Program II – Song
Wednesday, September 7, 2022 at 7:30 P.M.
La chanson d’Ève, Op. 95 (1906)
[Songs – Selections]
Composer & Artist: A Conversation
Nona Hershey & John Harbison
Gallery View (2022) [WORLD PREMIERE]
Winter Journey (2022) [WORLD PREMIERE]
Art song is pretty much an orphan in American concert life. It occupies a very small sector here, it is much more significant in England, France, or Germany. A few celebrated opera singers will occasionally perform art songs in recital, but the presence of music for voice and piano in the concert world does not reflect the vast importance of this music in the work of the greatest composers. We really do not know such composers as Fauré and Schubert without hearing their songs.
We notice more the distinct national origins of these composers when they are setting words to music. The sounds, the grammar, the rhythms accentuate their differences, and serve to emphasize their very “native” attitudes to the fundamentals of musical structure. In broad terms, French song cherishes constant invention of harmonic detail, German songs emphasizes the invention of novel large designs that suggest and transform familiar “sonata” structures.
Fauré, Chanson d’Eve. As a song composer, Fauré accentuates his exploration of shaded, slanted, unique-to-the moment harmonies. Minute deflections and displacements of voice-leading and chord progressions offer a laboratory for the restless and subtle harmony teacher he was. In Chanson d’Eve he accepts the unusual propositions of the original text, resulting in a very large opening song, stating all the main poetic and musical premises, and a group of very short songs that seem to look like still more recondite inflections of the same proposals.
Schubert songs. Schubert inflects his songs less with frequent delicate detail—unusual chords—but much more with re-imagined primary structural materials—major modes/minor modes, unusual changes of key, broad sectional divisions that define his narrative. His harmony ranges from patches of stasis (unusual in his time) to rare, near out-of-control vertiginous turmoil. Unlike any French song composer, he is willing to engage when necessary, with a frozen blankness. “Im Frühling” first invokes the freshness of spring with seemingly artless rippling piano arpeggios. The second half of the singer’s first phrase embodies the surprise of spring by veering abruptly to the sub-dominant. We feel this move as fresh and spring-like, even if we don’t need to read about it in a commentary!
Schubert’s songs, composed as many as a half dozen in a morning, are especially impressive to see in their original manuscript form, the initial single copies fully fleshed out, ready for performance and publication, all tempo and dynamic indications present in detail. This is especially impressive, realizing that most of them possessed at the time of their making only the most uncertain, modest prospects for performance and publication
Gallery Visit, for viola and string quartet
When Nona Hershey brought over a reduced (but still clearly expressive) version of one of her etchings which seemed in her view to have something to do with music, I believe both she and Rosie Harbison suggested I look at it for awhile to see what transpired. As it turned out, I looked at it a lot, and enjoyed the various non-habitual routes it beckoned. Eventually I decided to render quite directly what I perceived to be two dominating lines which traverse the piece from left to right and project them against a variety of light and shadow through which they seem to move. This “content” is assigned to a string quartet (graphically suggested in Nona’s background?) with a solo viola (a gallery visitor?) commenting and reacting.
I first found Louise Glück’s poetry in 1975 when I bought The House on Marshland, which, like all of her succeeding books, I return to often. In the twenty years that followed I felt like I was waiting for a kind of signal that I could engage with her words, and this came while working on my fifth symphony, where I needed her, as Euridice, to offer a counterforce, a rejoinder, to Miłosz’s Orpheus. The feeling of close connection I felt in making that setting has evolved into many more engagements with her great poems, and a friendship with an artist whose instincts and bravery I completely trust.
When Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature we remember having two thoughts: 1) How wonderful that they got it so right, she joins Montale and Miłosz (two other poets I set before they were thus honored), and 2) Louise will be the least altered by it, still enduring her long blank, bleak hours, still grateful when they break and her work flows again.
Winter Journey is the newest work in a growing catalog of pieces based on the poetry of Louise Glück. In addition to the Symphony movement, there are now four song cycles, and a country-inspired ballad. Based on three poems from her recent collection, Winter Recipes from the Collective (2021), the poems of Winter Journey together form a varied farewell meditation-conversation between two sisters, both realistic and elegiac…I wanted to find their melody and harmonize it as it unfolds.
Kendra Colton, who presents the world premiere on Wednesday, September 7, will also present the first performance of the ensemble version of Winter Journey, which I created for the 50th anniversary of Collage New Music, Boston. That version will premiere on October 16, 2022.