With this final Song of the Day, I want to return to my deepest musical roots, and I have been agonizing about this selection, which could have been of any of the great classical composers. Mozart would have been an obvious choice, since his music has followed me throughout my personal and a musical life. There has not been a season in my career where I have not sung Mozart, and I am happy to get to sing Despina with Pittsburgh Opera this fall, having enjoyed a turn with Fiordiligi earlier this year at Florida Grand.
In the end, it is Richard Strauss’ music which evokes the most vivid memories of my childhood in a bucolic Swabian village, of picnics in the woods and weekend trips hiking in the Alps, of listening to LPs of DAPHNE and FOUR LAST SONGS after dinner. My octogenarian father, still in Germany and still a Strauss fanatic, runs deep through this music for me, and explains the sense of longing and happiness I get upon hearing this music.
Gundula Janowitz sang Strauss with a simplicity and honesty that seems to have been lost in most modern interpretations. I remember listening to this recording while reclining on our textured olive green living room carpet at the age of 6 or 7, and hearing it again now, I realize that while olive carpets go out of style, authentic singing is timeless.
Repost from July 17, 2015
As a young American soprano studying opera in the early 2000s, Renée Fleming was my hero. Who am I kidding, she still is. She has the most beautiful tone quality, consummate technique, and an air of ease that makes the whole thing seem effortless. Of course now, as a working singer, I know that making it look effortless takes years of hard work and dedication. My favorite Renée recording is Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach from the 90’s, and my favorite song from that cycle is “Beim Schlafengehen.” I listened to that recording weekly for three or four years, especially when I felt down about the business or about my progression as an artist. It always brought me back to center, a gentle reminder of why I sing: for the pure joy of self-expression and (hopefully) transporting others in the process. Since I couldn’t find that recording on YouTube, here’s a live version from the Proms in 2001.
What would a Spring themed Song of the Day be without Frülingsstimmen (Voices of Spring)? In my mind, Strauss’ zippy waltz conjures a rainy NYC day during morning rush hour when the sidewalks are congested with oversized umbrellas and your goal is to maneuver past everyone by ditching the umbrella and owning a rain coat with a hood. Or maybe that’s just me.
NYFOS offers a week of cold-weather songs as we settle into the winter season.
From NYFOS’s recording Unquiet Peace: The Lied Between the Wars, Cyndia Sieden sings “Schlechtes Wetter” by Richard Strauss with Steven Blier at the piano.
One of my favorite things to do is musical education outreach. I love that I can go into schools and help children learn about incredibly important lessons via music. I often bring in a special song the character of Harlequin in the opera Ariadne auf Naxos sings to the title character. The song has an incredible amount of wisdom, truth, musicality, and beauty in only a minute and 30 seconds. I begin the class with asking the kids to raise their hands if they like being happy. After, I ask them to raise their hands if they like being sad. You can imagine that the kids usually all raise their hands on “happy” and none do on “sad.” I ask them why they don’t like being sad, and most say “because it takes away from happiness.” We then start a discussion on how one (happiness or sadness) cannot exist without the other. Explaining the joy of going “through” something vs staying in it, the value of perseverance, and the true definition of hope and bravery are just some of the incredible lessons learned in my outreach performances. It all comes together in this masterful song inside of an aria by Richard Strauss.
I’m sitting at a friend’s memorial service, moved to tears, not only by the testimonials to his all-too-short life, but also by a recording that he had asked to be played: a short, lush orchestral intro, then a soprano … luminously singing of her longing for sleep and the peace it offers. “Beim Schlafengehen” [“Going to Sleep”], one of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder [“Four Last Songs”], moves me as deeply every time I hear it as it did decades ago that first time.
Composed in 1948 by the 84-year-old Strauss a year before he died, the Four Last Songs was, with the exception of one song [“Malven”] finished later that year, Strauss’s last complete work … his farewell to life. Set as lieder with orchestral accompaniment to three poems by Hermann Hesse and one by Joseph von Eichendorff, the work is imbued with a feeling of calm acceptance and completeness.
It is the one piece of music of which I own the most recordings, each different interpretation offering its own insight and rewards. I turn most often to the 1953 recording by Lisa della Casa with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Karl Böhm. Böhm knew Strauss well and conducted the first performances of several of Strauss’s works. He chose to record the songs in the order that Strauss had preferred, rather than in the order in which they were arranged into a song cycle and posthumously published. Most importantly for me, Böhm avoids exaggerated solemnity and allows the music to flow and breathe with a sense of serene peace, supporting della Casa’s divine simplicity. Together they reflect and embody Strauss’s deeply felt appreciation of the world just before he left it.
Of the four songs in that recording, I return most frequently to “Beim Schlafengehen” for the ethereal, touching beauty of della Casa’s interpretation as she begins the song’s final verse [“Und die Seele unbewacht…]. Echoing the immediately preceding haunting violin solo, her voice soars radiantly upward on the soul’s wish to live deeply and thousandfold in night’s magic sphere.
Guten Tag. I admire Richard Strauss’ music. His harmonic language, texture, the surprising subito piano dynamics and frequent lack of downbeats creates a soaring, most round eternal sound. His ability to write for the voice was extraordinary. Strauss also loved words. He wrote numerous songs and operas and worked with master poets. I have a special connection to the Four Last Songs because I have performed them numerous times with piano and once with orchestra. Once I live with certain pieces over and over, I feel as they are my personal ones. And these songs particularly feel as though I commissioned Strauss to write them for my voice and my soul. I love the simple and vivid poetry and of course the music that simply transports you into another world. They are so perfectly written and Strauss paints the words so vividly. It’s impossible not to see his vision.
