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Hugo Wolf: Peregrina songs

These two poems belong to a cycle of five by Eduard Mörike. Wolf’s Peregrina songs represent a rarity in his output, a diptych of sorts—neither piece entire of itself, but together forming a musical world that illuminates the explicit narratives within, and the implied narratives between two poems.

The Peregrina cycle appears in Mörike’s 1832 novel, Maler Nolten, but the poems that comprise it were written earlier. It has been suggested that by including these deeply personal texts in his novel, Mörike was attempting a fictionalization of the tortured eroticism they contain. Indeed the poems are concerned with a deeply personal experience—his intense love affair, and subsequent rejection of the (by all accounts) captivatingly beautiful, maddeningly enigmatic Maria Meyer.

For Wolf’s part, he was not privy to the particular circumstances surrounding Mörike’s composition of these texts (he learned of the Meyer episode later). But his reading of these two poems in music is uncanny. I love how these songs work musically and structurally: the tension between G-natural, native to the E-flat major of Peregrina I, and G-flat, a chromatic pitch—a tension which Wolf works into the leitmotif with which the first song ends, and the second begins. At the start of Peregrina II, little seems changed, until just before the vocal entrance, we’re surprised with a cadence in G-flat major! The brief leitmotif (introduced in the final vocal phrase of Peregrina I: “der Tod im Kelch der Sünden”) has, in Peregrina II become a kind of obsessive thought, haunting the song.

I’m haunted by these songs, in the best way. Addicted to the layers of experience they contain, and the meanings they suggest. 

Brahms: Muss es eine Trennung geben

This song is full of desperation, and is most expressive in the piano part and harmonic changes. Yet, it is so beautiful. I recommend this recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Hermann Reutter.

Reynaldo Hahn: L’heure Exquise

I’m hoping to enjoy my summer this year. We are just getting into it, and I’m already having lots of fun. I think it’s the long evenings that can make summer so special. Langorous dinners with friends al fresco. Extended dusk, and lingering twilight eventually yielding to the night sky. And it’s warm enough to enjoy the night sky. Just the thought of it conjures up memories for me, and maybe this summer I’ll create a few more. Reynaldo Hahn’s “L’heure Exquise” reminds me of these things. I usually don’t think of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and French art song as BFFs, but this recording is extraordinary. He sings so very slowly. Time does actually seem to stop. He was a great singer and maybe an even better musician, so it’s important to me to notice when someone like Fischer-Dieskau does something no one else would (or has), like in this performance. Enjoy your summer. Maybe it be full of beautiful music, the extraordinary, and exquisite moments.


Hugo Wolf: Lied des transferierten Zettel

In anticipation of NYFOS’s program Lyrics by Shakespeare, performed on August 8 as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, we are featuring a week of songs inspired by Shakespeare on Song of the Day. It will be held in the intimate Kaplan Penthouse so seating is limited; get your tickets today!

Of course, English-speakers were not the only ones inspired to set Shakespeare’s words. Composers around the world worked with his lyrics in their native tongues, and we’ll be featuring some ‘Lyrics by Shakespeare’ in Russian and French in our August concert. Today, however, let’s try German:  Hugo Wolf’s setting of Bottom’s song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in translation by August Wilhelm Schlegel; performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

The ousel cock, so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill.

The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo grey,
Whose note full many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay.

Gustav Mahler: Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n

This is going to be a relatively eclectic list. While Mahler is not someone who I would always list among my favorite composers of all (he’s absolutely phenomenal, don’t get me wrong, just not someone who I always think to listen to) but this piece, and this movement in particular, always gets to me. Mahler’s incredible orchestration combined with the Rückert’s heart wrenching poetry creates an absolutely unforgettable aural experience. The music is all at once complex, simple, deep and surface level, and ultimately whats makes it so powerful to me is the fact that one can completely understand the meaning and power of the text without speaking german, because Mahler’s text painting is so rich. Plus, this version with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing certainly adds to the beauty of the work.


