March 23, 2013

CHARLES IVES Songs My Mother Taught Me, The Cage, Tom Sails Away, Memories a. Very Pleasant b. Rather Sad, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, Down East

CHARLES IVES & MR. KALISH The Alcotts, from Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60

FRANZ SCHUBERT Im Frühling, Geheimes
Wandrers Nachtlied (Über Allen Gipfeln..), Gretchen am Spinnrade, An den Mond (D. 296), Versunken, Lied der Mignon (Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt), Rastlose Liebe


BELA BARTOK Annyi bánat, Régi Keserves, Párositó, Eddig való, ‘Hatforintos’ Nóta

MAURICE RAVEL Histoires Naturelles, Le paon, Le grillon, Le cygne, Le martin-pêcheur, La pintade

WILLIAM BOLCOM Song of Black Max, Waitin’, George



Charles Ives

Charles Ives wrote nearly two hundred songs, setting texts by an eclectic array of writers, including Heine, Shakespeare, Byron, Ariosto, and–more often than is the case with most composers of song–himself. He was attracted by nostalgia, and by the power of music to evoke memory, particularly childhood memory. This is true in the case of poems written by others–such as Czech poet Adolf Hayduk’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which evokes the powerful memory of a mother’s singing–and even more so in the case of Ives’ own texts. “Memories” portrays excited children, waiting for the curtain to rise at an opera house, and then the recollection of an uncle, his image called to mind by the sound of a tune he used to hum. Music from childhood appears again in “Down East”; while childhood memory, without music, inspires “The Cage,” in which a boy watches a leopard at a circus, and “Tom Sails Away,” which recalls a baby, now grown to manhood and going off to war.

Only in “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” does inspiration arise from adult experience, though again, memory and music are difficult to separate. In 1908, Ives was on honeymoon in Western Massachusetts, when he hiked by the Housatonic River. He later recalled: “We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.” Soon afterward, Ives wrote “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” one of the orchestral Three Places in New England, which blends musical depictions of mist and fog with a hymn tune, based on what may have been his favorite four notes, the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth. (He once described this motif as “the soul of humanity knocking at the door of the divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened, and the human become the divine!”) In 1921, the orchestral piece was turned into a song, with words from “To the Housatonic at Stockbridge,” by Robert Underwood Johnson. (This extraordinary figure, twenty years Ives’ senior, was a nature lover closely involved with the founding of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club. Among his other accomplishments, Johnson was instrumental in the establishment of international copyright law, served as permanent secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was a close friend of inventor Nikola Tesla, was responsible for the existence of the Keats Shelley Memorial in Rome, headed an organization which sent ambulances to Italy during WWI, and after the war, served as U.S. Ambassador to Italy–all in addition to his work as poet and writer.)

Sonata No.2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860: The Alcotts

The Beethoven Fifth motif appears constantly in Ives’ work, and its unlikely pairing with New England settings is not unique to “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” In the “Concord” Sonata, this transcendent music aids in the portrayal of various Transcendentalists: Emerson in the first movement, Hawthorne in the second, Thoreau in the fourth, and in the third, philosopher Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May. In Essays Before a Sonata, Ives writes of Bronson: “Apparently his deep interest in spiritual physics, rather than metaphysics, gave a kind of hypnotic mellifluous effect to his voice when he sang his oracles; a manner something of a cross between an inside pompous self-assertion and an outside serious benevolence …” And of Louisa May: “The daughter … seems to have but few of her father’s qualities ‘in female.’ She supported the family and at the same time enriched the lives of a large part of young America, starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions. She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy, New England childhood days … pictures, that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit.”

Of his portrait of the two, Ives sums up: “We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson Alcott .. And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms—the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day—though there may be an attempt to catch … a strength of hope that never gives way to despair—a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.”


Schubert was an even more prolific composer of song than Ives (he wrote 600) and still more eclectic (he set texts by more than 115 different writers.) But where Ives turned to his own words to express his closest concerns, Schubert was most attracted to the works of his many contemporaries who shared his romantic sensibilities. One of the writers he seems to have felt closest to was the author of “Im Frühling,” Ernst Schulze (1789-1817), whose life was even shorter than Schubert’s, and who wrote of a subject dear to Schubert’s heart, unattainable love (which, in “Im Frühling,” is made more bittersweet by the fact that it once seemed attainable.) One of the older poets to whom Schubert returned many times, on the other hand, was Goethe (1748-1832), who was born forty-nine years before the composer and survived him by four. The seven poems presented here represent every phase of Goethe’s long career.
Earliest are the “Rastlose Liebe” of 1776, in which the restlessness of nature is linked with love; “An den Mond” of 1778, said to be inspired by the suicide of Goethe’s neighbor, and to be written in her voice; and the “Wandrers Nachtlied” of 1780, in which the peace of nature is linked with death. Mignon and her verses come from the highly influential 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) This bildungsroman, or novel of development and maturation, tells the story of a young man who, less interested in the family business than in the theater, joins a series of acting troupes. In the course of his journeys, he rescues the poetic tomboy Mignon from a company of acrobats who treat her badly; thenceforth, she becomes his faithful follower, pining away with love for him, as in Lied der Mignon.

