Lyrics by Shakespeare

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published October 12, 2019

The New York Festival of Song opened its doors for business 32 years ago. Bolstered by a great passion for song, the generous good will of our friends, and a thousand-dollar gift from our first benefactor Joe Machlis, Michael Barrett and I mounted our first season in the fall of 1988. Tonight NYFOS is reviving the program that inaugurated the festival—in a spiffier, updated format. After all, one does learn a thing or two over the course of three decades.

We have gotten used to seeing Shakespeare’s plays in modernized productions—1970s hippies populating the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, a pop-top beer can used as a prop in Measure for Measure, dirty cops and an outlaw biker gang in Cymbeline. But we expect our directors to adhere to the original texts, which we hold sacrosanct. Eighteenth and early-nineteenth century audiences were not similarly respectful. Nahum Tate’s famous 1681 adaptation of King Lear gave the play a happy ending, with Cordelia marrying Edgar and Lear regaining both his sanity and his throne. It held the stage until 1838—when William Macready’s London production expunged Tate’s “corrections” and restored Lear’s Fool after an absence of more than 150 years.

The Age of Reason wanted to neaten up the beautiful chaos of the Bard’s plays, but the sweeping, sometimes messy freedom of Shakespeare’s original texts resonated perfectly with the sensibility of the Romantic era. In the mid-nineteenth century, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Richard II swept through Europe, with Germany leading the way. Since the rediscovery of Shakespeare coincided with the first flourishing of European art song, serious composers rushed to set the poet’s verses for piano and voice.

Tonight’s program gathers a squad of composers from five countries, including a quintet of his countrymen. For many of us, the words “Shakespeare song” instantly evoke the folky, plaintive warmth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Quilter, and Gerald Finzi. The first two of these were leading voices of Britain’s second generation of composers, arriving in the wake of Edward Elgar, Arthur Sullivan, and Hubert Parry (who had led the way). These days Quilter seems like a quintessentially English voice, sighing delicate feelings in perfectly crafted, parlor-sized art songs. To his contemporaries, though, he was a member of the renegade Frankfurt Group, a clan of British and Australian musicians who trained at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany.  (Percy Grainger was Quilter’s classmate.) They disdained the prevailing conservative English nationalism, opting for a more emotional, personal approach to composition, and sometimes ruffling the feathers of those who craved the doughtiness of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams also headed to the Continent, finishing his studies in the studios of Ravel and Bruch. His 50-year career as a composer outdistanced Quilter’s by decades, and his oeuvre of symphonies and operas was something that the miniaturist Quilter never attempted. No matter the scale of his work, the modes and cadences of English folk song remain omnipresent in Vaughan Williams’ music. As does Shakespeare: Vaughan Williams wrote settings of Shakespeare lyrics, incidental music for the plays, and an entire opera based on The Merry Wives of Windsor called Sir John in Love. Vaughan Williams composed two settings of “Orpheus with his Lute.” The one we’re hearing tonight is the first, an early piece written in 1901. It’s a ravishing hymn to music itself, composed in a style I’d call “pastoral bel canto.”

Gerald Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring (1940) has become almost a rite of passage for conservatory-student basses and baritones. In this cycle Finzi is at his best—radiant, pure, tuneful. I’ve always been especially fond of “It was a lover and his lass,” whose rhythmic lift and surprising slips of harmony function like a buoyant play of light and shadow. An introverted, reclusive man, Finzi was among the leaders of a third generation of British composers that emerged between the wars. Many of his pieces are elegiac, even bleak in tone. Early in his life he lost his father and all three of his brothers, and there is a thread of mournfulness that runs through many of his compositions.  The Shakespeare cycle provides a rare moment of sparkle in Finzi’s music, and it will keep his name on recital programs and CDs for the foreseeable future.

