Performance Saturday, December 10, 2011 | 8 PM

Karita Mattila
Martin Katz

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
In 2004 and 2008, Karita Mattila stunned New York in the lead role in Strauss’s Salome at the Met, her performance revealing a “courage, intensity and emotional nakedness” (The New York Times) rarely seen on the opera stage. At Carnegie Hall this season, she brings the same power and passion to songs by Poulenc, Debussy, Marx, and Aulis Sallinen.
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The Program


Poulenc and Apollinaire

Francis Poulenc first met Guillaume Apollinaire in late 1916; the composer, however, had already been fascinated with the great avant-garde poet’s verse for several years. In 1950, the composer told an interviewer, “I find myself able to compose music only to poetry with which I feel total contact—a contact transcending mere admiration. This quality is one I felt for the first time when I encountered the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire. That was in 1912, when I was 13.” The poet died in the great flu pandemic of 1918 when Poulenc was still a teenager, but his importance in Poulenc’s life can hardly be overstated: By 1954, the composer had set 34 songs to Apollinaire’s poetry. 

About the Music

Written in 1940, this wartime set of five songs was composed shortly after Poulenc was demobilized as the result of the disgraceful treaty between Philippe Pétain (France’s head of state) and Adolf Hitler. Banalités is one of Poulenc’s most popular works; we encounter him in five different, but very characteristic moods.

Chanson d’Orkenise” is a mock folksong; nevertheless, it is filled with sophisticated nuances. The song is about a wanderer and a wagon driver—the former leaves his heart behind in the fictional town of Orkenise and the latter is bringing his heart there.

Hôtel” is a musical display of utter languor. The song evokes the image of lying alone in a hotel room in a state of complete torpor, smoking a pungent French cigarette.

Apollinaire’s “Fagnes de Wallonie” features an intrinsic musicality in the poem’s blend of sounds and rhythms: “Nord / Nord / La vie s’y tord / En arbres forts / Et tors / La vie y mord / La mort / À belles dents / Quand bruit le vent.” Poulenc designs music to carry and flow around these verbal melodies.

The whirlwind of a waltz-song “Voyage à Paris” captures Poulenc’s undiluted joy upon returning to the city he loved most. “For me,” he wrote, “Paris often brings tears to my eyes and music to my ears.” Poulenc and French baritone Pierre Bernac often performed this song as a mildly malicious encore at the end of recitals.

In contrast to the madcap Parisian gaiety, “Sanglots” features Poulenc’s philosophical voice, appropriate for Apollinaire’s brooding reflection on tragic love. The poet reflects on how people throughout the ages and from all corners of the earth have suffered and died for love, from Ultima Thule (a mythical island in the North Sea) to Ophir (a fabled ancient region celebrated for its gold and gems). We, in turn, become like the dead who endured this pain before us. If these reflections are not comforting, they are beautiful when dressed in such poignant musical garb.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire

About the Composer

Scholar François Lesure described Debussy’s musical career as a “lifelong quest to banish blatancy of musical expression.” The son of a china shop proprietor and grandson of a wood craftsman and wine seller, Debussy won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1884, spent two years in Italy, and then returned to Paris. There, he became friends with a number of the symbolist poets, including Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as many artists and composers. Debussy altered the language of French music by creating new textures and sonorities, introducing new formal structures, and shaping melodies around the rhythms and contours of the French language. Debussy rejected the “impressionist” label that is so often attached to his work—a misconception that began in 1887. He wrote to his publisher in 1908: “I’m attempting ‘something different’; realities in some sense—what imbeciles call ‘impressionism,’ just about the least appropriate term possible.”

About Charles Baudelaire

Considering the tortured details of Baudelaire’s biography—a wasted inheritance, addiction to laudanum, syphilis infection, distressed relations with his mother and stepfather, and numerous erotic complications—the writer spun his pain into pure poetic gold. The poet of modernité, he hymned the exhilaration, pain, pathology, and heroism of city life. He rejected Romanticism’s fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity and the supremacy of nature. Instead, Baudelaire explored the themes of vice and decadence, and believed in the spirituality of high art—he regarded the creation of beauty as a form of religious exercise.

