Program Notes: Eros & Co

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published March 18, 2024

My cell phone dings—a message from Bénédicte Jourdois, who joins me every year to mastermind NYFOS’s annual residency at Caramoor. Our texts are often a bit—what’s the word?—unbridled, and they have been known to make me laugh so hard that I attract stares on the 104 bus. This time Béné has sent me a song by the French chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg called “69 année érotique”—“’69, the erotic year.” He wrote it for his then-girlfriend, the British actress Jane Birkin, who recorded it in her breathy, English-accented French.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the song, but it immediately sparked an idea.“Wait—we could do a whole show about Eros, the god of love! There’s Strauss’s ‘Amor,’ there’s Obradors ‘Al amor…’” “And tons of French,” Bénédicte texted me. “I’ll start a Google doc,” I wrote, feeling very modern. “Don’t forget to share it with me,” Bénédicte shot back, knowing my occasional propensity for blanking on the whole point of a Google doc. Over the course of a few months we amassed quite a list of songs about Cupid and Venus, and it became obvious that we didn’t need the Gainsbourg song that had inspired the whole enterprise. So we thanked “69 année érotique” for its service, and moved on. We had countries to conquer.

First, Spain and Argentina. I seize any opportunity to program music by two of my favorite composers, the Catalan Eduardo Toldrà and the Buenos Aires icon Carlos López Buchardo. Both are what is called petits maîtres, jewelers of the songwriting trade. Toldrà is a national hero in Spain, not just for his compositions but for his crucial role in establishing Iberian classical music by building orchestras and promoting education. Lacking a major cornerstone work like Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez or Albéniz’s Iberia, he never became as famous outside of Spain as Granados. Yet Toldrà remains one of Barcelona’s spokespeople, and his best songs have a kind of super-saturated gentleness that give them a mysterious intensity. Such is the case with “Madre, unos ojuelos vi,” an exquisite setting of a poem by Lope de Vega.

Carlos López Buchardo wrote most of his songs for his wife, Brígida Frías de López Buchardo—but not this early piece, “Los puñalitos,” first sung by the Spanish superstar star María Barrientos. She had partnered Caruso at the Met, where her elegant, chiseled coloratura conquered New York. But she left opera at age 40 and devoted herself to song in the last decade of her career, becoming a muse to composers like Manuel de Falla and López Buchardo. “Los puñalitos” is unlike most of this composer’s songs, which usually meld Argentinean rhythms and folk-style melodies to jazzy Ravel-soaked harmony (López Buchardo had studied in Paris). Here he roams freely through tonalities as he tracks the nuances of Leopold Lugones’s poem, evoking the promiscuous harmonic patterns of Richard Strauss in the song’s brief span.

I’m equally attached to the music of Enrique Granados, another of Barcelona’s poster-boys, as I am to Toldrà and López Buchardo. But he already has a solid fan-base and scarcely needs my advocacy. In his two major cycles, he captured the triumphs and perils of Cupid’s dart with astonishing subtlety.We have one song from each: “Amor y odio,” from Tonadillas, dedicated to María Barrientos, and “Mañanica era” from his Canciones amatorias. In both pieces, the interplay of major and minor has the ache of a Schubert song, presenting a melancholy as potent as a fever.

Fernando Obradors completes today’s trio of Catalan composers. He became famous for his four volumes of Canciones clásicas españolas, and especially for one of them, “Del cabello más sutil,” which gets trotted out regularly by anyone that can put two vocal cords together— divas, grad students, and amateurs. While Obradors’s artistic goals may not have been as exalted as his Barcelona colleagues, he knew how to write a good tune and a flashy piano part. In “Al amor” the singer confidently takes control of Cupid, which is a relief after so many swooning victims of his arrow. One doesn’t usually turn to German Lieder for frisky high spirits—isn’t that the stereotype of Spanish song?— but this time it is Strauss, Schubert, and Beethoven who laugh their way through the perils of love.