Gustav Mahler: Ablösung Im Sommer

Summer is usually the time when love has the greatest opportunity to bloom. The soft evenings, the lingering twilight, the wonderful cuisine—fresh produce of every kind—all add up to an awakening of the senses. The collection of German folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn is full of parables about war, love, betrayal, and fidelity. “Ablösung Im Sommer” is one of these.

The Cuckoo bird has fallen to his death at the end of spring. The Cuckoo is the traditional symbol of betrayal. Cuckoo announces the birth of a new cuckold, someone whose love has been untrue. “Who shall sing to us all summer long?” asks the song. The answer of course is the Nighingale, whose florid and expansive song represents the promise and anticipation of new love and all its delights. Here is that song as set by Gustav Mahler performed by my two heroes, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Leonard Bernstein at the piano. They totally understand the clipped, curt, unfeeling music of the the Cuckoo and then give into to rapturous beauty of the Nightingale’s music.


Hugo Wolf and Eduard Mörike: Die Geister am Mummelsee

We begin our week with a horror story in the Black Forest. One of my favorite things about the study of poetry and music is opening my imagination to the world in which these magnificent compositions were birthed. Take a journey with me now to Stuttgart in the 1820s where we meet a twenty-something year old named Eduard Mörike who was studying to be a clergyman but along the way found a passion for writing. We are in the height of German Romanticism and the fascination between our earthly, mortal existence as juxtaposed to the greater and more powerful universe around us. Science has developed enough to begin explaining how nature functions, but for the Romantic thinkers this practical understanding of nature only sparks a deeper awe for the almighty powers that created the universe in the first place. Time and time again in the writing of the German Romantics there is a mortal character as the central figure of the story who encounters an unexplainable—often fearful—supernatural presence. The key for the Romantics, however, is these ghostly forces don’t impose their wrath onto mortals, rather the turmoil comes from within the human and is projected onto the scene, often stunning them until it is too late and our protagonists meet their fate. Thus sets the stage for our 1829 ghost story.

Deep between hills in the northern Black Forest, our protagonist has found the beautiful lake Mummelsee. It is past twilight and the Forest has gone to sleep. Across the lake are small glowing lights coming down from the mountains and the sound of unfamiliar songs. Our speaker soon realizes he has found the ghosts of Mummelsee and they are having a funeral procession for their King. Captivated by their beauty and how the ghosts float above the lake without disturbing the peaceful water, the mortal hides in the bushes seemingly unnoticed. Soon the lake opens up and the ghosts float under for the final stages of their burial procedures. The lake and surrounding forest turn green from the ghosts’ underwater fires. Suddenly, the spirits sense an intruder and swarm out of the water towards the shoreline, only to bring our narrator to his demise.

The Ghosts at Mummelsee
What is coming down from the mountain there
With torches so splendid at midnight so late?
Will there be a dance or perhaps a feast?
The songs sound so feisty.
   O no!
But tell me, what might that be?

What you see is a funeral train,
And what you hear is lamenting.
Due to sorrow for the Sorcerer King,
They are bringing him back again.
   Oh my!
Those are the ghosts of the lake!

They glide down the valley to the lake—
They are treading now on its surface—
Touching it with their feet, yet walking dry-shod—
They whir about in muted prayer—
   O look,
A woman all aglitter at the bier!

Now the lake opens its sparkling green gate;
See how they submerge!
A real set of stairs emerges now,
And—down under, songs being hummed already,
   Do you hear?
They are singing him to rest down there.

How lovely the fires glow on the water!
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
   Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Translation: Charles L. Cingolani

Brahms: Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel

Since my upcoming Wolf Trap concert features four singers and two pianists, it seemed crazy not to open the program with the cornerstone work for those forces: Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. Normally I shun the obvious, so I briefly considered delving into the four-part writing of Szymanowski or Schoeck or Schreker. After about 40 seconds I came to my senses. Some pieces are evergreen, and the Liebeslieder are at the top of that last.

When Joseph Li and I worked on them last weekend, evergreen seemed too weak a description. “Good Humor truck” is more like it, a freezer-full of irresistible treats whose appeal is practically addictive. Each waltz is different in character, ranging from slow dances to dapper quick-steps to aggressive ones that have the razor-sharp drive of a mazurka. I knew they would be a good way for the Wolf Trap cast to bond with each other, and with Joe and me. Playing and singing this Brahms work is like having a sweet love affair. As you rehearse the Liebeslieder,  you begin to feel that you are in a room with the people who matter the most to you, a beautiful musical intimacy.

