Our final pairing this week: these songs don’t have a lot in common, but each makes us smile.
Meredith Monk: The Tale
I adore this video and watch it when i need a mood lifter. It’s short and totally charming. The performance captures Meredith’s great spirit—her purity, humor, uniqueness.
And it’s a rare example of Meredith with her hair loose (well, in a ponytail) and singing using standard English words. Enjoy!
Rufus Wainwright: Oh, What a World
In 1975, the folkie singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III recorded a song about his newborn son being nursed by his mother, called “Rufus is a Tit Man.” Little did we know. While Rufus would inherit some of his dad’s sardonic humor, he’s more in the mold of his idol Judy Garland–fabulous, dramatic, prone to both excess and dreamy tenderness. “Oh What a World,” from his 2003 magnum opus Want is almost ridiculously busy, but that’s the fun of it. In a song ostensibly about feeling lonely on a train, we begin with a slow-march oom-pah tuba and Rufus intoning “men reading fashion magazines.” Then, one by one, come choruses, strings, and, as one critic said, “horns, harmony and hope.” There are numerous allusions to Ravel’s Bolero, and of course there’s Judy. The title refers to the Wicked Witch’s dying words in The Wizard of Oz, and as everything is fading away, listen for the “dreams really do come true” quote from “Over the Rainbow.”
Day 4’s pairing: Today we go all Russian!
Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death: Trepak
Mussorgsky’s last great work is the four-song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, written in the years 1875-77, when he was in serious decline. He would be able to write only a few more songs (one of them the Chaliapin favorite “Song of the Flea”) before his death in 1881. Songs and Dances, like his other great cycle Sunless, were written to poems of Mussorgsky’s friend and distant cousin Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Each of the poems presents us with a realistic situation of individuals in extremis–an infant, a young woman, an old drunk lost in a snowstorm, soldiers on the battlefield–and adds death in human form as a charismatic and seductive catalyst.
While tempted to choose the ghastly Serenade, where Mr. D addresses a dying young lady as if “he” were her lover, I went for the Trepak. Here as a snow squall howls in the night, we discover an old drunk, hopelessly lost on his way home. Now, “she” caresses him and they dance a sprightly trepak. Finally, she lies him down in the snow and utters the coldest parting words: “Sleep, my little one, you happy wretch. Summer has come.”
Two things about this recording. This orchestration was made by Shostakovich in 1962, and seems to have inspired him to write his 14th Symphony, which is more or less a continuation of Mussorgsky’s theme. And while this is normally Russophone turf, Brigitte Fassbaender is amazing here, creating a delirious blend of passion, terror and tenderness.
Shostakovich: Ophelia’s Song from Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok (1967)
Gloom! In college I discovered this beautiful, seldom-performed late song cycle by Shostakovich based on poems by Russia’s turn-of-the-century Symbolist poet Alexander Blok. Blok’s poetry is known for its foreboding and apocalyptic tone, and Shostakovich’s music is the ideal match. I was taking a Russian music history class with the great Richard Taruskin (funny enough, Phil took a class with him at Columbia). His lectures were full of rare unpublished music samples and hilarious stories, and my classmates and I would often scribble down memorable Taruskin quotes. In contrast with his intimidating demeanor, Taruskin was the most supportive and generous teacher, always there to help, to answer questions. I wrote a paper dissecting this Shostakovich/Blok cycle, and Taruskin told me he wasn’t sure if he should give me an A or an F! I think it was a bit too expressionist for academia. But I was swept away by Shostakovich’s music and Blok’s words that foretold Russia’s troubles. The cycle has seven songs; each tells a story, and every note has meaning. Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” The recording I listened to over and over was on Melodiya and featured a live performance by soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Shostakovich dedicated the cycle to her), her husband Rostropovich on cello, Moisei Vainberg on piano, and David Oistrakh on violin. This was the very first performance of the work. Here is the opening song from that world premiere, Ophelia’s Song, a spare beginning to what will soon become quite stormy. This song is just Vishnevskaya accompanied by Rostropovich. The piano and violin join later in the cycle. Blok’s poem with translation:
1. Ophelia’s Song
1. Песня Офелии
[Based on Hamlet, Act IV, scene v]
Parting from your sweet maiden, friend,
Parting from maiden sweet friend
Разлучаясь с девой милой, друг,
Razluchajas s d’evoi miloi, drug,
You swore to love me!