I’m not going to say much more and just leave you here with this poem and the recording. Be enveloped in this beauty. My absolute favorite moment is right where the voice takes over after the gorgeous violin solo. It is divine! (The poem for me is a beautiful celebration of life… it’s about to turn to the chapter of eternity.)
Beim Schlafengehen – Upon Going to Sleep
Hermann Hesse / Translation: David Paley
Now that day has made me tired,
Will my blissful yearning
Receive the starry night
In friendship like a tired child.
Hands, rest from all your tasks,
Brow, forget all thinking
All my senses now
Want to sink in slumber.
And my soul, unwatched,
Wants to soar in freest flight
Within enchanted night time circles,
To live a thousand fold profoundly.
It’s a day for favorites: My favorite composer, Richard Strauss, my favorite song, “Ständchen”, and my favorite singer, Kathleen Battle. As soon as I declare a favorite, my mind immediately thinks of a dozen other “favorites,” but I don’t intend to be dishonest! You music lovers know what I mean. There are always many favorites.
But this song…. my goodness, this song makes me dizzy in the best way. I love the liveliness of the piano, shimmering like moonlight on leaves or a love-stricken heart, flowing radiantly underneath a buoyant and lyrical vocal line. Kathleen Battle is, in my mind, the ultimate interpreter. Her light and youthful sound, breathtakingly beautiful as it soars through Strauss’s expert writing, captures the innocence and excitement of this secret meeting of lovers. Yes, I am using many superlatives, because this piece deserves it.
Please give way to rapture and let the music carry all your worries away… after all, that is what we need most from music sometimes.
Richard Strauss has written some of the most satisfying, sensual music I know, as well as some of the most irritating. He has two entries on my “Operas I Won’t Ever Go To Again” list—no, I am not saying which ones—but how could anyone live without the “Four Last Songs”? As the autumn begins, let’s sink into “September,” a sublime setting of a poem by Hermann Hesse. There have been many beautiful recordings of this song—della Casa, Schwarzkopf, Popp. Here’s an out-of-the-way performance I love: the very young Sena Jurinac in 1951, with the Stockholm Philharmonic under the baton of Fritz Busch. You can find later, darker-hued performances of this piece by her on YouTube, but here she has clarity and cut and the sweetness of youth. Effortlessly full, her voice sails over the orchestra. Jurinac’s trueness of pitch, clean intervals, and pure attacks are remarkable for any classical singer, but for a Slavic soprano they are positively revolutionary. She never sang at the Met. She was supposed to make her debut as Barber’s Vanessa in 1958, but after studying the part for a bit she withdrew. As Rudolf Bing said, “The problem with Jurinac was that she was either at the end of a love affair and couldn’t travel, or at the beginning of one, and wouldn’t travel.” Thank God for microphones and magnetic tape. Her voice has been a ghostly presence in my life since I was a teenager—kind of an antidote to the neurotic intensity of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
And the poem:
The garden is mourning,
the rain sinks coolly into the flowers.
as it meets its end.
Leaf upon leaf drops golden
down from the lofty acacia.
Summer smiles, astonished and weak,
in the dying garden dream.
For a while still by the roses
it remains standing, yearning for peace.
Slowly it closes its large
eyes grown weary.
This week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia. (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!) Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!
It has sure been a pleasure and a challenge to curate this week’s entries for the NYFOS Song of the Day. Thank you, Claire Molloy, Charles McKay and Steven Blier for all the wonderful work you do and for the generous invitation to participate. I can’t wait to have you all here at the National Opera Center in February for NYFOS Next!
My last song is the amalgam of all the wildly varied influences in my life and the base, core reason that I do what I do for a living. I love music. Full stop. It is as essential to me as water, blood and air. I am lucky enough to spend most of my time around some really excellent artists telling beautiful and amazing stories through music.
Nothing brought this home to me more clearly than the first time I worked on Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos.
There are not nearly enough comedic operas in the classical canon, in my humble opinion, and I thoroughly enjoy this show not only because it is comedic, but also because it is a bit “inside baseball” about the trials and tribulations of working with artists and all their temperaments. In a nutshell, an aspiring opera composer is about to have his work premiered at a fancy dinner party his patron is throwing and learns that his glorious creation must share the stage with a troupe of comedians. Adding insult to injury, the major domo has just informed him that dinner is running late and in order for both performances the patron has paid for to be delivered, they must do so simultaneously in order to be done in time for the fireworks. Act 2 is the combined performances, followed by fireworks.
At the end of the first act, just at the point when the whole thing could come apart at the seams, the moody, emotional, young composer has a supremely honest conversation with the flirtatious lead comedienne about the loneliness of performing and the love we all seek in those fleeting, magical connections with likeminded souls. Flush with love, he embraces his music teacher (who he had nearly fired just before this scene) and sings the aria “Sein wir wieder gut”. I believe the words and music are self-explanatory.
Be my friend once more!
Be my friend once more!
With eyes new opened, I see what was hidden.
The depths of existence – who is there can plumb them
My dear friend,
there are many things in the world
which cannot be expressed in speech.
The poets put down very good words, quite good words
And yet, and yet, and yet –!
Courage is in me, my friend!
The world is beautiful,
and not frightening to the daring man.
And what then, is music?
Music is the holiest art,
which unites in sacred bonds all who can dare,
Like Cherubim guarding a radiant, shining throne!
And that is why she is the most sacred of the arts
Oh, sacred music!
The first time I heard this aria performed live, I knew I had made the right choice with my career path and no matter what, I would do something that involved music for the rest of my life. For me, it will always be, the holiest of the arts.
The role of the composer is a pants part, a woman (usually a mezzo soprano) playing the role of a young man. There are many great performances of this piece, but there will never be another artist the likes of Tatiana Troyanes. From 1988 at the Metropolitan Opera, the Composer’s Aria.
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