Here’s my (current) favorite, “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel,” sung and played here by a sterling roster of musicians: Edith Mathis, Brigitte Fassbänder, Peter Schreier, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Karl Engel and Wolfgang Sawallisch at the piano. Deutsche Grammophon clearly spent some money on this project. They’re great…but I bet we can get this piece to sound even sweeter and more charming!

Hugo Wolf: Im Frühling

“Ich denke diess, und denke dass, ich sehne mich, als weiss nicht recht nach was: halb ist es Lust, halb ist es Klage”

“I think about this and that, I feel a longing, but don’t know exactly what for: half is joy, half is pain.”

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) is one of those composers that song people consider their little secret. Because his best-known works are his Lieder (of which he wrote hundreds), he’s ours. He is a singer’s composer. Wolf, like his hero Wagner, places a premium on drama and the complete enmeshing of music and text – his songs are miniature three-minute operas, and a distinct pleasure to perform and study.

Wolf’s feverish completion of the 53 Möricke Lieder in 1888 effectively showcased his particular talents as a composer. Eduard Möricke’s (1804-1875) highly Romantic poetry, populated with vividly-drawn characerters – elves, witches, virgins, foresaken chambermaids, the hunter, the horseman, and the wind itself, gave Wolf the delicious chance to create pitch-perfect text settings with his signature harmonically adventurous late-romantic style.

One of my favorites is the slowly swung “Im Frühling,” a piece full of the slow and ecstatic longing of springtime.

We are lying on a hillside in springtime. Wolf dreamily can’t settle on a key in Möricke’s quietly desirous meditation on the uncertain longings of spring, and the voice and piano slither around like the disconnected thoughts of the narrator. In long-spun sinuous melody lines, we stand with our hearts open wie die Sonnenblümen, like sunflowers, hear the buzz of the bee in our ears, and wonder when our longing will be stilled, when we will be with our one and only love. Massive and Romantic sighed are sighed.

Even though it’s been a little chilly this season, it’s still May – the month when the magical and heady feeling of the first warm rays of the spring sun dispells memories of frigid winter (many a Midwestern and East Coast springtime familiarized this), the feeling like anything and everything is possible. Flowers bursting forth, after having forgotten what a bloom looks like. The burning sting of allergic eyes and feverish longings that are re-awakened in the springtime heart.

It JUST so happens that Wolf’s “Im Frühling” is the first song that my fiancé, pianist Richard Valitutto, and I ever worked on and performed together when we met at SongFest in 2013. It just so happened to provide the opportunity to connect through this very sensual song about unrealized longing during the very first wisps of our relationship, and I believe it was my suggestion 🙂 Richard will make an arrangement for string quartet, and it will be played during the prelude music at our wedding this fall.

Tomorrow: freshly baked bread, a 16-pound rock, and a turning point

Benjamin Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake

One of the pieces of music that has haunted my mind (and by that I mean made my imagination run wild) since I was first exposed to it is Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Written in 1965 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the piece serves as a meditation on the state of the world and the frailty of man in Britten’s day and Blake’s, about 200 years prior to the work’s composition.

Songs and Proverbs is a truly unique piece, and stands out from Britten’s output and the song repertoire at large. Britten sets the songs as a continuous thought, with the individual songs connected with wild, mystical recitatives. The poems themselves comment on everything from child abuse to murder (Britten’s favorite subjects). I find them to be some of the most poignant songs he ever wrote, although through my experience with them, they are most potent when performed as an opus. They’re such a particular flavor that they’re rather difficult to remove from their natural habitat, as is the case with several of Britten’s other cycles, but even more so here because of the continuous nature of the composition.

As is usually the case with Britten, there seeps in a strange, abstract religious connotation. In the first recitative, we have four exclamations which set the philosophical yet somehow sultry tone of the entire piece:

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God. 
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God. 
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

And then we dive into Blake’s brutal, twisted, yet undyingly honest world.

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