“Le spectre de la rose” from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights) is both delicate and grand, one of those songs that really sticks with you. The ghost of a rose, plucked and worn by a woman at a ball, appears at her bedside. The rose fills her room with its intoxicating scent, whispering words of love and reassurance. He tells her not to be afraid, and like a prince from a fairytale, he happily accepts his death for just one evening by her side: “My destiny was worthy of envy, and for such a beautiful fate, many would have given their lives.” Somehow, Berlioz manages to convey this passion without schmaltz, but with a dreaminess that could soften the most guarded of stoics.
I’m so glad to be able to share one of my favorite voices ever with you today. Janet Baker was born in 1933 to a coal mining family in Yorkshire in the North of England. She went on to become one of the most highly acclaimed mezzo sopranos of her generation, known particularly for her performances of Mahler, Berlioz, and Elgar, and for her long-time association with Benjamin Britten. She also specialized in performances from the English song and German lieder traditions, and pioneering performances of Baroque opera.
My first exposure to her warm and supple voice was from a now-legendary 1965 recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Composed in 1844, the five songs to texts by five different poets including Elgar’s wife, Alice. Originally written for soprano and piano, they were arranged for orchestra and contralto by the composer and first performed in that arrangement in 1899 – the singer replete with a mermaid costume!
As an undergraduate at Cambridge University we were frequently reminded that English music was somewhat inferior to music from the Continent – by which was meant Germany. Elgar was dubbed “poor man’s Wagner” and the pastoral songs of Quilter, Finzi, and Vaughan Williams were known as “cow pat” music! Elgar’s songs are not his strongest pieces, but the Sea Pictures are masterful gems of text setting and orchestration.
Despite Thomas Arne’s famous ditty assuring that us that “Britannia rules the waves,” the nineteenth-century view of the sea was still one of intense mystery, cautions respect, fear, and land-based admiration. The music reflects this aesthetic with great intensity and imagination. The moody rocking and foamy swirls of first piece, Sea Slumber Song, draw us into a maritime fantasy that pairs beautifully with the idiosyncratically modified vowels and lusciously drawn-out consonants of Baker’s recording. The whole cycle is a delight, became one of the soundtracks of my childhood from age 10.
I wanted to find out more about Dame Janet, her incomparable voice, and to discover more her recordings. I was desperate to hear her perform live but learned that she retired from singing in 1982 at age 49 (and she is still very much with us!) My teacher, who had worked with her and Britten as a student, later recalled that she wanted to go out on a gloriously high note (excuse the pun). Such a modest and self-disciplined performer was she that 35 years have passed since she sang a note in public. But her performances are still “discovered” on a daily basis by new and eager listeners through her recordings, reminding us that the legendary voice is very much alive and well. Keep the legend alive and pass this recording on!
When I started thinking about picking five songs for the blog, at least twice as many songs came to mind right away (and more followed) – I’ve left off so many favorites! I even left off my very favorite song cycle to sing, which is Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, partly because I couldn’t quite find one “definitive” recording on YouTube that I could settle on. But at least I’ve now given a shout out to Debussy, so I can live with that!
I have to begin with a composer that means a lot to me, and one of the most moving and profound songs ever written: Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from his Rückert-Lieder. I had sung a few Mahler songs on my graduate recital (from his Des knaben Wunderhorn collection), and I really loved them, but it wasn’t until 2014, when I happened to receive two offers to sing Mahler with orchestra (Symphony No.2 and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”) that I became obsessed! It just doesn’t get more sublime than those two pieces of music. I subsequently made sure to program a Mahler set on my Carnegie Hall recital (not including these same pieces, but three other wonderful songs), and I took it as a very good omen that a portrait of Mahler was hanging over the piano in my backstage dressing room that evening. I think he’ll always hold a special place in my heart!
But getting back to this particular song – it just gives me the chills every time I hear it. It’s the captivating melody, the serenity, the orchestration with the utterly human English horn and the etherial harp, and most of all, it’s the heart-wrenching dissonances. The music alone is enough to break your heart, but Friedrich Rückert’s poem takes it over the edge, and Mahler couldn’t have set it more perfectly. There is ambiguity in the words (see translation below) – certainly a sense of melancholy but also a contentment with fact of shutting out the world and living “in my heaven, in my love, and in my song.” The music depicts this tension so effectively – the melody keeps trying to ascend, but the orchestra keeps pulling it down. Moments of optimism give way to turmoil. In the most satisfying moment of all, on “Ruh,” the exquisite dissonance gives away the internal conflict underneath the supposed “rest.” Even though the piece has such an underlying resignation, I can’t help but feel like ending on the word “Lied” (“song”) is somewhat hopeful, especially from an artist’s perspective – the world may be too much to handle at times, but we have SONG.
Apparently Mahler said that this piece was truly him, that he identified very deeply with the poem, and perhaps that is why it is such a gem, such a perfect marriage of music and poetry.
There are many beautiful recordings to choose from, but I had to share this stunning performance by one of my idols, Dame Janet Baker, from 1967:
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!
Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!
It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
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