One of Cupid’s victims is the shepherdess in Richard Strauss’s “Amor,” who falls for the little god’s brilliant coloratura and pays the price. I get it—I’m a sucker for coloratura too. Schubert’s “Die Liebesgötter” takes a far more benign view of Venus’s kingdom, portrayed here as a sexual free-for-all with no consequences, a mythical Plato’s Retreat. Beethoven’s Welsh folk song “Cupid’s Kindness,” set to a slightly convoluted poem by William Smyth, brings it all down to earth: Cupid’s arrow sends men and women blundering into marriage, heedless of what life will be like after the honeymoon. Beethoven’s biographers are prone to dismissing his 128 published British songs as toss-offs written for money during a fallow period, but what they lack in profundity but they more than make up for in charm. “Cupid’s Kindness” sounds like the love-child of Mendelssohn and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Wolf’s “Ganymed” offers mystical, pantheistic ecstasy, the diametric opposite of Strauss’s virtuosic tinsel. In Goethe’s poem, Zeus desires the Trojan prince Ganymede and abducts him to be his cupbearer on Mt. Olympus among all the gods (remember, our show is called Eros and Co.). From the beginning of Wolf’s song Ganymede is in a trance state as he communes with nature; when Zeus lifts him from the terrestrial realm the left hand of the piano melts into a series of rolled-chord tremolos, transforming the walking quarter-notes of the beginning into the shimmer of transcendence.

It was a foregone conclusion that any program about Eros cohosted by Bénédicte Jourdois would include a healthy dose of French song, from boulevard to boudoir. For the former, we chose a couple of songs from an early cycle by Francis Poulenc, Chansons gaillardes—“Ribald songs”—written at the height of Les années folles, France’s equivalent of the Roaring Twenties. Availing himself of seventeenth century poetry, Poulenc dishes up eight songs in praise of drunkenness, adultery, onanism, and promiscuity. In “L’offrande,” Cupid turns up with a lewd suggestion to a virginal acolyte; in “La belle jeunesse,” the singer encourages men to take wives to bed—as long as they are other people’s wives. The cycle has not lost its power to épater les bourgeois, even in our permissive age. Back in the 1920s, when the songs were new, they were so offensive to Poulenc’s musical partner Pierre Bernac that the two stopped working together for a decade.

For the ultimate boudoir song, we have “J’ai deux amants’ from the André Messager/Sacha Guitry comedy L’amour masqué. If you were to label it a “sex farce,” you’d be correct technically, but you’d be glossing over the brilliance of its rhymed couplets, the startling erotic frankness of its action, and the complexity of its theme—the depth of sensuality versus the sizzle of visual attraction, soul-mate vs. eye candy. Guitry wrote L’amour masqué for his then-wife, the operetta star Yvonne Printemps. Her character, simply called “Elle,” introduces herself to the audience with “J’ai deux amants,” in which she reveals an almost Marxist scheme for using competition to drive up the price of her favors. As a nod to our gender-fluid age, we gave the song to our tenor—tonight, Elle is now “Elmer.”

Darius Milhaud’s “A Cupidon” was one of the first songs to make it to our list. The composer wrote it in 1940, soon after emigrating to America in flight from Nazi-occupied France. Like many other Europeans, he settled in California. There he landed a teaching job at Mills College in Oakland, where he went on to be a mentor to some very distinguished pupils including William Bolcom, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, and pop icon Burt Bacharach. He gave Bacharach some excellent advice: “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle.” Alas, Milhaud did not always follow his own counsel: he was as prolific as he was uneven. But at his best Milhaud could blend French shimmer, Brazilian samba, and American pizzazz into a first-class brew. “A Cupidon,” set to a 16th century poem by Pierre Ronsard, leans heavily on the first of these. Milhaud wrote his Ronsard songs for the French coloratura star Lili Pons, exploiting her charm as well as the easy spin of her upper register.

Ronsard’s poem beseeches Cupid to aim his dart at people who deserve it, but to leave him in peace. In “L’enfant Eros,” the poet Anna de Noailles, one of France’s classiest writers, makes a similar plea—pass me by this year, because last year’s wounds have not healed. Max D’Ollone set it to music, and if you’ve never heard of this composer you’re forgiven. He was a student of Massenet and clearly an admirer of Fauré, judging from the classical purity of his music, his open musical spacing and his sensual use of church harmonies. He faded into obscurity for two reasons: his Belle Époque sensibility was beginning to seem old-fashioned during the Jazz Age; and, more damagingly, he headed the music division of the Groupe Collaboration, a consortium of artists working in tandem with the Nazis during the war. When the war ended d’Ollone was briefly imprisoned, and eventually pardoned. But the damage was done; his political past and his conservative musical tastes banished him to the sidelines.