You swore me to love
Ты клялся мне любить!…
Ti kl’alsa mne l’ubit’!
Parting for that dreary land,
Parting for land dreary
Уезжая в край постылый,
Uyezhaja v krai postyly,
To keep the vows you made!
Vows given to keep
Клятву данную хранить!…
Kl’atvu dannuyu khranit’!
There, far from happy Denmark,
There, from Denmark happy,
Там, за Данией счастливой,
Tam, za Daniei schastlivoi,
Your shores are shrouded in mist . . .
Shores your in mist
Берега твои во мгле…
Byerega tvoi vo mgl’e …
The waves, murmuring angrily,
Wave angry murmuring
Вал сердитый, говорливый
Val s’erdityj, govorlivyj
Wash up tears on the rock . . .
Wash tears on rock
Моет слёзы на скале…
Mo’et sl’ozy na skal’e . . .
The sweet warrior will never return,
Sweet warrior not will return,
Милый воин не вернётся,
Mylyj voin ne vern’otca,
All dressed in silver . . .
All dressed in silver
Весь одетый в серебро…
Ves’ od’etyj v serebro . . .
In the grave will wave in heavy agitation
In grave heavy will rock (become agitated)
В гробе тяжко всколыхнётся
V grobe t’azhko vskolykhn’otca
The ribbon and the black feather . . .
Ribbon and black feather
Бант и чёрное перо…
Bant i chornoe pero . . .
Today’s pairing: two lullabies.
Sinead O’Connor: My Darling Child
All the dark and stormy Sinead stories aside, her voice is something exquisite—and I think never more so than on the album Universal Mother. This was her fourth album, and she dedicated it to her son who was 6 or 7 at the time. The album as a whole hit me hard when it came out more than 20 years ago—it’s an almost painfully beautiful account of motherhood (I remember giving it to my own mother, who had it on rotation in her car for years). Sinead’s voice is at its most bare and exposed, her Irish accent on display with those breathy t’s and r’s (how can a “t” be breathy? with Sinead they are). Rolling Stone described her voice on this album as “tissue-fragile.” Some songs have the famous Sinead rage, but most of all she whisper-sings her love for her child, and really for all children as they face growing up. The song “My Darling Child” is the most tender lullaby I’ve heard.
Traditional: El cant dels ocells
When I was a kid there were big FM radio stations that basically played rock, but gave their hosts a free rein to play long album cuts, obscurities, and even things that were definitely not rock. My local outlet was WMMS in Cleveland. One night, among the crickets of Cuyahoga Falls, I heard the strangest song, sung by the most beautiful voice. Full of mystery and longing, it spoke a language I did not know, and while I could not make out a word of it, it lingered in the memory. Then I heard the same tune sung by Joan Baez in a different, less alluring arrangement. Searches of record store bins yielded nothing, and eventually I gave up hope of ever finding the song.
Years later, I picked up a box set of CDs called The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles, primarily for the exquisite Ravel and Debussy selections. I wasn’t so much interested in the Montsalvatge and Mompou, but on disk 2, among Three Traditional Folksongs, I found my treasure: “El cant dels ocells”. Little did I know this was a famous song, beloved of Pablo Casals, who played his version of it at the beginning of every recital after his exile. I had no idea that it was known by every Catalan or, for that matter, that it was a Christmas lullaby (otherwise I might have checked out the Joan Baez Christmas album!) But there it was, every bit as wonderful as I had remembered. One mystery remained: whose gorgeous arrangement was this? It is the work of Antonio Ros-Marba, who on this recording conducts the Patronato Orquestra Ciudad de Barcelona.
Today’s pairing: strange crooners.