In 1857, the first edition of Baudelaire’s poetic anthology Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) appeared. Within a month, the French government accused both author and publisher of outrages to public morality. However, Baudelaire’s older contemporary Victor Hugo recognized that these works had created “un nouveau frisson”—“a new shudder” or thrill in literature. A few decades later, Debussy composed Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire to the texts of five poems from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal.

About the Songs

Like many in late–19th-century France, Debussy had fallen under Richard Wagner’s spell for a time. According to writer Pierre Louÿs, Debussy even won a bet he made in 1887 or 1888 that he could play Wagner’s lengthy opera Tristan und Isolde by heart. After his second visit to Wagner’s theater in Bayreuth, Debussy embarked on a search for a personal style beyond his idol. It was not an easy task: “I am finding it very difficult to avoid the ghost of old Klingsor [an evil magician in Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal] alias Richard Wagner, at the turning of a measure,” he wrote to fellow composer Ernest Chausson. Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (Five Poems of Baudelaire) are among those works in the late 1880s most redolent of Wagner’s influence. In particular, the musical density of these songs recalls the score of Tristan und Isolde; both works treat topics of erotic desire and tension. Despite the Wagnerian influence, the listener can distinguish Debussy’s idiosyncratic style already in full bloom.

The half-French, half-African actress and dancer Jeanne Duval was Baudelaire’s muse—his Vénus noire (“Black Venus”)—for 20 years. Édouard Manet painted her portrait in 1862, at which point she had become a syphilitic, paralytic, alcoholic wreck. “I used her and misused her. I tortured her for my amusement, and now I am tortured in my turn,” Baudelaire wrote in his usual self-lacerating manner in 1856, when he thought that he had lost her for good after 14 years. As a farewell gesture, he wrote “Le balcon,” a beautiful poem that describes love as both “sweetness” and “poison,” and claims the imperishability of love in memory. At the beginning, Debussy introduces various musical figures stacked on top of each other in true Wagnerian fashion, and then spins them out in constant variation through the course of a long, sumptuous song.

Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du soir” is one of the poems inspired in part by Apollonie Sabatier, the poet’s “White Venus.” Baudelaire wrote mystical, ethereal verse to this courtesan and artists’ muse with little or no recognition of her actual earthy nature. The poem speaks of the escape from reality into an ideal realm of beauty and mystic rituals. In the gently swirling piano figures, we hear the poet’s evocative scents and sounds undulating in the evening air.

The first two songs show Debussy’s rebellion against textbook harmonic practice; “Le jet d’eau” is the most Debussyan song in the set, its texture more transparent than the other songs. The beauty and melancholy of desire are symbolized by a fountain, its waters leaping upwards and then descending in a dying cascade. The piano’s initial rocking gestures are deliberately incomplete and blurry, and establish a languorous mood right away. The refrains feature the same vocal line, but with a varied “water music” accompaniment.

Recueillement” is a dialogue-poem between the poet and his sorrow, both relieved by the approach of night. They discuss how mortals regard the evening with a mixture of pleasure, pain, and regret. Debussy is too subtle to quote Wagner in any blatant way, but composer Robin Holloway points out that the beginning this song features a “fascinated doodling ’round the Tristan chord.”

The final section of Les fleurs du mal contains poems on death, including “La mort des amants.” Baudelaire’s persona envisions an exquisitely gentle death that culminates in an afterlife vision where all that was tarnished and destroyed on earth is reborn in consummate beauty. Debussy translates the poem’s mirror imagery into music by composing a descending vocal line that meets a rising bass line.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Four Dream Songs, Op. 30

About the Composer

Born in Salmi, Finland, Aulis Sallinen shared the Sibelius Prize in 1983 with Krzysztof Penderecki and was made Professor of Arts for life in Finland—the first person ever to receive such an honor. He is best known for his operas (The Horseman, The Red Line, The King Goes Forth to France, Kullervo, The Palace, and King Lear) and for his eight symphonies, as well as numerous concertos and chamber compositions, among them works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.

