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Robert Schumann: An den Mond

Hey song-of-the-day-ers! Thanks to NYFOS for welcoming me back to this blog to offer you guys songs to listen to this week. I am grateful for the artistic outlet this opportunity is affording me to think about songs in a deep way again. This pandemic is such a scary time for all of us in so many ways. For us musicians, it is scary specifically because these careers and bodies of work we have put together over the years are suddenly in danger of becoming useless. Losing the chance to collaborate with other musicians, to sing for a live audience, to make money are all grievous, but at least the plague can’t touch my ability to obsess over a song until I hear it in my sleep and all its mysteries, charm, and wisdom begin to reveal themselves to me. 

The inactive, gloomy distance from music-making of these last two months is not, however, a total waste. Distance from an object is needed to observe it whole, and being forced to step back from the daily engagement with the fine-grained details and technical challenges of a piece of music creates the space in ears and brains needed to absorb and process music differently. Longing for the days of rehearsals and performances leads to reflections such as “what exactly is it I am missing?” What function do music and art really serve? Quarantine has got me thinking that art (and especially music, of course) is a necessary countermeasure—a kind of relief— our minds and psyches need to balance out the mental and emotional mechanics of daily life. The patterns and habits we adopt to negotiate the complexities of society exist to provide a sense of order and stability as we go through our day. We need our relationships and careers and daily tasks to be rationally understood and explainable. But we end up going down the same mental path every day such that we forget that the ruts in the road are not a natural feature of the terrain. The quotidian but confining path is closed due to Covid, but there are some previously unconsidered byways which are suddenly the only option.

In typical NYFOS fashion, I decided to adopt a theme to guide my song selections this week. Art and art-making free our minds of the mental harnesses we strap on to navigate our day. Music is inherently abstract and gives voice to thoughts and feelings that reside beyond the limits of language and rational thought. It invites us to see ourselves and nature not through the lens of structure and reason, but to think and feel in a space unburdened by the demands of daily life, disarmed of the mental armor we bear to shield ourselves from the intensity and complexity of the feelings that reside beneath the surface. In general I think it’s fair to say that we prefer to spend most of our time in the intelligible order of the surface. But no one can deny that there are deeper currents running through us which give our lives meaning. The depth of our souls (or whatever) is the powerful pulsing hot core of our beings that fuels and feeds the life on the surface, but they are more difficult to fathom and name. I find that I use art and music to access this space under the surface of life. The parts on which the sun doesn’t shine, if you will. So I picked songs about the moon.

Our Moon Week opener is a not-super-well-known Schumann jam, An den Mond, from his Drei Gesange, op. 95. The three songs set German translations of Byron poems from his collection Hebrew Melodies. It makes a fun game for a song nerd to scan the original English poem to German song text to the English translation of the German translation. It illustrates the under-appreciated art of translation as well as its inherent imperfection, but at least I know this audience is one of the few who will tolerate such a degrading display of nerd. 

Byron original:
Sun of the sleepless! — melancholy Star!
Whose tearful beam glows tremulously far —
That show’st the darkness thou cans’t not dispel
How like art Thou to Joy remembered well!
So gleams the past — the light of other days —
That shines but warms not with its powerless rays,
A Night-beam Sorrow watcheth to behold
Distinct but distant — clear — but — oh! how cold!

German translation by Theodore Körner:
Schlafloser Sonne melanchol’scher Stern
Dein tränenvoller Strahl erzittert fern,
Du offenbarst die Nacht, die dir nicht weicht —
O wie du ganz des Glücks Erinn’rung gleichst!
So glänzt auch längstvergangner Tage Licht,
Es scheint, doch wärmt sein schwaches Leuchten nicht,
Der Gram sieht wohl des Sterns Gestalt,
Scarf, aber fern, so klar, doch ach! wie kalt!

English translation of the German translation of the Byron poem by Richard Stokes:
Sun of the sleepless! melancholy star!
Your tear-stained rays tremble afar
You revealed the darkness that you cannot dispel —
O how you are the image of remembered bliss!
So gleams the light of distant days now past
It shines, but gives no warmth with its faint gleam:
Sorrow observes the shape of that star
Distinct but distant, so clear but ah! how cold!

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. I’ll leave a full interpretation of this song and poem to you. I just want to highlight the one line that always surprises me: the moon “[t]hat show’st the darkness thou cans’t not dispel.” The oxymoron is the point. How can something show darkness? But you know exactly what he means, right? We ignore the dark corners on the inside and cast our gaze away from the gnarled and twisted shadows around us. But the moon is a reflective surface, a kind of mirror that shines the light of day back upon us in its absence, but transformed and transforming. Observing our world and ourselves in this colder, more mysterious light strikes me as a metaphor for the function of art. The material and psychic substance of life is always present, but we see different aspects of it depending on how the light strikes it. Moonlight is the light that illuminates the obscure parts of ourselves that hide in broad daylight. 