Britain’s most celebrated composer continues to be Benjamin Britten, whose Shakespeare opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare song, “Fancie,” were both written in the early 1960s. The song shares the opera’s style—spiky and fantastical, like the shimmering music Britten wrote for Oberon, Titania, and Puck. “Fancie” is a prickly response to Shakespeare’s meditation on sexual attraction, quite unlike the melting song Francis Poulenc wrote to the same poem. Both pieces were composed the same year (1964), and both at the request of Marion, Countess of Harewood. She was assembling an anthology called Classical Songs for Children, and she invited three contemporary stars, Poulenc, Britten, and Zoltán Kódaly, to contribute. Poulenc was the first to turn in his assignment. Since he was unsure about English prosody he asked his companion and colleague Pierre Bernac to guide him. Despite his best intentions Poulenc still managed to make a few charming mistakes in his setting, like putting the stress of the word “engendered” on the first syllable.

The fifth British composer on tonight’s program is John Dankworth, whose three songs come from a collection he wrote for his wife, the jazz singer Cleo Laine. I went through a serious Cleo Laine phase in my early 20s—I worshipped her, and still have a dozen of her LPs on my shelf. She captured me with her smoky alto voice, her dazzling scat singing, and her extended range—all the way up to an octave above high C. (I do like a high note.) Dankworth’s “If music be the food of love” has a be-bop feel, with a driving rhythm and a section for improvisation. But his setting of Sonnet 18 has the poise and depth of an art song, flavored with the gestures and chords of jazz. It is tightly composed, so the music doesn’t allow for much alteration of harmony or melody. It is that rare jazz tune that a singer and pianist can perform pretty much straight from the score and still sound stylish.

Shakespeare made inroads on the burgeoning repertoire of German Lieder. But the Brahms songs we’re hearing tonight were not written for the recital stage. They came from an 1873 production of Hamlet in Prague. A popular Viennese actor named Josef Lewinsky commissioned his friend Brahms to write songs for his fiancée, the actress Olga Preicheisen who’d been cast as Ophelia. She was not a trained singer, so Brahms created simple, unaccompanied folk-like melodies appropriate to her vocal skills. They stem from the traditional Romantic nineteenth century view of Ophelia as a pathetic, innocent child. They were Brahms’ only songs written on commission, and he never published them. They remained lost among his papers for 61 years before finding the light of day.

While Brahms kept his Ophelia-Lieder simple for practical reasons, Strauss did exactly the opposite when he wrote his Ophelia-Lieder in 1918. They were written in a spirit of revenge. In 1906, the composer had promised his next song cycle to his publishers, Bote & Bock. But he got into a bitter struggle with them over performing rights to his work, and renounced songwriting altogether. Though Lieder had been one of his most joyous endeavors in his early career, he refused to allow any more of his music to be published under the Bote & Bock imprimatur. Finally, in 1918, the courts decreed that the renowned composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos had to meet his obligation to his old publisher.

Strauss, now cornered, fastened on the idea of a collaboration with the critic Alfred Kerr. They wrote Krämerspiegel (“The Shop-Keeper’s Mirror”), a scurrilous satire on the music publishing business, using the firms’ names (including, of course Bote & Bock) in a series of vicious puns. B&B not only refused to print the cycle but got another court injunction to force Strauss to write an acceptable piece. The publishers no doubt still hoped the composer would produce songs like his early crowd-pleasers “Zueignung” and “Morgen.” Instead, Strauss vented his anger by composing six songs calculated to offend, three settings each of Goethe and Shakespeare. The Goethe poems are studies in bad temper, from the Büchern des Unmuts (“The Book of Annoyance”). The Shakespeare poems are studies in insanity—the Ophelia-Lieder.

Singers rarely trot out the Goethe settings. They are truly unpleasant, and you’ll only hear them when some brave soul is doing a complete traversal of Strauss’ Lieder. The Shakespeare songs, on the other hand, have attained a certain popularity on recital programs. Strauss’ Ophelia comes from the post-Freudian generation, and the composer observes her like a clinician. The repetitive motifs of the first song suggest she is obsessive-compulsive; the chattering energy of the second marks her as an hysteric; and the doleful tread of the third suggests a diagnosis of depression, punctuated by inappropriate affect and violent mood swings. Moments of rich harmony and impressionistic dissonance alternate with violent outbursts and neutral anomie. Brahms’ Ophelia is mad. Strauss’ is what we’d call “mentally ill.”

