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Henry Purcell: Evening Hymn

Henry Purcell’s Evening Hymn has always moved me to tears, even though I am more of a “this world” person in my own spirituality.   Perhaps because of that, or in spite of it, this song touches me deeply, as it takes us through the last thoughts of a person who is closing the door on a life well-lived.  What I find so extraordinary is the dramatic arc of this song, and how Purcell manages to build it atop the repetitive structure of a ground bass line.  Part of his genius is how he keeps the contours of the bass line, but modulates it in the middle section, which makes the harmony do wondrous things to highlight the text.  Note the deceptive cadence that results, as the singer reaches the word “security.” The harmony itself says that nothing is sure in this life (or the next one). Then, after this middle section of doubt, the ground bass line returns to its original form, from the text, “Then to thy rest, O my soul” right through to the end of an ecstatic forty-bar Hallelujah!

There are many wonderful versions of this song, whether realized by early music specialists like Emma Kirkby, or the gorgeous Benjamin Britten realizations lovingly recorded by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson and so many others.  My personal favorite, however, is the one recorded by David Daniels and Martin Katz in 2000.

I hope this brings your week of song to a peaceful and transcendent weekend!

Now, now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.


John Musto: Old Photograph

I’m one lucky singer to be married to such a gifted song composer as John Musto, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I include one of his songs for this blog.  Choosing one Musto song out of so many feels a bit like Sophie’s choice.  I love them all.

But…there is one song that I especially love, even if it is one that (sadly) I can never sing, as it really must be sung by a man.

One of the solos from The Book of Uncommon Prayer, Old Photograph is a setting of a poem by Archibald MacLeish, one of John’s favorite poets.  Not only does MacLeish’s poem describe a photograph of his wife as capturing the fragrance of Antibes, but his poetry itself is steeped in the essence of that particular paradise known as the Côte d’Azur:

Fresh washed gingham in a summer wind…

John’s setting, infused with music from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, adds yet another layer to this wistful perfume.   (Listen for Mélisande’s lines, “mes longs cheveux” and “Ne me touchez pas” in the piano part.)

I cherish this song beyond measure because it is the music of my beloved, writing in the key of France.  And, like MacLeish, I can almost smell the lavender as I recall the year that John and I spent three months in Nice when I was singing Woglinde and the Forest Bird (not Mélisande, alas).  It was a great adventure for us early in our marriage, and we fell in love with France. Like Ada MacLeish in the photograph, I was… thirty, maybe. Almost thirty.

Here is John’s description of the song.

Practically all the music of Old Photograph is based on snippets from the Debussy/Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande.   MacLeish’s wife Ada was an operatic soprano, and her forced laughter and unsmiling eyes seem to be saying to the camera lens, “Ne me touchez pas”, the first words of Melisande to Golaud in the forest.  This five note motif runs through the song, as does the main tune on which Melisande sings “Mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu’au seuil de la tour.” Macleish and his wife spent most of the 1920s in France. The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d’Antibes that they dubbed “Villa America”. They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and his wife, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century.  The song is a solo from a larger work for SATB and piano, the Book of Uncommon Prayer.

Old Photograph

There she is.  At Antibes I’d guess
by the pines, the garden, the sea shine. 

She’s laughing.  Oh, she always laughed
at cameras.  She’d laugh and run
before that devil in the lens could catch her.
He’s caught her this time though: look at her
eyes – her eyes aren’t laughing. 

There’s no such thing as a fragrance in a photograph
but this one seems to hold a fragrance –
fresh-washed gingham in a summer wind.
Old?  Oh, thirty maybe.  Almost thirty.
This would have been the year I went to Persia –
they called it Persia then – Shiraz,
Bushire, the Caspian, Isfahan.
She sent me the news in envelopes lined in blue.
The children were well.  The Murphys* were angels:                     (Gerald and Sara Murphy)
they had given her new potatoes as sweet as peas
on a white plate under the linden tree.
She was singing Melisande with Croiza* –          (Claire Croiza, mezzo-soprano, 1882-1946)
“mes longs cheveux.”  She was quite, quite well.
I was almost out of my mind with longing for her . . .

There she is that summer in Antibes –
              with frightened eyes.

-Archibald MacLeish



Kurt Weill: Je ne t’aime pas

Having escaped the Nazi takeover of the German government, Kurt Weill found himself in Paris in 1933, trying to get a foothold in a new artistic landscape.  His reputation there was solid, though based mostly on the 1930 French film and stage versions of The Threepenny Opera (L’Opéra de quat’sou), which had been popular.  Still, at thirty-four, Kurt Weill was essentially starting over.  “[Weill] arrived in Paris with very little beyond his good name” says Brecht and Weill scholar Pamela Katz, author of The Partnership.   Luckily, he met cabaret and film star Lys Gauty, who commissioned two songs from him: Complainte de la Seine, and this one.  With so many Weill performances influenced by the whiskey baritone of the latter-day Lenya, this performance by Gauty (1934) reminds us that this song was written for a young and glamorous cabaret singer.