Peter Schreier is a voice that has grown on me over the years. It is limited tonally in some ways, but his immaculate Romantic and Germanic style are authoritative to my mind. The balance of intellect and emotion in this performance is perfectly judged. Schumann originally considered setting these three poems for voice and harp, and the pianist, Norman Shetler, artfully suggests the ancient (Hebräische?) zither/lyre with which the ancient poet would accompany himself. And of course the delicious melancholy that the opening chords cast makes me think of poor old Robert Schumann. I feel your pain, Bob. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di9sIXoarXY

Robert Schumann: Süsser Freund

I have to feature the work that loomed largest for me this year, Robert Schumann’s iconic Frauenliebe und leben. I finally learned it all and performed it after years of wanting to do so but never finding the time or the right venue to make myself just do it. The right time turned out to be my April recital for Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series which I performed with Alden Gatt, a wonderful pianist and friend of mine. Since I first became acquainted with the cycle in grad school (having been assigned the first song), I just loved it — stunningly beautiful songs with such a great arc and variety of moods and so many wonderful harmonic moments. Looking more into Aldelbert von Chamisso’s text, of course, I learned that it is considered controversial by some because of its very traditional depiction of a woman’s life and her place in society; some of the lines, imply she worships the man she loves like a God, which of course makes us feminists bristle! I admit I was a little iffy about it at first. Yes, this woman was obsessed, and yes, she put everything she had into her husband and her child, but of course in the end that leads her to be completely destroyed by the death of her husband, so it’s not exactly a 100% rosy picture of what it meant to be a woman at that time. And though it can feel problematic to a modern audience, in the context of the life of an 18th-century woman, who would not have been able to own property of her own, and who wasn’t allowed as much of a life outside of her family, her obsession with marriage and motherhood makes more sense. (And let’s be honest, who among us of any gender hasn’t gotten a little obsessed with a newly-found love interest and been unable to think of anything else for a time?) Though it’s written by a man, the delving so deep into the perspective of a woman in this way was an unusual thing at that time, so I actually came to feel that it honored women in its way. And the way Schumann felt about his love, Clara, I always thought he understood these same feelings himself. It’s a complicated issue to which a short blog-post can’t do justice, but I read many articles on both sides of the topic, and there are a number of interesting and valid points of view out there to read!* Nonetheless, even before I had really come to terms with my appreciation of the text, I have always found the music to be undeniably sublime.

It was hard for me to single out one song, as they are all wonderful in their own way, and they all work best together as a unit. The song I probably enjoy singing the most is “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” — I really love that one. But I think the most special piece is the sixth song, “Süsser Freund.” It captures such a sweet, tender moment, as she is lying in bed with her husband; she is emotional knowing that she is pregnant, but he doesn’t know it yet. My favorite musical moment in the entire cycle is the start of the middle section of this song (around 2:00 in this recording) and the next several measures after that – she has just finished saying “I want to whisper all my happiness in your ear,” before the piano sets up this section, and then something about that melody that follows and the harmonies beneath it, as she says, “Do you know now why I weep these tears?” just melts me.

It’s also a nearly impossible task to pick a recording among the many fantastic ones that are out there! Besides this one here, I have some other favorites of the entire cycle including Elly Ameling, Janet Baker… oh, too many to name. But especially in listening to this particular song, I just really loved the way Anne Sofie von Otter delivered the tenderness of this piece — the diction, and sensitivity, and the warmth — it’s all there. And the sensitive playing of pianist Bengt Forsberg complements von Otter’s artistry so wonderfully. I love the way she sings the entire cycle, so check that out as well. (Of course you could go down a YouTube rabbit hole if you’re not careful!)

Well, it looks like this Song-of-the-Day week has turned into a rave about another one of my mezzo-soprano idols each day! And I’m okay with that. 🙂

*Side-note: another way we “dealt” with the potential discomfort with the traditional text is to pair it with Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, which present quite a different take on the role of a woman! More on that tomorrow!

Robert Schumann: Mondnacht

I wanted to talk today about partnerships, which seems particularly apt since Emily and I are presenting Song of the Day collaboratively!

