Performance Wednesday, February 1, 2012 | 8 PM

Susan Graham
Malcolm Martineau

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Goethe's Mignon, Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, and other heroines are represented on this program that focuses on women from throughout history and literature. It’s another example of the artistic range that has prompted The New Yorker to rave that Susan Graham’s is "a voice without regrets, healthy, rounded, ineffably musical, and eager for a challenge.”
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The Program

“Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel” (The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation)

Maternal Anguish and Mad Music

Henry Purcell—organist and composer for the courts of Charles II, James II, and William III—was described by Henry Playford in the first volume of Orpheus Britannicus (a posthumously published anthology of Purcell’s songs) as follows: “The Author’s extraordinary Talent in all sorts of Musick is sufficiently known, but he was especially admir’d for the Vocal, having a peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English Words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors.” Purcell’s ability to mold the English language in music is evident in every detail of “Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel” from the second volume of the Harmonia Sacra, also published by Playford. Irish-born poet Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate in 1692, provided the words for several masterpieces by Purcell; their most famous collaboration was Dido and Aeneas, but he also wrote the words for this extended song, which resembles an Italianate cantata.

In Tate’s imagination, the 12-year-old Christ has gone out without telling his mother, and the Virgin Mary undergoes the gamut of distressed maternal emotions: worry, despair, and fear for her miraculous child. In one section (“Me Judah’s Daughters once caress’d”), we hear her grace and capacity for joy; however, shades of desperation dominate the song. Purcell alternates between tuneful sections and declamatory, recitative-like sections. His vivid pictorial imagination is always on display: The long journey “through the Wilderness” winds its way in florid manner and the figures drooping downwards when Mary bids “flatt’ring Hopes farewell” are drenched in pathos. The pleading cries to the angel Gabriel for aid are among the most shattering passages Purcell ever composed.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“La mort d’Ophélie,” Op. 18, No. 2

Berlioz’s Ophelia

Hector Berlioz loved Shakespeare: He drew inspiration from the writer to compose the opera Béatrice et Bénédict, a “dramatic symphony” after Romeo and Juliet, and the “Le roi Lear” overture. In the autumn of 1844, he was working on incidental music for a production of Hamlet at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. The production never materialized, but he may have composed the poignant “La mort d’Ophélie” two years earlier with the project in mind. When his marriage to Irish actress Harriet Smithson—a love that was inspired by Shakespeare—ended in 1844, he told his sister Nancy, “I cried this morning, cried in the streets as I went about my affairs while thinking of Hamlet, of Ophelia, of all that is no more, of all that has become like poor Yorick, or near enough.”

Ernest Legouvé transformed Queen Gertrude’s narration of Ophelia’s death in Act V, Scene 7 (“There is a willow grows aslant a brook”), from Shakespeare’s blank verse to rhyming French. Above and around the water-music in the piano, the singer narrates the tragedy with devastating simplicity—and yet, both she and the piano break into occasional sighs that are among the most poignant details of the song.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Heiss mich nicht reden,” D. 877, No. 2

Schubert’s Mignon

Goethe’s ethereal, tragic, adolescent Mignon from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) sings four songs that were irresistible to 19th-century composers. Mignon is the child of the mysterious Harper and his sister Sperata; neither knew that the other was a sibling. Fate deals disaster upon the unsuspecting, incestuous couple and then damns them for it. Fascinated by these characters, Schubert—already prone to revision—revisited these poems repeatedly between 1815 and 1826; this evening, we hear the last manifestation. “Heiss mich nicht reden” is introduced in an off-hand manner in Goethe’s Book 5, Chapter 6, as “a poem Mignon had recited once or twice with great expressiveness.” Schubert sets these grave words about Mignon’s oath to never speak of her past—she does not know of her origins in incest, and therefore her oath is a mystery—to dactylic rhythms (long-short-short, long-short-short), which always indicate cosmic matters in his songs. However, this rhythmic pattern and lyrical melody are supplanted in the blazing final page by proto-Wagnerian immensity.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“So lasst mich scheinen,” Op. 98a, No. 9

Schumann’s Mignon

Still drawing from the same story by Goethe, “So lasst mich scheinen” comes from Book 8, Chapter 2, when Wilhelm’s eventual bride Natalie tells him about a birthday party at which Mignon played the part of an angel. Refusing to take off her costume, Mignon “took up her zither, climbed up on this high desk, and sang this song with unbelievable grace and appeal.” At this point, she is halfway out of her body and en route to embracing a new form in a higher sphere. Schumann demonstrates the text in the music: At the beginning of his setting, he imitates the zither’s particular plucking patterns and melodies. Schumann’s setting is full of compelling details: There is a hush and sudden darkness at the words “Dort ruh’ ich eine kleine Stille” (“There [in the grave] I will rest a little while in quiet”), followed by a two-fold blaze of passion when Mignon imagines herself opening her transfigured gaze and leaving behind her earthly chrysalis. Schumann unforgettably demonstrates her sense of transformation just before and after she sings of her verklärten Leib—“transfigured body.” 