Even though Je ne t’aime pas wasn’t written for Lenya, in my opinion, her Surabaya Johnny fingerprints are all over it. The repeated trope, “I don’t love you” sung by Gauty might well have been Weill’s sentiments regarding his ex, then living in Switzerland with her current lover. When Weill and Lenya reunited before their move to the USA, friends asked how in the world he could take her back.  His reply was, “What can I say?  She’s Lenya.”

Retire ta main, je ne t’aime pas
Car tu l’as voulu, tu n’es qu’un ami.
Pour d’autres sont faits le creux de tes bras
Et ton cher baiser, ta tête endormie.
Pull back your hand, I don’t love you
For you wanted it, you’re just a friend.
The crook of your arm was made for others
And your dear kiss, your sleeping head.
Ne me parle pas, lorsque c’est le soir
Trop intimement, à voix basse même
Ne me donne pas surtout ton mouchoir :
Il renferme trop le parfum que j’aime.
When it’s evening, don’t talk to me
Too intimately, nor even in a whisper
Do not give me your handkerchief
It holds too much of the fragrance I love.
Dis-moi tes amours, je ne t’aime pas
Quelle heure te fut la plus enivrante ?
Et si elle t’aimait bien, et si elle fut ingrate
En me le disant, ne sois pas charmant.
Tell me your loves, I don’t love you
What hour was the headiest to you?
And if she didn’t love you, or she was ungrateful
While telling me, don’t be charming.
Je n’ai pas pleuré, je n’ai pas souffert
Ce n’était qu’un rêve et qu’une folie.
Il me suffira que tes yeux soient clairs
Sans regret du soir, ni mélancolie.
I didn’t cry, I didn’t suffer
It was only a dream and foolishness.
It’s enough for me that your eyes be bright
Without evening regret nor melancholy
Il me suffira de voir ton bonheur
Il me suffira de voir ton sourire.
Conte-moi comment elle a pris ton cœur
Et même dis-moi ce qu’on ne peut dire.
It’s enough for me to see your happiness
It’s enough for me to see your smile.
Tell me how she captured your heart
And even tell me what can’t be said
Non, tais-toi plutôt… Je suis à genoux
Le feu s’est éteint, la porte est fermée
Ne demande rien, je pleure… C’est tout.
Je ne t’aime pas, ô mon bien-aimé.
No, be silent instead. I’m on my knees
The fire is out, the door is shut
Don’t ask me anything, I’m crying. That’s all…
I don’t love you, Oh, my beloved
Retire ta main, je ne t’aime pas
je ne t’aime pas
Pull back your hand, I don’t love you
I don’t love you

George and Ira Gershwin: The Lorelei

Who doesn’t love the famous Liszt song about the Lorelei?  There she is, that infamous temptress, combing her flaxen hair, singing her siren song to lure hapless sailors to their deaths upon the rocks…

Well, long before I sang that great work (with Steve Blier at a 1990 NYFOS concert of ballads), I knew a different Lorelei song by Gershwin, as sung by the great Ella Fitzgerald in her 1960 live album Ella in Berlin.  Not only was it unusual to hear the verse of any pop standard in the 1960’s, but listen to how Ella’s pianist (Paul Smith) spices it up by adding clever musical commentary. Heaven.

If you don’t know this album, download it immediately, or listen to it all on YouTube.  Every song is a winner, especially the hilarious version of Mack the Knife where she forgets the words, and makes up some unbelievable lyrics of her own.  (And of course, don’t miss her legendary five-and-a-half minute scat.  It is one of the most spectacular in all of jazz.)

Back in the days of knights in armor,
There once lived a lovely charmer,
Swimming in the Rhine,
Her figure was divine.
She had a yen for all the sailors,
Fishermen, and gobs and whalers.
She had a most immoral eye.
They called her Lorelei.
She created quite a stir
And I want to be like her.

I want to be like that gal on the river,
Who sang her song to the ships passing by,
She had the goods and how she could deliver,
The Lorelei.
She used to love in a strange kind of fashion,
With lots of heigh, ho-de-ho, hi-de-hi
And I can guarantee I’m full of passion,
Like the Lorelei.

I’m treacherous, ja, ja,
Oh, I just can’t hold myself in check.
I’m lecherous, ja ja.
I want to bite my initials on a sailor’s neck

Each affair has a kick and a wallop,
For what they crave I can always supply.
I want to be just like that other trollop,
The Lorelei.

Charles Trenet: Y a d’la joie

As many of you know, I’m a big Francophile.  So, it may not surprise you that three of the five songs I’ve chosen to feature here are from, or pay homage to, France.  And what better time is there to celebrate than the week of her birthday (July 14), otherwise known as Bastille Day?

There’s nothing like a Charles Trenet song to make you feel happy.  Some of his lyrics can be surprisingly dark, but not here. In this song, Trenet the optimist wakes up from a lovely dream only to find gray skies and dull morning rituals before him. But without the dream, there would be no song!

