NYFOS logo

Connie Converse: One By One

This week I’ll be sharing a new song each day that features NYFOS artists making music in their homes. 

We can hear each other pass, but we’re far apart

Right now for every artist who is inspired to create and reach out there is at least one who has lost all motivation or who has tried to sing and is unable to finish the song, overcome with emotion. All of us artists have experienced this at one time or another. 

Today’s song performance is (almost) one of those experiences. Julia Bullock and her husband Christian Reif were generous enough to share this song “One By One” music and lyrics by Connie Converse, arr. Jeremy Siskind. Understandably, Ms. Bullock admits to having emotional difficulty getting through this song. (Her caption says that in the previous takes she did not make it through.)

Though Connie Converse’s songs were some of, if not the earliest and most catalytic of the American singer-songwriter movement, her songs did not sell. She was so frustrated with the lack of commercial success of her songs that she moved away from New York and almost completely stopped writing new songs. So many of our colleagues are experiencing a similar writer’s block now. 

Ms. Bullock commissioned this arrangement of “One by One.” “I asked Jeremy to keep Schubert in mind when he wrote the arrangement,” the singer told me “because Converse’s poetry and melodies remind me of the simplest, surprising, and poignant lieder. (She was a marvel…)”   


“One By One” 
Connie Converse (b. 1924-disappeared 1974), arr. Jeremy Siskind (b.1986)
Performed by Julia Bullock and Cristian Reif.

It is only fitting that we hear another song, a Schubert song performed by today’s artists: “Wanderers Nachtlied” D.768 music by Franz Schubert, poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Julia and Christian’s performance here is devastatingly honest, generous, and at the same time poised and elegant.

At Warren Jones’ suggestion, he and I added this song to one of our recital programs. That program features all wanderer songs. “Wanderers Nachtlied” completed the old iteration of the Schubert group with much needed balance: the other songs were fatalistic, aggressive, and/or jovial. I hear this song as encouragement to the weary wanderer: “Just wait. Soon, you, too shall rest.” Many of us — artists, health care workers, grocery and delivery workers, teachers, students, etc. — are in a precarious, tiring, frightening situation. For some, this message: “you, too shall rest,” may be welcome, comforting, reassuring, and much needed. Thank you, Julia and Christian.


Schubert: Who is Silvia?

Song of the Day turns 3 this week! Here’s a look back at our first week of songs (beginning June 15, 2015) from NYFOS’s artistic director Steven Blier.

I went out to Brooklyn last week and saw the Fiasco Theater’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was a magical night on every front: gorgeous weather, beautiful theater space (the magical Theater for a New Audience), and one of the freshest, most captivating performances I can remember. This very early Shakespeare play isn’t known for emotional depths or thematic complexity, but these actors (and their co-directors) found humor, charm, and clarity at every single moment of the drama. I loved it so much I’m going back to see it again this week before it closes on June 20 [2015]. Here’s the hit song from Two Gents, “Who Is Sylvia.” The Fiasco players do a charming doo-wop version; here’s the classic Schubert setting, sung by some great British musicians: The King’s Singers, and Janet Baker (with the very young Murray Perahia at the piano).

Franz Schubert: Lied das Florio

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!

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.”

Franz Schubert: Nacht und Träume

Sheer perfection.  All I ever wanted as a singer was to have even 50% of her breath control.

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org