About the Songs

Two of Sallinen’s operas are settings of texts by Paavo Haavikko, the poet of the Four Dream Songs. In the first of the dream songs, “Man made from sleep,” a woman sings in dread of her dead lover who comes and goes at whim and visits her in dreams. The persistent grief is heard in Sallinen’s softly dissonant tone clusters, eerie two-against-three gliding figures, and multiple bass trills evocative of frustration and anger.

In contrast, the dead horseman of “Cradle song for a dead horseman” is beyond all dreams of earthly things. Haavikko reminds us that living things “break their journey” because they must, but the inanimate Nature goes on forever without change. For such sentiments, Sallinen features stark, dissonant rocking motions in the piano and blurred harmonies.

In “Three dreams, each within each,” a woman is wrapped within a dream, and the child in her womb sees the dream and realizes that he or she must be born and must die in order to tell of it. The initial figure in the piano contracts and folds inward; the lines move in contrary motion. During the same year in which Sallinen composed “There is no stream”—Haavikko wrote, “A man seeks himself, a woman, god, his tribe, old age, the grave.” This statement serves as a list of his major themes of love, death, and metaphysics. In this song, the persona is awestruck at the swiftness with which life passes, faster than any stream.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Nocturne”; “Waldseligkeit”; “Selige Nacht”; “Valse de Chopin”; “Hat dich die Liebe berührt”

About the Composer

The south Styrian composer Joseph Marx is primarily known for his songs; between 1908 and 1912, he composed around 120 of them, with more to follow in later years. His style is a mixture of late Romanticism and impressionism, with debt to Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Max Reger. If his songs seem eclectic, it is because he reinvented his musical language for each poem he turned into a song. In addition to composing, Marx had worked as a music theory teacher, director of Vienna’s Hochschule für Musik, music critic for two Viennese periodicals, and writer. As a conservative composer, he made no mention of his more radical contemporaries Schoenberg, Berg, and Hindemith in his 1964 work Weltsprache Musik (The World Language of Music). 

About the Songs

Nocturne” is a setting of a poem by Otto Erich Hartleben, who translated Belgian poet Albert Giraud’s poetic cycle Pierrot lunaire into German (the impetus for Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle). Here, Hartleben spins a new variation on the antique German literary motif of the linden tree’s association with love. Marx fills the piano accompaniment at the beginning and end with delicate, fleeting figurations over a wide range. The music for the inner stanza, with its evocation of lost youth, is the wistful heart of the song.

In “Waldseligkeit,” turn-of-century German poet Richard Dehmel features three Romantic themes: the German forest (a nationalist symbol), solitude, and thoughts of the beloved. Marx creates gentle treetop rustling in the piano’s right-hand part, while the singer and the left-hand melody form a lyrical duet.

Selige Nacht” is a setting of another original poem by Otto Erich Hartleben. Here, two lovers lie in bed, rapt in post-coital bliss, while hand-crossing figures in the piano keep the love flowing.

In “Valse de Chopin,” all of the characters in Giraud’s poetry come from the commedia dell’arte, a form of semi-improvisational theater that originated in mid–16th-century Italy; its standard set of characters include the white-faced Pierrot, the acrobat Harlequin, and the woman they both love, Columbine. Pierrot’s character embodies the decadent, morbid verse that was fashionable at the time. The poetry speaks of a dance of death and a consumptive death wish; Marx matches the deliberate weirdness of the poetry to a haunted, frenetic, passionate waltz.

Hat dich die Liebe berüht” praises love as the crowning glory of life; the song is set to words by Paul Heyse, whose paraphrases of Spanish and Italian folk poetry were set to music by Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf. This song is a perfect display of Marx’s late Romantic, lush sound world.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.
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This Carnegie Hall Live broadcast is supported by Macy's.

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