Scott Walker – Farmer in the City
Scott Walker became famous in the 1960s as the front man of the English pop band The Walker Brothers (biggest hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,”) none of whom were English, brothers, or named Walker. So it’s fitting that, long after the band’s demise, this relatively vanilla baritone crooner should reemerge as something more enigmatic, dark, and disturbing. As one critic said it was like “Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.” Reinvention didn’t come easy, though. After a few hit solo albums, a Jacques Brel phase, some “dark years,” and some memorable solo albums that didn’t sell at all, he totally unleashed his avant-garde self with the album Tilt in 1995. The opening track, “Farmer in the City,” has a mysterious opening, a low drone, a bell, a mournful voice crooning “Do I hear 21…21…21?” What is this? It’s a chilling vision of the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was killed by a 17 year old male prostitute on the beach at Ostia in 1975. Some of the lyrics are taken from a poem Pasolini wrote to his young lover Ninetto Davoli. Whether or not it’s a pop song, it’s one of the most haunted things I’ve ever heard.
Pere Ubu: Humor Me (live)
OK maybe crooner isn’t the right word for David Thomas of Pere Ubu, but strange in the very best sense is. I discovered Pere Ubu as a student at Berkeley while randomly searching the cd bins at Tower on Telegraph Ave. I liked the name of the band so I bought it (I must have just read Ubu Roi or something). The album, Terminal Tower, didn’t disappoint, and in fact I became a bit obsessed and bought all the other Pere Ubu records i could find. Pere Ubu was from Cleveland and fronted by David Thomas, a larger than life (in every way) presence who prattled on in what seemed like nonsense when in fact it made great sense. You had to listen closely and roll with the absurdity. Greil Marcus wrote, “Mr Thomas’s voice is that of a man muttering in a crowd. You think he’s talking to himself until you realize he’s talking to you.” The first time I saw Pere Ubu live, I found it supremely entertaining and even moving to watch this huge round man with the flask in hand, stumbling around the stage while singing in this high voice that sounded like he was losing it, all while catching pieces of imaginary dust. The theremin and synthesizers added to the insanity. But throughout it all was a sweetness emanating from David Thomas, like a little boy trying to make sense of the world. From the song Humor Me: “It was the world / A big world / Oh, what a world to be drowned in” and then the chorus on repeat: “It’s just a joke, man! Ha Ha Ha!”
In our musical household, there’s often a race to see who gets to the “turntable” first. So rather than argue over who got to do which day and which song to pick, we decided to offer song pairings, some linked by theme, time, or place, others by whim. Today it’s Baroque opera favorites.
Phil’s pick – Purcell, King Arthur: What power art thou
For me, the music of Henry Purcell was pretty much love at first hearing. “Dido’s Lament” can do that to you, but the further I explored, the more I loved. As evidenced by the “Lament”, the song “Music for a While”, or the stately and haunting “Chacony” for viol consort, few composers could do so much with a repeated bass line. “What power art thou”, from the semi-opera King Arthur, is an almost one-note song with a repeated progression and an inexorable tread. Part of a masque known as the Frost Scene in Act III, this air is sung by the Cold Genius, who grumpily awakes to Cupid’s call and asks to be allowed to go back underground to sleep and freeze to death. The shivering effects in both voice and strings grab your attention, but it is Purcell’s grave and gorgeous chromatic harmony that holds it.
Aleba’s pick – Handel, Orlando: Amor e qual vento
This week is the two-year anniversary of director R.B. Schlather’s radical staging of Handel’s opera seria masterpiece Orlando, which I had the good fortune to promote. For weeks, RB, his cast and musicians inhabited the very plain storefront Whitebox Gallery on Broome Street. Everything was open to the public. Throughout the afternoons a wide variety of people—music lovers, friends, and strangers who happened to pass by—dropped in, stayed for a while, and then went back to whatever they were doing. It was all quite low key, but as the days progressed the line between rehearsal and performance, and even the line between life and art began to disappear. It was magical. One of the regular onlookers was our daughter Clementine, who was seven at the time. She showed her emerging baroque soul by choosing this aria as her favorite. It’s mine, too.
