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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. 

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.

Roger Quilter: It was a lover and his lass

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. Get your tickets today!


Today, before we reach full-blown summer in the city, a moment for Spring! While it’s Gene Wilder’s version of this text that gets stuck in my head each year at the first scent of hyacinth, let’s enjoy Roger Quilter’s more artful setting of “It was a lover and his lass”, performed by Dame Janet Baker and Gerald Moore.

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!
   Away!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Translation: Charles L. Cingolani

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

Gerald Moore: The Unashamed Accompanist

Since we’re looking at the art of “the collaborative pianist” I think it’s time to hear from Sir Gerald Moore, perhaps my favorite singers’ pianist. He played with all the greatest singers of his day and really knew his craft. Gerald Moore was the one who when asked at rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall in London whether he wanted to have the lid of the piano opened, replied in his clipped British accent “Oh no, just a very, very short stick”. He arrived at the concert, and taking the stage, there indeed was a very short and very inadequate spinnet piano with the name of it’s company emblazoned on the fallboard: STECK. Still one of my favorite stories.

If you can listen to him through this to the end you will be rewarded. I also recommend his “Am I Too Loud?” He’s dry, funny and brilliant. No one ever replaced Sir Gerald, alas.
Thank God for the record.

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