Gentle reader, on this page you will find program notes for Isobel's recital at Sweet Briar on the evening of April 29th, 2006
by Isobel Moody
Henry Purcell only wrote one full opera, but he also provided music for over 50 plays, including a revival of Thomas Shadwell's The Libertine staged sometime in the 1690s, possibly in 1692 or 1695. The play is a grim one; it follows the wicked deeds and eventual downfall of a villainous protagonist. The song "Nymphs and Shepherds" was written as part of a pastoral masque in the fourth act, where a group of innocent shepherds sing and dance in honor of the goddess Flora, just before they are slaughtered. This light and cheerful song, as well as the rest of the masque, acts in contrast to the rest of the play.
Giulo Caccini formally published "Amarilli, mia bella" in 1602, though it had already been printed in various arrangements by other composers, in a collection of songs that he titled La muove musiche, and it became the most famous of the collection. He saw himself as a pioneer in a new musical style, one that adapted the music to be more suitable to the text, and thus taking a new position in the long-running debate over whether the text or the music of a song was more important. It was a new, if not unprecedented, idea on Caccini's part to write all the songs for a single accompanied voice. That "Amarilli" was disseminated through Europe in arrangements for three or six voices arranged by people other than Caccini is a display of resistance to what was at the time a change in approach to vocal composition.
Caccini is considered one of the first composers of the Baroque style, which had matured by the time Purcell wrote "Nymphs and Shepherds " for the London stage, and by the time Handel wrote the opera Alcina for the same location, producing it in 1735, the style had stagnated and would soon be discarded. Handel's operas were so dependent on the numerous conventions for the genre of the day that staging them now is difficult, which is perhaps unfortunate for the song "Verdi prati," as while it is still commonly performed in recitals, it arguably loses much of its strength outside the opera. In the opera, it is sung by the hero, who has defeated an evil sorceress, but now mourns for her enchanted gardens, which will fade without her. It is a song not entirely caught up in conventions; it is one of Handel's few arias that does not adhere to the usual da capo format of two contrasting sections with the first repeated. The music of Alcina is also thought to have been an influence on Gluck, one of the most important composers of the Rococo style which followed the Baroque.
The Classical era, in which Mozart wrote, had its own demands with regard to form, and they were on a larger scale. "Deh Vieni Non Tardar," the penultimate number hi the final act of La Nozze di Figaro is a warm-toned aria in F major, corresponding with another aria of the same tone and key in the previous act, and the aria itself it subtly divided into three sections. In it, Figaro's wife Susanna, dressed as her mistresss sings of her love for her husband, as he listens, but he believes she is calling for their master. The deception of the scene in reflected in the aria: the simple chords of the piano part belie the complexities of the melodic and harmonic progression, where the strophes continually fail to end as the ear expects.
Schubert is best known for the songs he wrote, over 600. Many songs he composed were about nature and traveling, common themes hi the Romantic era. "Wanderers Nachtlied" is one of these. Both the words and the stillness of the chords also hint at death, another common theme. Word-painting abounds in Schubert's songs. In "Wanderers" he refrained from using too many rapid figurations, allowing instead for the slow-moving chords and soft dynamic to convey the peacefol stillness of the forest. The only other obvious exampies of text-painting are the rising and falling eighth notes, which stand for the breeze and birds, and are gone after only four measures.
"Lachen und Weinen" was written in a different tone entirely. The Ruckert poem dealt with potentially strong emotion, but Schubert treated it lightly, despite a slight amount of word-painting: while most of the song is in a cheerful major key, the lines dealing with tears and sorrow are in a minor key instead. Instead, the strophes are buffeted by incessantly cheerful interludes of almost comically bright piano playing. Any strong emotion that may exist in this song is mocked, as are the speaker's mood swings.
When Clara Schumann set another Ruckert poem in "Oh Weh Des Scheidens," on the other hand, she used a solemn tempo and heavy chords to emphasize the intense pain of the situation. In her lifetime, Clara Schumann was known more for her piano playing than her composing, and all of her vocal works were written at the encouragement of her husband Robert Schumann, who was more known for his songs. Even so, this brief song is arguably the most intense of the program. It went unpublished during her lifetime, as did most of her songs, especially those that like "Oh Weh" dealt with more complicated emotions.
Faure's "Apres un Reve" is a song famous for its intensity. The development of Faure's writing style can be divided into four periods, and "Apres un Reve" was written near the end of the first, which was known for its emotional content. "Apres un Reve" is also an exercise hi tension, due to the relentless eighth notes hi the piano and also because the chords form a progression that fails to resolve. The continuous pedal point an octave below is also a characteristic of this period in Faure's life; he stopped using it after his early compositions.
