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Pauline Viardot and Johannes Brahms: Les Bohémiennes

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

Les Bohémiennes
Music by Pauline Viardot and Johannes Brahms
Performed by Dina Kuznetsova, soprano; and Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
in A Bel Canto Dynasty (2004)


From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:
There were many great nineteenth-century singers who sent audiences into a frenzy. Grown men wept when Rubini sang; women fainted at the sound of Giulia Grisi’s voice. But their art lives on only through anecdotes about their performances and descriptions of their timbre. None of them could inspire a program as far-ranging as tonight’s. For Pauline Viardot’s claim to fame was not merely the ephemeral success of a great artist. She made her mark on history by the music she inspired, the composers she nurtured, the works she premiered, and the music she wrote.


And she created a substantial repertoire of art songs. Turgenev and George Sand both encouraged Viardot to write music as her singing career was winding down. Pauline never had a great deal of self-confidence as a composer, but she continued to nurture her creative voice in her later years. French art song was just beginning its ascent from its modest origins, the parlor ballad style known as the “romance.” In Viardot’s songs one can hear the increasing complexity of the piano writing, lovely turns of harmony, and a surprising range of colors from faux-antique (“Au jardin de mon père”), to Spanish bolero (“Madrid”), to Russian-German Kunstlied (“Das Blümlein”), to full-blown operatic anthem (“Grands oiseaux blancs”). She may not have been an innovator—Pauline was a classicist to the end—but her writing for voice and piano is expert. “A singer wrote this,” smiled Stephanie Blythe as she worked on one of the songs. “Every syllable is set perfectly, every phrase falls right into the voice. What a pleasure it is to sing!”

Tchaikovsky: Again, as before, I am alone

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

Снова, как прежде, один (“Again, as before, I am alone”) op. 73, no. 6 (1893)
Music by Tchaikovsky; poem by Ratgauz
Sung by Alexey Lavrov in Pyotr the Great (2017)


Again, as before, I am alone.
Once more I am filled with deep sadness.
A poplar is standing outside the window
Bathed in moonlight.

A poplar is standing outside the window,
Its leaves whispering of something.
The sky is filled with burning stars…
Where, my beloved, are you now?

I cannot describe to you
All that is happening within me…
My friend, please pray to God for me,
As I am praying for you.

From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:
Tchaikovsky’s early death at age 53 was a tragedy—and a mystery. The stated cause was cholera, contracted either through unboiled water (the official version) or sexual contact (a privately rumored story). But there are enough alternate explanations and differing testimonies to fill several books. Several of them lie on my table as I write these words, with analyses that can get unpleasantly graphic. One theory is that the composer chose to end his life because of his overwhelming, impossible love for his nephew, Bob Davidov, to whom he dedicated the Pathétique Symphony. Another is that his suicide was ordered by the Tsar after the composer had seduced the wrong fifteen-year old boy. The most convincing, and the most chilling, is that he acceded to a sentence of suicide handed down by a hastily assembled “court of honor” composed of fellow alumni from his old law school. It seems that a certain Duke Stenbok-Fermor was disturbed by the attentions Tchaikovsky was lavishing on his nephew, and wrote a letter of accusation to the Tsar. Nicolai Jacobi, the man appointed to deliver the letter, decided to give it instead to his colleagues at the School of Jurisprudence, in order to avoid the possibility of scandal and exile for Tchaikovsky. Their grim verdict was that the composer should take his own life. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are very similar to those of cholera. There is some strong evidence that this is true—stemming from a decades-old confession, passed through several generations, from Nicolai Jacobi’s widow.

We’ll never know the truth absolutely—whether it be cholera, depression, suicide, or decades of cigarettes and alcohol. What I do know is this: Tchaikovsky’s last symphony was his most tragic piece of music, seen at its premiere as a memento mori, a requiem. There is a strange moment in the first movement when a theme emerges in the trombones, bearing no relationship to the music surrounding it. It is a quote from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead: “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.”

From his earliest songs to his final ones, Tchaikovsky returned again and again to the subject of death, often offering comfort to those left behind to mourn. But his last song is his most desolate, a fitting companion to the Pathétique Symphony: “Again, as before, I am alone.” He knew the game was over.

El dulce de America (Anonymous, Spain ca. 1780)

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our live archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

El dulce de America
Anonymous, Spain ca. 1780
Performed in Latin Lovers (1999) by Jennifer Aylmer, soprano; Oren Fader, guitar; James Saporito, percussion; Steven Blier, piano

A note from Steven Blier:

I found this song on a CD of Spanish baroque music, and instantly fell for this bewitching copla castiza. I didn’t even try to find printed music for it—I just got out some staff paper and jotted down the melody and the chords. Jen Aylmer supplied the style, charm, and ornamentation; Oren Fader and Jim Saporito were sidemen sent from heaven. El dulce is a warning: the singer was greedy and ate a sweet that came from America. It tasted fine at the time, but it turned out to be spoiled goods—and now she has to pay the price. (Do the math.)

I gave in to my sweet tooth;
and without knowing how it happened
after a few days
I found myself wounded.
Oh, I am so unhappy
for eating that candy!
My sweet tooth got me into this trouble.
Poor me!