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Kennst du das Land”

Liszt’s Mignon

The quasi-androgynous Mignon, who Goethe describes as a Knabenmädchen (“boy-girl”), was kidnapped from her native Italy by a troupe of traveling acrobats and subsequently rescued by the title character Wilhelm, with whom she falls in love. She symbolizes humanity’s two natures, earthly and spiritual, male and female. Her gestures, mannerism, and language mimic with uncanny exactitude the symptomology of an abused child. She is furthermore the spirit of Romantic poetry within Goethe. In songs such as “Kennst du das Land” from the beginning of Book 3, she reaches out for the lost and irretrievable ideal—the Italy of her childhood. Just before this poem, at the end of Book 2, Chapter 14, Wilhelm has promised never to leave Mignon and to be her “father.” Mignon, perhaps thinking that Wilhelm is her real father, hopes to impel his recognition with her cascade of questions. Goethe tells us that she sings with “a certain solemn grandeur, as if ... she were imparting something of importance,” and Liszt imbues his setting with all the passionate intensity of late Romantic music. The singer’s initial phrase, repeated in different locations throughout the song, is the musical embodiment of longing.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal” (“None but the Lonely Heart”), Op. 6, No. 6

Tchaikovsky’s Mignon

The most famous of all Tchaikovsky’s songs is “Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal”; the work is set to Lev Mey’s 1857 translation of “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,” or “None but the Lonely Heart” in the English version by Arthur Westbrook. In Goethe’s novel, both the Harper—whose real name is Augustin Cipriani—and Mignon sing these words as a duet; together, they invoke a suffering that only those who know Sehnsucht—an unfathomable, often unidentifiable longing that is crucial to literary Romanticism—can understand. The great 19th-century singer Pauline Viardot, beloved of Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, sang Tchaikovsky’s setting at a concert to raise money for a Russian library in Paris. Turgenev subsequently placed a performance of it at the climax of his eerie story of erotic obsession, “Clara Milich” (“After Death”). Novelist Richard Llewellyn made “None but the Lonely Heart” the title of his novel about London’s East End; this in turn became a film of the same name in 1944, starring Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore. The lush melody is fraught with feeling; in a beautiful moment near the end of the song, the piano is given the famous tune to sound against the singer’s countermelody.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Romance de Mignon”

Duparc’s Mignon

Henri Duparc composed only 17 melodies before falling victim to a mysterious neurasthenic disease that prevented him from composing during the final 48 years of his life. To compensate for such a hideous fate, his songs are among the greatest in the French language, their subtlety and gravitas beyond the reach of most of his contemporaries. Under the aegis of the German composers whom he revered (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Beethoven, and Bach), he fashioned songs that are inimitably French.

We almost lost this song: The “Romance de Mignon” was a youthful work belonging to Duparc’s Cinq mélodies (Five Songs), published in 1870. Duparc tried to destroy three of them, including the “Romance de Mignon,” by reducing the number of prints almost to nothing. Three rare remaining copies finally surfaced, and we can now hear this work and be grateful for its recovery. Bell tones chime in the high treble as Mignon perhaps recalls the church bells of her distant Italian homeland, and throbbing heartbeat chords alternate between rich Wagnerian harmonies and brief moments of utter purity. At the beginning, the singer’s part perfectly captures the trancelike, hypnotic quality of someone gazing at a vision in the mind. For the refrain, “Là-bas, là-bas, mon bien aimé,” we hear utmost passion in bright major mode for the initial measure, the fading to heart-melting, soft brightness at her invocation of Wilhelm as “my beloved.”