I’m including a Zippo Song for sentimental reasons—Phil Kline and I met via this album in 2004, when I was publicizing Bang on a Can and its record label Cantaloupe, which put out a lot of Phil’s music. We married a year later. Zippo Songs simply blew my mind. A poet at heart and by training, Phil spliced together by theme real slogans that American soldiers engraved on their Zippo lighters in Vietnam. Phil says there were hundreds of poems to work with, since military issue Zippos are highly collectible and easy to find. He culled them to create seven Zippo Songs, from the very moving to the raunchy. Throughout is Theo Bleckmann’s spare vibrato-less voice, like a ghost, or an angel. WNYC’s John Schaefer wrote that in these songs, “Kline channels both Franz Schubert and Jim Morrison” in “a psychedelic haze of love, loss, lust, drugs, war and more drugs.”
The songs speak for themselves. They don’t bash one over the head with their anti-war message. One of my favorite lines:
WE ARE THE UNWILLING
LED BY THE UNQUALIFIED
Here is his Zippo Song “Been to Hell” (for the text, see below):
BEEN TO HELL
LIVED TO TELL
YEA THOUGH I WALK
THROUGH THE VALLEY OF
THE SHADOW OF DEATH
I FEAR NO EVIL FOR
I¹M THE EVILEST SON OF
A BITCH IN THE VALLEY
DEATH IS MY
HAS BEEN GOOD
IF YOU DON¹T
HELL IS LIKE
ME AND YOU¹LL
LET ME WIN YOUR
HEART AND MIND
OR I¹LL BURN
YOUR HUT DOWN
Lorraine Hunt. I have NYFOS (and Michael Barrett, who programmed the 92nd Street Y and presented Lorraine’s NY recital debut in the mid-90’s) to thank for introducing me to Lorraine. So many memories. No need to try to define Lorraine. As Alex Ross wrote: “In the days after she died, I tried to write about her, and failed. It felt wrong to call her ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary,’ or to throw around diva-worship words like ‘goddess’ and ‘immortal,’ because those words placed her on a pedestal, whereas the warmth in her voice always brought her close. Nonetheless, empty superlatives will have to do. She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard.”
Here she is singing Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. “Remember me…”
I’m a huge Sondheim fan. When I was 12, my father took me to a preview on Broadway of Sweeney Todd starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. He told me this was a new musical by Sondheim and that it was a masterpiece—Sondheim’s best yet. (I already loved Company and A Little Night Music, thanks to records around the house and a dinner theatre my parents took us to). He prepared me by sitting me down and reading through the entire libretto while listening to the music (he had gotten ahold of cassettes of the music). We laughed together at the endless puns in “A Little Priest.” But then we saw it live on Broadway. It was utterly terrifying, shocking, funny, dark, beautiful and moving. To this day, any chance I get to see Sweeney—any Sweeney—I’m happy. Though to hear it with a full symphony orchestra is best of all. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration is so brilliant and huge, and the subject so dark and chilling, that the term “musical” somehow seems too small for what it is. Opera is more like it.
It always seemed a tragedy that no good videos of the original 1979 Sweeney were available. However I just noticed that someone finally published one on YouTube.
I realize a lot of people prefer George Hearn as Sweeney, but Len Cariou, who originated the role, will forever be my favorite. He didn’t overact, he had a unique gravity, he could be quite funny, and his inner rage was palpable.
Here is Cariou singing “Epiphany,” which is when Sweeney vows vengeance on the human race. I think it’s the most intense part of the musical. He even turns on the audience—nothing will stand in his way! A barrage of timpani and brass add to the madness. It ends on a dissonant chord that reminds me of Shostakovich.
Last year I had the pleasure of working with the young opera director RB Schlather and his ingenious storefront Handel opera trilogy at Whitebox Gallery just off the Bowery. The whole experience was unlike anything I had witnessed in the music world. It was something I will never forget—and I don’t think my 8yo daughter will either. For three weeks RB opened Orlando rehearsals to the public—by luring passersby with a TV in the front window that broadcast everything going on inside. The rehearsals were also streamed online, so you could see them anywhere.