Gretchen first spins her wheel in Faust (published 1808.) Heinrich Faust is, famously, a scholar tempted by wordly rewards to sell his soul to the devil. Gretchen is the woman with whom he falls in love, and into whose love he brings havoc. In the text set by Schubert, Gretchen expresses her infatuation with the scholar. This setting, in which the piano plays the part of spinning wheel, was written only six years after Faust was published, and has been called Schubert’s first successful song.
“Geheimes” and “Versunken” may both be found in the West-östlicher Diwan (West-eastern divan), a collection of lyric poetry in twelve books, inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, and written between 1814 and 1819. The two poems come from book 3, The Book of Love.

Hungarian Folksongs

It is well known that Bartók’s work as ethnographer and as composer was closely linked: melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements of folk music form the raw material for much of his output, though they are often alloyed with other matter and significantly transformed. The raw material is rawest in his folksong settings, in which, with lesser and greater degrees of simplicity, he provides piano accompaniments for actual folk melodies. (Bartók listed three categories of arrangement, one in which the accompaniment takes second place, one in which accompaniment and melody are equal, and one in which “added compositional treatment is the most important part.”) Bartók described the arrangement of folksong as “the mounting of a jewel.”
The present five songs come from two collections. “Annyi bánat” appears in Eight Hungarian Folksongs, and is one of the first five, collected in the Csík district of Transylvania, arranged or composed in 1907, and representing Bartók’s first encounter with pentatonicism. “Eddig való” is one of the final three, collected in 1917 in the same district from soldiers. The other three songs come from Twenty Hungarian Folksongs of 1929. This collection is divided into four volumes, Sad Songs, Dancing Songs, Diverse Songs, and New-Style Songs. “Régi Keserves” is one of the Sad Songs, while “Párositó” and “’Hatforintos’ Nóta” are Dancing Songs.

Histoires naturelles
Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel wrote that “the direct, clear language and the profound, hidden poetry of Jules Renard’s works tempted me for a long time.” Renard (1864-1910) was a poet, diarist, and a wit both mordant and humane, responsible for such ingenious aphorisms as, “Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired”; “Failure is not our only punishment for laziness; there is also the success of others”; “If you are afraid of being lonely, don’t try to be right”; “The danger of success is that it makes us forget the world’s dreadful injustice”; “I am not sincere, even when I say I am not”; “We are so happy to advise others that occasionally we even do it in their interest”; and “Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties.”
Renard’s Histoires naturelles are the fruit of his bringing his abundant wit to bear on the monumental Histoire naturelle (1749-89) by eighteenth-century naturalist Buffon. “Buffon described animals to please men,” wrote the poet. “I should like to please the animals themselves. I wish, if they could read my little Histoires naturelles, that they would smile.”
Shortly after five of his animal poems were set to music, Renard wrote: “M. Ravel, the composer of Histoires naturelles, dark, rich, and elegant, urges me to go and hear his songs tonight. I told him I knew nothing about music, and asked him what he had been able to add to Histoires naturelles. He replied, I did not intend to add anything, only to interpret them. -But in what way? -I have tried to say in music what you say in words, when you are in front of a tree, for example. I think and feel in music, and should like to think I feel the same things as you.”

Cabaret Songs
William Bolcom

William Bolcom is a composer, pianist, and raconteur who, from his longtime position at the University of Michigan, has played a major role in American musical life for the last forty years, particularly in the realm of vocal music. Other than his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, his most important collaborator was the late Arnold Weinstein. Of Weinstein, self-described “theatre poet,” Bolcom has said that “He had such a gift for writing words that were singable, and that gave character. He was more influential on a lot of other people than people have taken into account.” Bolcom and Weinstein were first put together by Darius Milhaud, who, upon viewing a libretto by the poet, thought it more suitable for his student Bolcom than himself. Subsequently, the pair collaborated on three operas, three works of musical theater, an orchestral monodrama for soprano, and four volumes of Cabaret Songs.
Bolcom writes of two of the songs presented here: “One day in the 1950s Arnold was visiting his friend Willem de Kooning’s studio.” (Weinstein was a friend of de Kooning and several other important artists of the time.) “Bill’s brother had come to visit from Rotterdam, where they both had grown up…and they reminisced about the bohemian life in their home city in the 1930s…. The artists’ and prostitutes’ section of the city was the same quarter, with a lively street life. One of the most picaresque characters on the Rotterdam streets was ‘Zwarte Max;’ this is Black Max’s portrait ‘as told by the de Kooning boys’… George is a composite portrait of a number of transvestite (if only in their singing selves) falsetto singers we knew who specialized in the female operatic repertoire…. The kind of murder mentioned in George was all too common around Christopher Street when I lived there in the 1960s.”