From ages 13 to 18 I would spend as much of my time as possible accompanying the music lessons of my fellow schoolmates. It taught me—despite being quite unaware at the time—a multitude of musical skills that would go on to inform my career.  To make good chamber music it’s not good enough to concentrate solely on your part. One must be fully aware of the other performers and their parts too in order to make truly collaborative music. I found this kind of music-making desperately satisfying, more so even than solo performing.  The electricity of that musical symbiosis (presuming you have a partner who is equally into collaborating as you are!) is utterly exhilarating and without compare. It’s the ultimate partnership.

When I first had the pleasure of hearing my first NYFOS concert I realized, as many of you do, too, that I was witness to an extraordinary collaborative feat: a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts thanks to immaculate and engaging singing, ever-creative piano playing, and brilliant combinations of words and music.

Song composition is an equally exhilarating exercise in partnership: composers muse over poetry and prose and think of ways in which it speaks to them, and how they might further inform the listener of its moods and intentions through their music. The creative possibilities are endless. One of my favorite composers is Benjamin Britten, who, in addition to a long and distinguished career in that field also enjoyed an active life as a performer. He frequently composed for and performed with for his life partner and muse, Peter Pears, himself a superb if somewhat idiosyncratic tenor. That partnership prompted Britten to write some of the most expressive and imaginative compositions such as Peter Grimes, the War Requiem, and a host of original songs and arrangements.

As a young artist at the Britten-Pears School a number of years ago I had the pleasure and privilege of further immersing myself in the musical and personal worlds of Britten and Pears. The couple’s home since 1957 was the Red House in Aldeburgh, a charming seaside village on the English Coast. During the customary tour we were shown the many features of interest, including the foot-operated bell under the dining room table with which Britten would entertain young children by “magically” summoning the housekeeper, and the cowbells on the stairs that Rostropovich would noisily ring to wake the entire household when he was staying there.

But most poignant was the reminder that homosexuality in England was illegal until 1967. Despite having separate bedrooms, their living together was a great risk, and several of Britten and Pears’ colleagues were imprisoned for suspected homosexual acts. It made me realize the extent of the risk that flowed throughout their relationship, and how that must have further informed Britten’s composing and their performing. It is also an enduring reminder that love conquers all in the end.

To close, I wanted to share a performance of these two great men performing Schumann’s Mondnacht from the Op.39 Liederkreis, written in 1841, the composer’s ‘year of song’. It was recorded live as part of an Aldeburgh Festival recital given in the Jubilee Hall on 15 June, 1958. The heavens stoop down to kiss the earth in a mystical nocturnal scene full of the romanticism and atmosphere we associate with the lieder tradition. Theorists and musicologists have written more about this song than perhaps any other. As a student I loved to discover that, among many other things, Schumann used the notes E-B-E (B-natural is H in German) to spell “Ehe”, German for “marriage”, in the piano part. The marriage of music and words is indeed sans pareil. Sadly only an extract of this particular recording was available, so listen to Janet Baker’s performance to hear the entire song.

Excerpt of Britten/Pears performance of Mondnacht

Janet Baker sings “Mondnacht”

Robert Schumann: Die alten, bösen Lieder (Dichterliebe, Op. 48)

When I was sixteen, I began taking formal voice lessons in Philadelphia. I found a teacher via a wonderful book on Mario Lanza I received for my birthday. I had just recently discovered him and was inhaling every book and record I could get my hands on. In this particular book, there were a number of testimonials from people who knew Mario, worked with him, or were inspired by his voice. One of these was written by Enrico Di Giuseppe, a wonderful tenor who enjoyed a long and productive career with the Metropolitan and NYCO from the 60s-80s in a variety of roles. At the conclusion of his chapter, he stated that he was teaching voice privately in Philadelphia. Inspired, I wrote him a lengthy letter requesting lessons. He called me one evening and we set up a trial lesson for that week. I brought him ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora because “it’s short and only goes to an A”… his reaction was pretty priceless. After I bellowed my way through the aria like the sixteen year old baritenor I was, he handed me the “24 Italian Hits” and we started working together. He was my teacher for the next six years until his passing and in that time, he became very much like a grandfather to me.

A few months into my lessons, I told him I was studying German in high school. His eyes lit up and he leapt from the piano and over to his bookshelves. He handed me a couple books to take home and begin studying: they were Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ and Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I fell in love with them immediately. To this day, the music of Schubert brings back beautiful, simple memories of driving to and from lessons in South Philadelphia in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, or traveling around Germany in the summer of 2001 as an exchange student. It may seem strange that a teenager who was in a rock band and played sports had Schubert as the soundtrack to his high school years, but the music is inextricably linked to some very special moments that shaped who I am today.