Y a d’la joie bonjour,
Bonjour les hirondelles
Y a d’la joie
dans le ciel par dessus les toits
Y a d’la joie
et du soleil dans les ruelles
Y a d’la joie partout, y a d’la joie!
There is joy
Hello, swallows!
There is joy
In the sky, above the roofs
There is joy
And sun in the alleyways
There is joy everywhere, there is joy!
Tout le jour,
Mon coeur bat, chavire et chancelle
C’est l’amour
Qui vient avec je ne sais quoi
C’est l’amour
Bonjour, bonjour les demoiselles
Y a d’la joie, partout, y a d’la joie
All day long,
My heart beats, capsizes, and staggers
It’s love
That comes with…I don’t know what!
It’s love
Hello, hello ladies
There is joy everywhere, there is joy!
Le gris boulanger
Bat la pâte à pleins bras
Il fait du bon pain,
Du pain si fin que j’ai faim
On voit le facteur
Qui s’envole là-bas
Comme un ange bleu
Portant ses lettres au bon dieu
Miracle sans nom
À la station Javelle:
On voit le métro
Qui sort de son tunnel,
Grisé de soleil,
De chansons et de fleurs.
Il court vers le bois,
Il court à toute vapeur.
The gray-haired baker
Pounds the dough with his arms.
He makes good bread
Such fine bread that I get hungry.
I see the postman
Who flies down
Like a blue angel
Carrying his letters to God.
There’s a nameless miracle
At the Javelle metro stop:
You see the train
Emerge from its tunnel,
Drunk on sunshine,
Songs, and flowers.
It runs towards the Bois (de Boulogne)
Full steam ahead.
Y a d’la joie!
La Tour Eiffel part en balade
Comme une folle,
Elle saute la seine à pieds joints.
Puis elle dit,
”Tant pis pour moi si j’suis malade
J’m’embêtais tout’ seule dans mon coin.”
There is joy!
The Eiffel Tower goes for a stroll
Like a madwoman,
She jumps into the Seine, feet together.
Then she says,
“Too bad for me if I get sick,
I was so bored all alone in my place.”
Y a d’la joie!
Le percepteur met sa jaquette
Plie boutique,
Et dit d’un air très doux, très doux
“Bien l’bonjour
Pour aujourd’hui fini la quête
Gardez tout messieurs, gardez tout”
There is joy!
The tax man puts on his morning coat
Closes up shop,
And says very, very sweetly,
“Well, hello!
My quest for money is over today.
Keep it all, Sirs, keep it all!”
Mais voilà qu’soudain
Je m’éveille dans mon lit.
Donc, j’avais rêvé,
Oui car le ciel est gris.
Il faut se lever,
Se laver, se vêtir,
Et ne plus chanter.
Si l’on n’a plus rien à dire.
Mais je crois pourtant
Que ce rêve a du bon
Car il m’a permis
De faire une chanson!
Chanson de printemps,
Chansonnette d’amour,
Chanson de 20 ans,
Chanson de toujours.
But look, suddenly
I wake up in my bed.
I was dreaming,
Yes, because the sky is gray.
I must get up,
Wash up and get dressed,
And not sing anymore
Since I don’t have anything more to say.
But I think perhaps
That this dream was a good thing
Because it allowed me
To make a song!
A song of springtime,
A little song of love,
A song of youth,
A song of forever.

John Musto: Penelope’s Song

I couldn’t do a week of American song blogs without featuring my friend John Musto. I first heard him at a memorial concert for Paul Jacobs, who had been my piano teacher for a little while. John was playing a duo-piano piece (Schubert, I think) that night. Both guys played beautifully, but there was something special in John’s sound and phrasing that resonated in my soul. I struck up a conversation with him at the party afterwards, and we soon became friends and colleagues. We’re both dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, and somehow the contrasts in our personalities helped to forge a bond between us.

I hold John in very high esteem: he is a master of the piano, and he is one of the most intelligent people I know. Since our meeting in 1984 he has established himself a leading composer and take-no-hostages soloist and chamber music player. On the occasions when we play duo-concerts I feel like John’s little piano-brother, taken by the hand, indulged and coddled by a trustworthy adult.

John has written lots of wonderful songs, but since we’re playing favorites this week, here is the one I love the most: “Penelope’s Song” from the song cycle “Penelope.” She waits for Odysseus’s return while half-heartedly entertaining suitors who are certain she is a wealthy widow. She has told them that she’ll choose one when she is done with her spinning, but every night she undoes the work she accomplished during the day—keeping them at bay indefinitely. What she most loves is this complex state of limbo: married, and courted, and anticipating a reunion with Odysseus—but for the moment, enjoying all the time she has to herself, time to dream. “I’m in love with beginnings,” she sighs. “Don’t hurry home.”

John’s music is like a stoned 12-bar blues, full of gentle syncopations and subtle changes of meter. It sounds lulling and relaxed, although it is actually a very hard song to master because of its irregularities—and its long-held high note at the end. John’s wife Amy Burton nails it every time, and made this beautiful recording with her husband at the piano.

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