Google “the happiest song ever written.” You’re welcome.
For the last 10 years, I’ve spent nearly every waking hour thinking about early music, as the administrative director of Juilliard Historical Performance. So I could not let the opportunity to share songs with the erudite NYFOS audience pass by without at least one example of repertoire from whence it all started. This is a piece from the early days of sung drama by Giulio Caccini. It’s from a set of songs called Le nuove musiche (The New Music) that aimed to explore new possibilities of expression. Imagine being there for the first time this piece was ever heard!
So, early music. Why do I still feel the need to defend it? Can we just agree once and for all that it’s music, and needs no adjective? That it can speak to us as directly now as we assume it did when it was new, just like Beethoven, Brahms, or Stravinsky. (No one seems to think that Shakespeare is irrelevant because we don’t talk that way anymore, or Michelangelo’s David is less expressive because marble is just soooo 15th century.) Here I must quote my esteemed colleague, the great Baroque violinist Robert Mealy: “All music of the past, whether from 1950 or 1650, is historical performance today: for all of us, we’re trying to understand how to speak these other musical languages as eloquently and as passionately as possible. The basic philosophy of 17th- and 18th-century historical performance is that it’s easier to make this music come alive if we use the tools that were designed for this music.” Amen.
Back in the day, specialization in music was unheard of. To be a musician was to be a composer, performer, multi-instrumentalist (hello, Mozart), improviser, and/or impresario. If you played the oboe in a Baroque orchestra, for example, you probably also played the recorder, and you may have sung as well. Caroline Shaw is a modern-day incarnation of this ideal—a remarkably versatile musician who is expert at many things. She is a violinist, singer, and composer (winning the Pulitzer Prize at the ripe old age of 30, in 2013.) Here is an example of her work that I recently came across. Shaw has a penchant for choral and ensemble writing—her Pulitzer was for Partita for Eight Voices—and I particularly love the mesmerizing counterpoint of this simple round. And it’s an example of audience participation, a genre that usually makes me run for the hills, that actually works. It’s a live performance so not every moment is picture-perfect, but the joy that radiates from the piece is palpable. Here Shaw builds a community with just a few simple lines of melody.
Ever fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole? You know, you innocently start looking for something and three hours later you look up from your iPad, having forsaken all social niceties (and biological necessities), and wonder what happened to the afternoon? I don’t know who has the time to load every video ever made in the history of media, but I for one am thankful that it’s all there. I stumbled across this clip as I was preparing a lecture for Paris Between the Wars, a class I occasionally teach at Juilliard. The video includes a short interview with Poulenc (en français), followed by a performance, with the composer at the piano accompanying the divine Denise Duval—Poulenc’s frequent muse—singing two songs from La court paille. How educational to see the composer himself playing the music he wrote, with the singer who originated the piece. Enough said. “Quelle aventure!” starts at 2:55 if you want to skip ahead, but don’t! I love the footage of them turning the pages and Duval purring “Quelle aventure” to Poulenc like it’s a seduction. And you can listen to the entirety of La courte paille—all seven songs—in about eight minutes. To paraphrase Erik Satie, one of Poulenc’s idols, “A composer shouldn’t take more of the audience’s time than is absolutely necessary.”
Schubert. So many songs, and yet so few of them are heard in performance. Here is one of my favorite lesser known gems sung by the amazing Nicolai Gedda. For me, he’s the perfect mix of bel canto ease and just plain class. And I, for one, don’t mind that the recording has not been airbrushed to perfection using all the gewgaws of modern-day recording technology. There are a few blemishes in pitch and tone that make it all the more human. And it’s a really hard song! Schubert requires a heck of a task to float up to a high A a couple of times; the vocal lines are long and sustained; and, as is mostly the case with Schubert, there’s nowhere to hide over such an elegantly simple piano accompaniment. (The two-bar postlude is heart-wrenching to me.) This is a serenade—you could imagine a guitar or plucked strings instead of piano, an idea made plain by the poem’s first stanza:
Nun, da Schatten niedergleiten,
Und die Lüfte zärtlich wehen,
Dringet Seufzen aus der Seele,
Und umgirrt die treuen Saiten.
Now that shadows glide down
And the breezes gently blow,
Sighs drawn from the soul
Caress the faithful strings.
But after this placid opening line, we learn, in typical Romantic fashion, that our poet has been wronged in love and he pleads with night to “wrap around me.” This song hypnotizes me with its subtle harmonic shifts. The sequence that starts at 1:30 is a thing of lyric perfection. More rarely heard Schubert, please!
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