Sechs Lieder, Op. 48
Edvard Grieg mostly set to music the
poetry of his native Norway, but on occasion, he turned to those German poets
beloved of past song composers, as in Op. 48. Heinrich Heine’s verse was a
magnet for musical composition, and his lovely greeting to spring, “Leise zieht
durch mein Gemüt,” was particularly popular. Grieg sets delicate bells chiming
in the piano throughout “Gruß,”
his setting of that poem.
The poets Paul Heyse and Emanuel Geibel were drawn to all things Spanish, and
their Spanisches Liederbuch (1852)
was popular with composers. Geibel’s translation of the 16th-century poet
Cristóbal de Castillejo’s “Alguna vez” as “Dereinst,
Gedanke mein”—a poem of existential loneliness,
lack of love, and disillusionment—was set to music by Grieg as a poignant hymn.
“Lauf der Welt”
is a folklike song in which words are used to praise love that needs no
words—kissing is sufficient. Among the gems of Op. 48 is “Die
verschwiegene Nachtigall,” to a famous poem (“Under the
linden tree”) by the 13th-century Minnesinger (poet of courtly love) Walther
von der Vogelweide. This is a song of “natural,” not courtly, love, in which a
lower-class girl sings sweetly of her rendezvous with a lover. Grieg’s
beautifully blurry “nature chord” at the start and the piping calls of the
nightingale are among the notable details of this song.
One could hardly enlist the German poets for one’s opus without calling upon
Goethe, and “Zur Rosenzeit”
is a dark song of lost love. Explorer Friedrich von Bodenstedt provided the
words for “Ein Traum,”
in which an arch-Teutonic fantasy of a blond maiden to love in the springtime
forest becomes reality and reality a dream.
“Sapphische Ode,” Op. 94, No. 4; “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen,” Op. 32, No. 2;
“Die Mainacht,” Op. 43, No. 2; “Unbewegte laue Luft,” Op. 57, No. 8
The love hymned in “Sapphische
Ode” is both passionate and melancholy. The beloved weeps,
the interior of each verse darkens musically, and the ending in the piano
features a descending inner voice that is a familiar musical index of tragedy.
“Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen”
was described by Brahms’s first biographer, Max Kalbeck, as having a drop of
blood hanging from each syllable. Above an inexorable bass, the persona begs
for a single word of acknowledgement from the beloved.
Poet Ludwig Hölty, who died of tuberculosis at age 27, was a founding member of
the League of the Meadow, a poetic brotherhood formed in 1772. In “Die
Mainacht,” the two climactic passages about
the “single tear” are among the most intense Brahms ever wrote.
“Unbewegte laue Luft”
is remarkable in its evocation of a sultry atmosphere, the air barely moving,
followed by the gentle splashing of the fountains in stark contrast with the
persona’s unquenchable heated desire.
Composer’s Own Words
I was asked for a cycle of four songs for four young singers participating in The
Song Continues …, I decided to ask each what poems they might want
set. All the responses I got included 19th-century poems of the kind that used
to be required of us as schoolchildren to memorize, which I found surprising
and refreshing. Two of the poems, the Tennyson and Longfellow that bookend the
cycle, are thought of as “old chestnuts”—thus the cycle’s title. The Stevenson
poem was a suggestion from a singer, but I have wanted to set Robert Bridges’s
piece since my college days. The musical language reflects the poems’ origins
throughout, heard through a 21st-century prism.
“Sérénade”; “Chanson triste”; “Extase”; “Le manoir de Rosemonde”
The long-lived Henri Duparc composed
only 17 melodies before falling victim to a mysterious neurasthenic disease
that prevented him from composing at all in the final 48 years of his life. As
if in compensation for such a hideous fate, his songs are among the greatest in
the French language.
To the sounds of the piano-harp, the lover who sings a “Sérénade”
wishes he could have the same access to the beloved as the breezes and the rose
she places on her heart. Duparc’s harmonic shifts tell of trembling passion and
“Chanson triste” is a limpid hymn to love’s powers of healing … perhaps; the
touch of doubt puts the “triste” in this melancholy song. Throughout this song,
we traverse one tonality after another with effortless ease, as if on a voyage
through all of love’s benefices.
is marked by wagnérisme, or Wagner’s
influence on French composers. The eroticism of this song has—like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—a spiritual
One musical progenitor of “Le manoir de Rosemonde” was Schubert’s
“Der Erlkönig”; the steed that charges upwards in Duparc’s bass line was sired by the galloping ride through
that famous ballad.
Three Songs, Op. 45
Samuel Barber, who loved poetry and
read widely, set three English poems translated or paraphrased from German and Polish sources for these late
“Now have I fed and eaten up the
rose” is James Joyce’s version of a poem by the 19th-century
German writer Gottfried Keller, famous both for the novel Green Henry and for his poetry. A dead man wonders whether the rose
his beloved put in the grave was white (pure love) or red (passion); in
Barber’s setting, note the delicate but pungent harmonic emphasis on
In “A Green Lowland of Pianos,”
the different worlds of Nature’s music and
civilization’s art-music are brought into witty conjunction. Pianos on
holiday in the meadow behave uncharacteristically when brought back into the
concert hall for their “artistic milking.”
For all the graceful lyricism of this song, we note with a smile the
Liberace-like (but delicate) upward flourish in the accompaniment when “pianos”
are first invoked.
In “O boundless, boundless evening,”
the Expressionist poet Georg Heym here enumerates Nature’s beauties at sunset,
with night “nesting” in the ravines beyond. In this leisurely song (we want to
dwell on such beauty), it is perhaps the apprehension of darkness to come that
impelled the delicate dissonances in Barber’s music.
Blue Mountain Ballads
Paul Bowles was an American-born
writer, composer, and expatriate who lived in Tangiers, Morocco, for more than
50 years. His novels (such as The
Sheltering Sky) are often dark and impersonally cruel, but his music is
more benign. He collaborated with Tennessee Williams on incidental music for The Glass Menagerie and Sweet Bird of Youth, among others, and
on the Blue Mountain Ballads
is the song of a down-home visionary who
charts a soul’s journey from “heavenly grass” down to earth, where it longs for
return to the source. The ragtime rhythms of “Lonesome
Man” evoke the constant rocking motion of the chair in which
one of Williams’s quintessential outcasts sits and yearns for love. The “Cabin”
ravaged by storms is a metaphor for ruined innocence, while “Sugar
in the Cane” brings back the ragtime rhythms for
words hot with erotic possibility.
The Caracas-born, half-German Jewish,
half-Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn was among the most elegant denizens of
belle époque Paris. For his Venezia
cycle, he set barcarolle songs of love in Venetian dialect. The seductive “Sopra
l’aqua indormenzada” is a setting of a poem by one of
George Sand’s lovers, Pietro Pagello, while “La
barcheta” is even more erotic and alluring,
with rhapsodic sighing (“Ah!”) at the end of each stanza. “L’avertimento”
is a warning to enamored lads to beware of the beautiful but tiger-hearted
Nana, while the lover in “La biondina in gondoleta”
finally awakens his sleeping beloved for something friskier than slumber. “Che
pecà!” is a patter song (characterized by a quick tempo and
rapid progression of syllables, one per note) in which the singer dismisses the
Nina on whom he wasted so much anguish; the cheeky piano interludes are
irresistible. When we hear the ensemble song “La
primavera” in this early winter season, we can
anticipate next spring.