powerful symbol and could mean any number of things to different people. Whatever it ends up meaning for you as you hear it today, I love this song for the way it whisks us up on one side and leaves us down a little changed, even a little wiser, on the other.
FRANK BRIDGE (1879 – 1941)
Frank Bridge was an English composer and musician, famous not only for his own compositional output but for the notoriety of being Benjamin Britten’s teacher. 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 (great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), with a vocal line soaring above the galloping piano depicting the mythical winged horse Pegasus.
CHARLES IVES (1874 – 1954)
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. Living in the moment, finding joy in life, taking enough time to appreciate the little things… these are the lessons I take away from this piece.
Placed here in our program, it allows us a moment to gather ourselves before we head into the vivid world of William Bolcom’s Cabaret songs.
WILIAM BOLCOM (B. 1938)
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. I was lucky enough to meet Bill and Joan at the Marlboro Music Festival one year, and we worked on some of these remarkable songs together. I was struck by how dear these songs were to them both and how each one had its own back-story of New York city streets, heartaches, heartbreaks, and laughter in Greenwich Village apartments. Set to the poetry of their friend Arnold Weinstein, these songs 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, extraordinary lives.
© Naomi Louisa O’Connell, 2017