I put German lieder aside for a number of years, focusing instead on standard operatic arias and American art song. When I moved to Europe to start my career there, the music understandably made its way back into my life. My first assignment as a member of the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival saw Herr Schubert make a return. A year later, when I joined the Junges Ensemble at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, it was Herr Schumann’s turn. Each ensemble member was tasked with planning a full-length recital. I chose to sing ‘Dichterliebe’ for the first half. When I first studied this cycle, both my musical and German skills were not quite mature enough to comprehend the depths of these songs, each of them individual masterpieces. I remember exactly where I was when I translated the texts for the first time. I sat in a Starbucks a few paces from St. Stephen’s cathedral, slowly approaching the final song of the cycle. I remembered learning it in high school, but dismissing it as another ‘wimpy’ song where the narrator is again whining about his profound pain. This time, I listened intently. I thought about everything that had preceded this song, not just textually, but also musically.

Die alten, bösen Lieder. Die Träume bös und arg. Die laßt uns jetzt begraben. Holt einen großen Sarg

All of the old songs and dreams. Just bury them. And that coffin?? It’d better be %#$&@ huge..

(that’s an “Andrew translation”, mind you)

The narrator goes on to specify that the coffin should be as large as the great Heidelberger Fass, a massive wine vat located in the cellars of the Heidelberg Castle. The death bier upon which it should be placed must be longer than the bridge to Mainz. And to carry it, fetch no fewer than twelve giants, each of them with the strength of St. Christopher. They should drag it out and sink it deep into the sea, because a coffin of this magnitude deserves such a grave.

The music at this point just collapses into a slow and brooding pace. It’s as if the narrator has reached the height of his anger and frustration and smashed a mirror with his bare fist. He now stands completely still, catching his breath, and we get the kicker..

Wißt ihr warum der Sarg wohl
So groß und schwer mag sein?

Do you know why this coffin is so damn heavy and large??

It’s set deep in the range of the singer, be it a baritone or tenor, almost to forcibly prevent him from singing this hushed section too loudly or forcefully. Then the vocal line leaps up an octave, as the narrator just sinks to the floor crying. Mind you, this is not a loud, ugly cry.. this is an eyes-squinted-shut, mouth-agape-but-no-sound-coming-out cry here.

Ich senkt’ auch meine Liebe
und meinen Schmerz hinein…

I sank along with it my love and my pain…

I sat in that Starbucks, covered my mouth with my hand and, contrary to the narrator’s experience, actually DID ugly cry. Even in rehearsals, my voice broke every single time I came to this final phrase, and at the performance, the ‘-ein’ of ‘hinein’ did not even phonate. The most challenging part of the entire cycle was keeping completely still during the absolutely beautiful piano postlude that follows.

So this lengthy post is basically to tell you that today’s song is ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’, the final song in Robert Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I’ve chosen the wonderful Hermann Prey, in a video performance of the entire cycle made late in his career. Though past his vocal prime, Prey does a remarkable job conveying the emotions I described above. He embraces the silence and stretches out those final phrases, really twisting that knife.

Hermann Prey

Schumann: Des Sennen Abschied

This week I am in the Berkshires, preparing for a performance at Tanglewood of my Variations on a Summer Day, songs which in part were previewed on the NYFOS Next series two years ago.  Songs about summer, and about mountains, spring to mind.  I am numbering these days of perfection, sad for them to end but already making plans for the fall. Over and again I am hearing Robert Schumann’s song Des Sennen Abschied, to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, their farewell to the willows and wells of water and flowers of the season.  The narrator is an Alpine hersdman, proclaiming “Der Sommer ist hin,” or “The summer is gone.”

The open, clean drone of a fifth, in the open, clean key of C Major announces the new, sparer season.  The E, which would make the chord full and vibrant, is mostly missing from the opening.  But as the text turns to the defining characteristics of summer, the music shifts not only to include the E but to move toward E major as a key, as if bathing us in summer light.  Just as the music would cadence in E major, giving summer to us as something we could keep, Schumann substitutes the opening drone, and the season and its wonders vanish.  Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg do a remarkable job with it.

In the summer of his life, in the year 1840, Schumann wrote well over one hundred songs, among them the songs that comprise his well-known cycles DichterliebeLiederkreis and Fraunliebe und Leben.  But this song issues from a decade later, in the autumn of his life, and I can’t help but assume that this song is the effort of an auto-biographer.

Robert Schumann, Des Sennen Abschied, Opus 79, no. 22
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Bengt Forsberg, piano
Deutsche Grammophon

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