He composed "Le Secret" at the beginning of the second period, in which his music was slow and melodious, two qualities which "Le Secret" displays. The slow pattern of the chords, not dissimilar to those found in "Wanderers Nachtlied," and the song's simplicity foreshadowed later songs by Faure, some more famous. Also, "Le Secret," is the first of Faure's song hi D major, a key he would use very often afterwards.
Chausson makes use of the same slow quarter-note chords hi the first and last section of "La Derniere Feuille," and here all the chords are restricted to three to four voices, like a chorale. His music may be divided into three periods, and this song, like "Apres un Reve," is an example of a composer's first defined style, though it also displays the influence of the composer Franck in its heavy treatment of the emotional content. Meanwhile, due to its simplistic format, it escapes several of the flaws of some of Chausson's early work, such as overabundances of trills and arpeggios.
In "Si mes vers avais des ailes," Hahn is responsible for the most extensive example of Schubert-style text-painting in the program: here the piano part moves up and down through almost the whole song, giving the impression of wings and flight. As with "Apres un Reve," this early song brought the composer considerable fame. Although he was bom in Venezuela, he spent almost all of his life in France, and his style is considered to be representative of Parisian music of the early 20th century.
Almost all of Roger Quilter's composition are songs, which were known for their smoothness and beauty. "Weep You No More, Sad Fountains" is a prime example of his style. It has no melodic or harmonic surprises; they would disrupt the effect. He does not need them for his songs to have a unique flavor; the counterpoint presented by the piano identifies the song as his even before the singer comes in. The words are from an Elizabethan poem by an unknown author, and is neither the only poem from the Elizabethan era Quilter set nor the last anonymous 16th century poem presented hi tonight's program.
"The Sleep That Flits on Baby's Eyes" was another song that brought its composer fame, as one of six songs published as the song cycle Gitanjali, all with texts by Tagore. Of the numerous influences on Carpenter's work, the most notable in the whole of Gitanjali is Impressionism, which shows especially in his choice of chords in "The Sleep That Flits." Carpenter, unlike Quilter, would eventually compose multiple works in multiple genres, but he was still primarily a song composer at the time Gitanjali was written.
Benjamin Britten made a number of arrangements of both folks songs and songs of Henry Purcell, and "The Ash Grove" was in his first volume of folk song arrangements. While Britten worked with folk songs of more than one country, he was quick to find the weakness in their original forms: their lack of innovation. When he arranged "The Ash Grove," he gave it a fancy accompaniment, one which allowed some variety between the two verses, but establishes the arrangement as being outside the realm of the folk song, preserving only the melody, in keeping with his view that the melody is a folk song's strong point.
Like Schubert, American composer Ned Rorem is most famous for his songs, of which there are over 400. He set the poem for "The Nightingale," the second anonymous 16th century poem in the program, along with two other Elizabethan poems, relatively early in his nine-year stay in Paris. Right after finishing them, he wrote, "I have a recognizable style." Though Rorem professed at the same time to having little interest in actual folk songs, "The Nightingale" has the general feel of a folk song, especially in its melody.
He wrote "Early in the Morning" during the later part of his stay, by which time his career was on the rise. Ironically, he wrote disparagingly of his own works at that time, and "Early in the Morning" has been heavily criticized as weak, at least by Rorem's standards. Yet even in one of Rorem's lesser songs there are things to admire. These include the melody and its appropriateness to the text; Rorem has described presenting the text properly as being of the ultimate importance, and the improvisatory piano part is another thing to admire.
The Medium was Menotti's breakout opera. In it, Baba, a fake mystic, is disturbed when she believes something supernatural has actually occurred at a seance she had held for a customer. After the customer has departed, Baba's daughter Monica cradles her hysterical mother and sings "The Black Swan" in an attempt to comfort her, being interrupted by an interlude before the final verse. The lyrics about losing her lover turn out to be prophetic for Monica; the boy in love with her is killed at the end of the opera. The Medium from its beginning sets a dark tone with its music, and 'The Black Swan" is no exception to this. Like the rest of the opera, it is also remarkable for its economy: there are no extraneous musical material.
Like Britten, Aaron Copland wrote arrangements of a number of folk songs; "The Little Horses" was part of his second set of old American folk songs. In his two sets, he used a more popular style than he had been using immediately prior to writing them, though he had been abundantly using elements of American folk music in bis compositions since the 1930s. However, "The Little Horses" still contains the changes in meter, constant changes of tempo, and the uses of syncopation and multiple rhythms that are found in almost all of Copland's works. In the same set as "The Little Horses" is another folk song, "Zion's Walls," which Copland would later make use of in his opera, The Tenderland, the second of his two operas. "Laurie's Song" is sung by the heroine at the beginning of the opera. She is about to finish at school, and the song demonstrates the conflict in her about what comes next. During the course of the opera she will fall in love with a drifter who will then desert her, and she will finally leave her home by herself. The song has the same constant changes in tempo as "The Little Horses" and more changes in meter, as well as abrupt changes of key.