Because of that accursed sweet
I find myself in this condition–
I don’t even have the strength
to accept a compliment!
Oh, I am so unhappy …

The sweets of a woman
should be sampled with restraint,
because if you don’t
they can cause great harm.
Oh, I am so unhappy …

Anyone who tastes a sweet
without knowing if it is spoiled
may one day
live to regret it!
Oh, I am so unhappy …

Franz Schubert: Du bist die Ruh

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

Du bist die Ruh, D. 776 (“You are repose”) [1823]
Music by Franz Schubert; poem by Friedrich Rückert
Performed by Theo Hoffman, baritone and guitar
in Schubert/Beatles (2016)

Du bist die Ruh,
Der Friede mild,
Die Sehnsucht du
Und was sie stillt.

Ich weihe dir
Voll Lust und Schmerz
Zur Wohnung hier
Mein Aug und Herz.

Kehr ein bei mir,
Und schließe du
Still hinter dir
Die Pforten zu.

Treib andern Schmerz
Aus dieser Brust!
Voll sei dies Herz
Von deiner Lust.

Dies Augenzelt
Von deinem Glanz
Allein erhellt,
O füll es ganz!

You are repose,
Gentle peace,
You are longing
And that which satisfies it.

I consecrate to you,
Filled with pleasure and pain,
As your place of dwelling
My eye and my heart.

Tarry with me
And quietly close
The gate
Behind you.

Drive every other sadness
From my breast!
Let my heart be filled
With your bliss.

This sanctuary of my eyes
By your radiance alone
Is illuminated—
Oh, fill it completely.

From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:

I heard my first Schubert Lieder around the same time I heard my first Beatles songs. I was twelve years old and in eighth grade. As a budding “longhair” musician, I had a distinct sense that I was supposed to like Schubert songs, and I sort of did. Hearing them sung by Elisabeth Schumann on an Angel Records “Great Recordings of the Century” reissue, they seemed like precious artifacts of a long-lost civilization. The LP transfer from 78s recorded in the 1920s and 30s only added to their ghostly, foreign aura. As a Jewish kid whose dad had fought in World War II, I continued to have mixed feelings about hearing the German language, even at its purest and loftiest. Still, there was something about that music that allured me, even as it troubled me.

I am happy to report that my feelings about Schubert have also developed over the last half- century. No, I have not exactly gravitated to his music; I’ve been through too many master classes where Schubert’s songs were used to make every singer and pianist feel impossibly tight and incompetent. But working on his music in the context of the Beatles has shone a new, contemporary light on this beloved composer. His songs deal with the same themes the Beatles wrote about 140 years later, and his music often shares their oracular simplicity. And it seems clear that Schubert’s own singing voice was a high tenor, whose falsetto extension was not unlike John Lennon’s or Paul McCartney’s. (That is why it is can be so hard to sing them in their printed keys.)

But I have also come to understand Schubert on a more personal level. It has come to light in recent years that he was a promiscuous man with a strong sexual urge—and that his main attachments were to men. Of course this discovery has been hotly debated; everyone rushes to defend composers from what is still perceived as the terrible taint of homosexuality. But Maynard Solomon’s article Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini is extremely persuasive. Solomon paints Schubert as a hedonist whose prodigious musical creativity was tied to a healthy appetite for sex, food, and drink. Casting aside conventions and societal norms, Schubert courageously forged a life based around sexual freedom in the company of like-minded men. His bohemian circle allowed for the free flow of emotion and the expression of same-sex love on a full spectrum, from Platonic to carnal. They formed a subculture that blended fierce idealism with their shared orientation. But Schubert’s circle also led a clandestine existence; their renegade sexuality and political beliefs made them subject to police raids and even to exile. This is why Beethoven’s nephew wrote, “They greatly praise Schubert, but it is said that he conceals himself.”

Like several of his friends, Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis in 1823, and lived under a death sentence for the next five years. Always prone to melancholy, he vacillated between temporary remissions and crushing setbacks until the disease claimed his life. My mind flashed to the AIDS epidemic, when I watched so many friends fighting for their survival against similar odds. Suddenly Schubert seemed achingly real to me. My view of Schubert had been colored by the arch, cloying interpretations of his songs so prevalent in my early days—and the strangulation of those who attempted them in their original keys. But now I saw a human being I recognized, a brilliant, embattled gay man determined to live life on his own terms.

Schubert wrote his 600-plus Lieder over the span of thirteen years, from 1815 when “Erlkönig” first appeared, to 1828 when he composed his last song, “Die Taubenpost.” We chose that one for tonight’s concert—it was at the top of practically everyone’s wish list, including my German art song guru J.J. Penna. How appropriate that Schubert’s final envoi, a bittersweet paean to “Sehnsucht” (longing) became the last of his songs in the program. Schubert and his friends used the term “hunting for peacocks” to refer to their cruising escapades; that bit of code casts an ironic, tender shadow on the central metaphor of this song, an apostrophe to a carrier pigeon, a symbol of yearning.

I read that every era creates the Schubert they need, and I have no doubt I have created my own image of this great artist, the one I need. The Romantic era liked to portray him as a man composing music in a trance, writing from a deep well of unconscious genius rather than from anything as mundane as a technique. But I see something else: a prolific, deeply gifted young man claiming the right to be who he was, reveling in all his natural urges. I also see a young man fighting for his life. And I meditate on all he yearned for as he sickened and died, his own personal “Taubenpost.”

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