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Kennst du das Land”

Wolf’s Mignon

Hugo Wolf defiantly placed his 10 settings of poems from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre—including “Kennst du das Land”—at the beginning of his anthology of 51 Goethe songs, composed from 1888 to 1889 and published in 1890. He knew that the musical world would be very familiar with the settings by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann of these same famous poems, and he thereby asserts his pride in his own post-Wagnerian endeavor. (In worshipful resentment, he once compared Wagner to the Norse Yggdrasil or “world tree,” whose giant branches choked off light and air to saplings like him.) His Mignon is not a fragile adolescent, but a passionate prophetess who sings of her longing for the lost homeland in harmonies that issue from Tristan’s Cornwall or Parsifal’s Monsalvat.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Lady Macbeth

About Joseph Horovitz

Joseph Horovitz, whose family emigrated to England from Austria in 1938, studied music and modern languages at New College, Oxford. He later attended the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied composition with Gordon Jacob, followed by a further year of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He was professor of composition at the Royal College of Music beginning in 1961, where he is now a fellow. Horovitz is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Gold Order of Merit of the City of Vienna, Italy’s Nino Rota Prize, and England’s Cobbett Medal. His works include 16 ballets; two one-act operas (The Dumb Wife and Gentlemen’s Island); the choral Horrortorio; five string quartets; and concertos for violin, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, euphonium, tuba, and percussion. He has also written an often performed jazz concerto for harpsichord or piano.

An Incarnation of Lady Macbeth

The historical 11th-century King of the Scots, Macbeth, was nothing like Shakespeare’s good-hearted general to King Duncan, who is deceived by three witches and corrupted by ambition and murder. His wife, even more ambitious than he at the start of the drama, is swiftly undone by the conscience she never knew she had: Trapped in the moment of Duncan’s murder, she compulsively relives the experience as she walks in her sleep. Commissioned for the 1970 Bergen International Festival, Horovitz’s powerful and dramatic Lady Macbeth is—in the composer’s words—“intended to portray the development of this character, from early aspirations to grandeur, to later power, and finally to guilt and madness.” Beginning in Act I, Scene 5, just after Lady Macbeth reads the report of Macbeth’s victory at the start of the play, we skip to her lines from Act II, Scene 2, when Macbeth murders Duncan (“He is about it: / The doors are open”), and finally to her famous sleepwalking scene in Act V, Scene 1 (“Out, out, damned spot!”).

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Fiançailles pour rire

Le moine et le voyou”—“the monk and the street urchin”: That is how the two sides of Poulenc’s musical personality are often described. The pendulum swings from the most delicious Parisian vivacity and frothy lightness to deeply moving, miniature chronicles on the nature of love and sacral experience. We hear both sides of the equation in Fiançailles pour rire, which is set to words by Louise de Vilmorin, whom he met in 1934.

For these “whimsical betrothals,” Poulenc begins with “La dame d’André.” According to the testimony of the singer Hugues Cuénod, who worked on these songs with Poulenc himself, we hear André’s sister being catty about the short-lived nature of his love affairs and about his terrible choice in women: Will his lover last or will she become only a memory?

Dans l’herbe” is, in Cuénod’s reminiscences of Poulenc, a beautifully grave elegy sung by a mother who has lost her child, having to do with the song’s dedicatee: “Freddy,” or Frédérique Lebedeff, who lost a child in tragic circumstances. The intensity of expression when the agonized persona imagines her child crying for her, dying when she was not there, is immense.

Il vole” relies on the double meaning of the French verb “voler” as “to fly” and “to steal”: The lover who steals her heart leaves and does not return her love. Poulenc sets Vilmorin’s words in the style of a fiendishly difficult piano etude. Tongue-in-cheek, Poulenc recommends numerous rehearsals for this piece.

Another elegy follows; the persona imagines her death in images of Dali-like surrealism in the song “Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant.” 

Vilmorin had married Hungarian playboy-aristocrat Count Paul Pálffy ab Erdöd in 1938. When the marriage broke up, she became the mistress of another Hungarian nobleman, Graf Thomas Paul Esterházy de Galántha, who left his wife to be with her in 1942. She knew Hungarian nightclubs; for her poem “Violon,” Poulenc explains that he had a Hungarian restaurant on the Champs-Élysées in mind, complete with a gypsy violinist. Regardless, this is a quintessentially French song.

The final song of the cycle, “Fleurs,” is one of those grave songs of love and loss that no one else but Poulenc could have composed. The pianist’s calm, even chords are like heartbeats that carry us from measure to measure.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Solomon in support of the 2011–2012 season.
This performance is part of Song of the Siren - Students.

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