One of my dearest friends from my time at Juilliard is Sasha Cooke, a mezzo who should be very familiar to NYFOS audiences. Her vulnerability and honesty comes to life in this early performance of her, of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.
The poet Louÿs composed Chansons de Bilitis after traveling in Italy in a “Parnassian” style. The poems are actually pseudotranslations—in the orginal collection of poems, he fraudulently claimed that they were translated from Greek, and even invented a fake archeologist who features in the book. The songs are famously erotic, and singers now tend to present them in a rather sultry tone—but this actually goes against Debussy’s intentions. The singer who he selected to premiere the piece, Blanche Marot, was actually selected for her virginity. She later related an anecdote between Debussy and her mother:
“Tell me, Madame, your daughter is not yet twenty? Good. It’s very important, because if she understand the second song, “La Chevelure,” she won’t sing it in the right way; she mustn’t grasp the true brazenness of Bilitis’s language…” My mother set Debussy’s anxieties at rest and everything went splendidly.”
Roger Nichols, Debussy Remembered (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992), 59.
Translations by Pamela Dellal
La Flûte de Pan
Pour le jour des Hyacinthies,
Il m’apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux;
Nous n’avons rien à nous dire,
Il est tard: voici le chant des grenouilles vertes
For Hyacinth’s day,
He teaches me to play, sitting on his knee;
We have nothing to say to each other,
It is late; now the song of the green frogs
Il m’a dit: “Cette nuit, j’ai rêvé.
“Je les caressais, et c’étaient les miens;
“Et peu à peu, il m’a semblé,
Quand il eut achevé,
He said to me: “I dreamed last night.
“I caressed them, and they were mine;
“And little by little, it seemed to me,
When he finished,
Le tombeau des Naïades
Le long du bois couvert de givre, je marchais;
Il me dit: “Que cherches-tu?”
Il me dit: “Les satyres sont morts.
Et avec le fer de sa houe il cassa la glace
The tomb of the naiads
Along the woods covered in frost, I walked;
He said to me: “What are you looking for?”
He said to me: “The satyrs are dead.
And with his iron hoe he broke the ice
As our country once again reacts to a horrific act of violence, I found myself coming back to Dylan’s “Masters of War” performed by the incredible voice of the civil rights movement, Odetta. This song is a bit of a rage aria, directed through gritted teeth at the structures in our nation that foster violence and destruction from “behind desks” – the corporate interests and the political interests who serve them that keep our country awash in guns.
My favorite singer of all time is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Watching Lorraine in this performance, I’m awed once again by the depth of the connection between her body, heart, and voice. To me, her sound is like the voice of the earth and of our deepest humanity. In this beautiful staging by Peter Sellars, she embraces seemingly everyone on stage in sequence in the last part of the aria – the listener also feels embraced by the warmth and generosity of her singing.
I love singing and listening to choral music. One of my favorite groups is the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, which is from my hometown of Boston and includes many of the finest singers there, including my masterful early teacher and dear friend, Pamela Dellal. This piece is by John Taverner, a very early British composer who lived 1490-1545. It’s an Easter piece, depicting the moment just before Mary Magdalen discovers that the stone of Jesus’s tomb has been rolled away – so even though it’s for Easter, the music still is filled with the bleakness of Holy Week, with plangent trebles soaring high above the altos. The opening section of the piece, slowly unfurling, perhaps reflects her weariness as she trudges up to the tomb at sunrise.
English text (Mark 16:1-2):
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb.
I fell in love with this recording of Dawn Upshaw’s Naumberg recital with Margo Garrett on the piano when I was a student at Juilliard. It was actually Steve Blier who divined that this song would turn out to be a life-changingly meaningful piece for me, and assigned it to me to learn when I was studying with him there. I have him to thank for all the transcendent experiences I have had “channelling” this song for audiences. I don’t usually talk about performing in such a rarified light, but whenever I do this piece I feel like I am living the experience of Ganymed’s assumption into the heavens… the tremolos in the piano in the final section (starting at 3:17 in this recording) to me beautifully depict the boy Ganymed’s assumption into Olympus, passing through towering clouds.
I love Dawn’s performance of this piece for its dreamlike, sexual/spiritual yearning, and Margo’s subtle and painterly playing.
I am an unabashed language nerd and love translating the poems that I sing. Here’s my translation of Ganymed:
|Wie im Morgenglanze
du rings mich anglühst,
Mit tausendfacher Liebeswonne
Sich an mein Herz drängt
deiner ewigen Wärme
Daß ich dich fassen möcht
In diesen Arm!
|How in the morning clarity
you glow around me,
Spring, my beloved!
With thousandfold love raptures
presses itself on my heart
your eternal warmness
of holy feeling,
If I could only grasp you
in these arms!
|Ach, an deinem Busen
Lieg ich und schmachte,
Und deine Blumen, dein Gras
Drängen sich an mein Herz.
Du kühlst den brennenden
Durst meines Busens,
Ruft drein die Nachtigall
Liebend nach mir in die Nebelthal.
|Oh, on your breast
I lie and yearn,
And your flowers, your grass
Press themselves against my heart.
You cool the burning thirst
of my breast,
lovely morning wind!
There calls the nightingale
Lovingly after me in the misty valley.
|Ich komm’, ich komme!
Wohin? Ach, wohin?
Hinauf! Hinauf strebt’s.
Es schweben die Wolken
Abwärts, die Wolken
Neigen sich der sehnenden Liebe.
In eurem Schosse
Aufwärts an deinen Busen,
| I come, I come!
Where? Oh, to where?
Upwards! Upwards I strive.
The clouds float
Downwards, the clouds
bow down to yearning love.
To me! To me!
In your breast
Upwards to your breast,
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