He was saved from utter obscurity by his grandson Patrice d’Ollone, who made a CD of his grandfather’s songs with baritone Didier Henri. It is also probably through Patrice’s efforts that the French publisher Heugel reissued two volumes of Max d’Ollone’s mélodies. Trying to capture the spirit of his ancestor, Patrice writes, “Above all, he conveys his own emotions and his inner landscape, divided between melancholy and ardor.” With the distance of time It is easier to give d’Ollone his place in history. We don’t need him to sound modern or revolutionary, and for those of us who worship Fauré it’s a pleasure to hear that great master’s musical values carried forward a decade.

Three American masters and a British icon complete our portrait of Cupid. Ned Rorem leads the concert off with his setting of Thomas Lodge’s sixteenth century poem “Love Omnipresent.” Rorem shortened the title, simply naming his song “Love.” Once Cupid’s arrow has hit its mark, he is your constant companion, inescapable but more benign than others have found him. The musical setting is one of Ned’s gems, seven lines with almost identical rhythmic patterns, tracking a graceful melody over a transparent accompaniment. No theatrics, no burning wings, no high C’s crying for mercy. Here love is a gift, even if a melancholy one, from the gods to humankind.

Flipping to the AM radio dial, we’ve got Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit “Cupid.” Cooke was asked to write a tune for a pretty young actress his producers had seen on the Perry Como Show. Once they realized she didn’t actually have much of a voice, they changed their mind and gave it back to Cooke. He, of course, knew how to deliver it. Lightly blending R&B, Latin, jazz, and pop,“Cupid” has become a classic.

You wouldn’t say that about Cole Porter’s “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” from his 1951 show Out of This World. The zippy refrain is charming, but the heart of the song is its central patter section, a virtuoso turn for both the writer and the performer. The tarantella where Mercury lists all the women he’s bedded blends Porter’s Yale education with his unbridled libido. It’s one of Cole Porter’s most dazzling list-songs, a genre he perfected, but the barrage of words knocks the song out of consideration as a jazz standard.

Out of This World was risqué, even for Porter, and ran into serious problems with the Boston censors during its pre-Broadway tryouts. And even in far less prudish Manhattan, Out of This World’s burlesque sensibility seemed out of step with the tastes of the time. The musical was changing: Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionized it with Oklahoma! and Carousel, and Porter himself had upped his theatrical game with Kiss Me, Kate. Still, the composer/lyricist was at the height of his powers as a songwriter. PC? Probably not. Genius lyric-writing? Definitely.

We’re ending our show with “O Tell Me the Truth About Love,” a song with an interesting history. W. H. Auden wrote the lyric for Benjamin Britten during their student days in the late 1930s. Cabaret songs by “serious” composers and poets were in fashion, and the pair wrote four of them for their friend Hedli Anderson, who specialized in what we now would call crossover material. She had a wide range, which is why Britten’s vocal line in these songs spans over two octaves.

They remained unpublished until 1980, but Auden’s poem was in circulation long before then. That is how the saxophonist/arranger/songwriter John Dankworth must have gotten the idea to make a setting of it for his wife, the smoky-voiced jazz diva Cleo Laine, in 1967. It is one of many settings of English poems that Dankworth composed, some comical, some quirky, some achingly beautiful. I’ve never been a big fan of the Britten version—comic timing does not seem to have been one of the great composer’s strengths. Dankworth’s setting, which allows for some jazz embellishment, lands the punch lines just right.

As for the truth about love, it seems everyone has theories but no one has a definitive answer. For Sam Cooke, Cupid is a wingman; for Rorem and Thomas Lodge, he is an ever-present shadow; for most others, he is somewhere between an ache in the loins and a pain in the butt. Edna St. Vincent Millay acknowledged that while love can neither feed the hungry nor cure the ill, “Many a man is making friends with death/Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.” One thing is certain: Cupid and his godly entourage have inspired some beautiful songs. For that alone I’ll build him a shrine.


Eros & Co will be performed at Caramoor on March 17, 3PM (Katonah, NY) and at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center (NYC), March 19, 8PM. More info.

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 has contributed many Song of the Day entries.


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