While the songs from Shakespeare’s plays have been set to music over and over again, his sonnets are relative newcomers to the concert stage. Hubert Parry earnestly tackled them in the late nineteenth century, but their poetic complexity and ambiguous eroticism attracted more composers in the modern era, notably Ned Rorem, Hanns Eisler and Dmitri Shostakovich. The sonnets were barely known in Russia until Samuel Marshak’s translations popularized them in the early 1950s. Among those who discovered their beauties was the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky who set ten of them to music in 1953-54.

Kabalevsky played an active part in Russian musical politics. He was influential as a writer and speaker on Soviet musical policy, and he always steered close to the government’s artistic guidelines. In 1948 a party decree called for music written in a lyrical style; it also encouraged composers to incorporate Russian folk themes. Ever the good party member, Kabalevsky wrote his Shakespeare Sonnets in an unapologetically old-fashioned manner reminiscent of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. But if these songs don’t break new musical ground, they make a good case for traditional virtues: drama, variety, color, and especially melody. Kabalevsky creates a rich, songful landscape for Marshak’s Shakespeare.

The translations, one must admit, don’t recreate the Bard’s denseness of imagery and emotional complexity. Marshak (1887-1964) is plain-spoken and straightforward. But he had a tremendous devotion to English literature and brought the writings of Blake, Burns, T. S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Shelley, A. A Milne, and many other important writers to the Russian public. Rendering Marshak back into English is a study in how language defines culture—and culture defines language. Through this Slavic interpreter, Shakespeare’s multifaceted “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly/Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy” comes out bluntly as “You are music, but you listen to music with incomprehensible misery.” What Marshak misses, Kabalevsky supplies—in a lush, late-Romantic way. Written for a bass voice, Shakespeare’s love poetry takes on an autumnal warmth.

The American songs on tonight’s show range from the square to the hip. Virgil Thomson is the leader of the square brigade with a selection from his 1957 Six Shakespeare Songs. Thomson favored a  faux-naïf style, intentionally limiting his harmony to the chords of church hymns. His aim was to force the listener’s attention onto the declamation and the rhythmic elements—a very early form of minimalism. In “Sigh no more, ladies,” the composer escalates the rapidity of the melody and accompaniment, starting with the transparent texture of a spaced-out square dance and ending with a sort of Protestant fandango.

Equally spare but less square is Stephen Sondheim’s setting of “Fear No More,” which was first heard in a 1973 production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. This updated version was originally staged in, yes, in the Yale University swimming pool, and starred Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Chris Durang. In Act II, George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare are in the underworld, fiercely competing for permission to return to earth. With this lovely song, Shakespeare wins the trial. Shaw can only speak, but Shakespeare can sing.

The iconic Dick Hyman is a musical dynamo who plays the piano in every style known to man, plus a few other ones too. His regular appearances at the 92nd Street Y made him a fixture on the New York concert scene, and his soundtracks for Woody Allen’s movies brought him to international fame. Given his polymorphous musicianship, it stands to reason that his Ten Shakespeare Songs (1957) mold themselves to the needs of many different performers. The original idea came from Hyman’s publisher who wanted them as a vehicle for Johnny Nash. The 17-year-old Nash had just triumphed on “The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts,” a TV show where Hyman was music director. But the songs didn’t seem to attract Nash, who later became best known for mega-hits like “Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” Instead, the first recording was made by Earl Wrightson, in a Marlboro-man baritone backed by a Mitch Miller-ish male chorus and TV orchestrations. Later, Maxine Sullivan made a popular recording of them, swinging the rhythms over cool jazz arrangements. I first heard them on an LP by the operatic basso Giorgio Tozzi, unembellished, hearty, straight off the sheet music—and fabulous.

In 1988, I was fascinated by the way this one writer could inspire composers of so many eras, temperaments, and nationalities, and my wonder has only grown over time. Shakespeare was my muse at college—my senior thesis was a discussion of his comedies—and he has clearly been a muse to centuries of musicians as well. It strikes me that music, if done well, can indeed be the food of love—and on Shakespeare’s advice NYFOS shall play on, as we open our 32nd season.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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