I am delving this week into the playlist of Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life. Much of the program focuses on scenes from contemporary life, but I also wanted to give some airplay to gay composers from the past. Many of them had to keep their same-sex affairs on the down-low, due to their era’s discrimination against homosexuality. Whatever they didn’t conceal themselves got expunged later on by their early biographers or their families. And yet their stories have emerged—not without controversy—in our more enlightened times. We know a fair amount about Tchaikovsky’s loves, and Charles Griffes’ long affair with a married New York cop (back when all policemen were male).
I took a bit of a liberty when I included Manuel de Falla—he ends a section called “Mixed Signals.” There’s no evidence that he had male lovers. There is also no evidence that he had female lovers. He moved in gay circles both in Paris and in Granada, and was very close to Federico García Lorca. He lived in repressive times, and he was a devout Catholic. My intuition tells me he was deeply in the closet, too frozen to act on his true desires. I think he’d be abashed to see his name on our concert, but once he got used to the idea I think it would warm his heart. It’s never too late to come out.
The song I chose is the finale of his canonic cycle “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” It’s a mistake to assume that songs are autobiographical. But with my lurking hunch about de Falla’s sexuality and his reluctance to form any kind of love relationship, the lyrics to this piece might have come from his very soul:
I bear a sorrow in my heart
That I shall tell no one.
Cursed be love, and curses
On him who made me feel it!
Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz. I heard Horne sing this at Carnegie Hall in the late 60s—my first live performance of the cycle—and I am still vibrating to the full, open chest voice she used that night at “que a nadie se lo diré”—“that I shall tell no one.” This recording captures it for all time.
Check this one out too—stylish, powerful, and brilliantly accurate in the flamenco passagework: Teresa Berganza, with orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard:
I love this popular song because of the simplicity and charm it brings out from the moving eighth notes on both the voice and piano. Sometimes the least pretentious can be most rewarding.
Leontyne Price with Barber at the piano
Marilyn Horne with Martin Katz
Henry Purcell’s Evening Hymn has always moved me to tears, even though I am more of a “this world” person in my own spirituality. Perhaps because of that, or in spite of it, this song touches me deeply, as it takes us through the last thoughts of a person who is closing the door on a life well-lived. What I find so extraordinary is the dramatic arc of this song, and how Purcell manages to build it atop the repetitive structure of a ground bass line. Part of his genius is how he keeps the contours of the bass line, but modulates it in the middle section, which makes the harmony do wondrous things to highlight the text. Note the deceptive cadence that results, as the singer reaches the word “security.” The harmony itself says that nothing is sure in this life (or the next one). Then, after this middle section of doubt, the ground bass line returns to its original form, from the text, “Then to thy rest, O my soul” right through to the end of an ecstatic forty-bar Hallelujah!
There are many wonderful versions of this song, whether realized by early music specialists like Emma Kirkby, or the gorgeous Benjamin Britten realizations lovingly recorded by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson and so many others. My personal favorite, however, is the one recorded by David Daniels and Martin Katz in 2000.
I hope this brings your week of song to a peaceful and transcendent weekend!
Now, now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org