Since I live just a few blocks from Whitebox, it was easy to run over—and several times I brought my daughter and her friends. One day, RB was working with soprano Anya Matanovic, who played Dorinda, on her aria “Amor e qual vento.” He had her sing it over and over, trying out all kinds of physically demanding and wild staging (note: hairspray and makeup application while singing, costume change, jumping on and off platforms…) until it became an absolute showstopper: an aria of transformation and female empowerment, where Anya got to channel all of her considerable charisma, confidence and sass as she turned from a nerdy innocent girl into a woman in total control, like wonder woman in the phone booth.
Anya was a true heroine, and the young girls were dazzled by her—but also by the aria she rehearsed repeatedly, with its delightful trills and ornamentation, which required a lot of stamina and technical brilliance. The tunes of Orlando haunted us for days (RB’s intention). We hummed them in the shower, at breakfast. We bought a recording of Orlando which my daughter still asks to listen to: Rene Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra, with Bejun Mehta (on Archiv). I have RB to thank for this new love of baroque opera. I grew up in a very musical family, but early music didn’t exist in our house. My mother, a pianist who led her own chamber music group, admitted to me that the sound of an early instrument made her ill! So here’s to being bitten by the baroque, sooner or later. Anthony Roth Costanzo put it perfectly, when I told him how hard we all fell for Orlando: “Forever Baroque!!”
Here is Dorinda’s aria (or the hairspray aria, as we call it at home) from Orlando, “Amor e qual vento,” sung by Rosa Mannion with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants:
It’s January 1996 at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. The great German baritone Hermann Prey is rehearsing a recital devoted entirely to songs by Carl Loewe (just weeks before The Schubertiade, the celebrated 10-year examination of Schubert’s works, which Prey had masterminded since 1987). I’m a young music publicist at the Y and completely enthralled by the animated 6-foot tall Prey and his voice, which could go from ferocity to gentle and vulnerable—and back again. (Prey’s voice was so unique—I’ve never heard anything like it since).
Prey loved to talk about Carl Loewe, a neglected German composer who was born just a few months before Schubert, and who Prey championed with all his might. He certainly convinced me of Loewe’s brilliance, and I fell in love with the songs (which was easy, given Prey’s gifts—he was a born storyteller, an incredible communicator of words, and he did it all with that voice and his eyes).
But one song stood out among all the others: Erlkönig, based on the poem by Goethe. Schubert’s version of Erlkönig was much more famous, but after Prey’s interpretation of Loewe’s setting, with the pianist Michael Endres creating the galloping horses, I was swept away. He brought to life the characters of the poem in a way that was enthralling and even frightening.
Anthony Tommasini reviewed the recital for the NYT, and he agreed: “The performances, with the superb pianist Michael Endres, were revelatory. Loewe’s neglect never seemed more inexplicable.” Tommasini went on: “In Mr. Prey’s vivid performance, Loewe’s ‘Erlkonig’ seemed as musically imaginative as Schubert’s astonishing version of Goethe’s famous poem, the tale of a frantic father on horseback rushing his son, terrified by the voice of an erl-king, through a dark, wind-chilled forest. Whereas Schubert evokes the frantic ride in obsessively repeated piano octaves, Loewe conjures the scene in eerie, shimmering piano tremolos. He also makes greater musical distinctions between the characters: the stolid reassurances of the father, the wispy, seductive melodies of the erl-king, the pitiable cries of the boy.”
Have a listen. Here is a 1995 recording of Prey singing Erlkönig in Germany, just months before that Y recital, with Endres at the piano:
For an even more intense version, here is a recording from 1962, with a much younger Prey:
And if you’re interested, check out the poem by Goethe below (not for the faint of heart).
I was so sad to hear that Prey died just 2 years after that 92Y recital. I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to a composer I probably never would have encountered, certainly not in such a revelatory way.
Erlkönig by Goethe
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”
“You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games I play with you;
many a colorful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”
“My father, my father, and hearest you not,
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”
“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”
It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.
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