Performance Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Sandrine Piau
Susan Manoff

Zankel Hall
Sandrine Piau—a French soprano whose crystalline expressivity “sends shivers down your spine” (Guardian)—and pianist Susan Manoff present an eclectic and fascinating program of song, including mainstays like Fauré’s “Les berceaux” and Strauss’s “Morgen,” 20th-century songs by Britten and Poulenc, and four contemporary pieces by Vincent Bouchot.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program


Grieving over the death of his sister Fanny Hensel in May of 1847 and approaching the end of his own life on November 4, Mendelssohn wrote a song—"Nachtlied," composed October 1 for a friend's birthday—whose poetic persona mourns by night, then resolves to sing songs of praise to God until the dawn. Both Felix and Fanny were drawn to the German Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff's mystical verse, here replete with symbols of life's long, fearful suffering in the dark, followed by the dawn of redemption beyond life.

The great poet Heinrich Heine loved German folklore and celebrated it in many of his poems. In "Neue Liebe," the persona who has seen an elfin procession ride by wonders whether the sight portends new love or death. Mendelssohn was famous for his "fairy music," or scherzo style, and here, the elves' music is located in the piano, with its effervescent mimicry of fairy horns, horses' hooves, and bells.

Lord Byron's meteoric rise to fame meant that his verse was translated into German very quickly and became the stuff of many song texts, with Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe, both Mendelssohns, and Hugo Wolf among the best of the Byron composers. "Schlafloser Augen Leuchte" comes from Byron's Hebrew Melodies of 1815, which was published in two versions: one with Jewish melodies compiled by Isaac Nathan (ca. 1792–1864) and another with Byron's poems alone, minus music. In this poem, the light of a distant star is the analogy to bygone happiness; if it still shines, it is far-off and cold, and it cannot dispel the darkness.

The "German Homer" Johann Heinrich Voss took many liberties in editing Ludwig Hölty's poem "Hexenlied" about a jumble of witches and other creatures swarming to worship Beelzebub on the haunted Brocken Mountain. For this lighthearted exercise in the comic-diabolic, Mendelssohn devised a piano part bubbling and boiling over with brilliant patterns in the piano. The final chord of this irresistible song is more a shout of laughter than Satanic triumph.

—Susan Youens 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


By comparison with Debussy, who set his first Paul Verlaine poems in 1869, Fauré came to this great poet's work rather late, beginning in 1887. A remarkable patroness of the arts named Winnaretta Singer had encouraged the composer in 1891 to write an opera to a libretto by Verlaine. That same year, she invited him to come to Venice for a holiday. There, he sketched the first song in his Cinq mélodies de Venise but finished the others back in Paris, including "En sourdine," with its languid aura of satiated love, tinged with melancholy hinting that this lovers' idyll is stolen joy.

"Prison" was Fauré's farewell to Verlaine, who wrote this poem after his disastrous marriage to Mathilde Mauté had failed and after he had fled with his new lover, the great poet Arthur Rimbaud. When the tension between these two high-strung men exploded in the summer of 1873, Verlaine wounded Rimbaud with a revolver and was arrested. He wrote this poem while awaiting trial. The title is Fauré's; Verlaine published it without a name in Sagesse, most of its poems written after his reconversion to Catholicism in prison.

The message of "Les berceaux"—adventurous men go on quests to distant lands, while women stay behind, weep, and tend the babies—might make present-day women grind their teeth, were it not for the tenderness René Sully-Prudhomme's men feel for loved ones left behind and the beauty of Fauré's music. This is a cross between a barcarolle (a song to be sung on the waters) and a cradle song, the motion of boats on the ocean like the rocking of a cradle. That the music is imagined from the women's point of view is evident in the brief anger and climactic despair at the words about "enticing horizons," returning almost immediately to the gentle swaying of the waves.

Romain Bussine, the poet of "Après un rêve," was also a baritone and voice teacher who founded, along with Camille Saint-Saëns and Henri Duparc, the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 as a forum for promoting French music. His poem is based on an anonymous Tuscan text and tells of a dream of love to which the persona longs to return when day awakens him. The swaying triplet figures in the voice, the incessant pulsations of desire in the right hand, the rich harmonies: It's no wonder that this song is a perennial favorite.

—Susan Youens 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


We hear Chausson's typical melancholy in "Amour d'antan" to words by the minor French sculptor and poet Maurice Bouchor (he made the marionettes for his own verse-plays). The attenuated, downwards-slipping figures in the piano right beneath a "tolling bell" upper pitch at the beginning establish the mood right away. Here, a lover asks the former beloved—or perhaps the memory of the sweetheart—whether he or she remembers beautiful bygone April days of love.

Jean Moréas, the poet of "Dans la forêt du charme et de l'enchantement," was the descendant of a distinguished Athenian family; born Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos, he was educated in France and became a Symbolist poet in his youth, writing verse influenced by Verlaine. In this song about the loss of enchantment, the poetic persona sings of former times in the "forest" that has long been a symbol of the depths of the psyche. At the start, Chausson bids fairies and gnomes sing to rustling figuration in the treble register; when the enchantment vanishes, we descend to lower planes of disappointment.

"Les heures" creates a hovering, nocturnal mood, in part by means of incessant syncopations in the right hand of the piano part. At the turn-of-century, writer Séverin Faust wrote about music and Mallarmé under the name Camille Mauclair; in his novel Le soleil des morts (The Sun of the Dead), Debussy, Rodin, Mallarmé, and others are all characters with fictionalized names. At the end of his life, Mauclair tainted his legacy by supporting the Vichy regime and hymning Nazi notions of racial purity, but his earlier works are a notable contribution to French intellectual life.

—Susan Youens 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation



John Henry Mackay, the poet of three of the four Op. 27 gems, including "Morgen," was brought to Germany as an infant and remained there the rest of his life; his left-wing, even anarchistic leanings endeared him to the young Strauss, also a rebel against convention. But for his wedding gift to his bride, soprano Pauline de Ahna, Strauss chose not political verse but Mackay's blissful vision of union on the "sun-breathing earth."

Unlike contemporaries such as Hugo Wolf, Strauss tended to seek his song texts in the works of living authors, including Adolf Friedrich von Schack. Schack belonged to the Munich Poetic Circle that met both formally in an academy sponsored by the Bavarian king and informally as The Crocodile Club. Their poetry was grounded in the belief that reality is ugly and that loveliness is the only effective antidote for life's grimness. In "Das Geheimnis," Strauss's gorgeous late-Romantic harmonies are given full reign. With each of Nature's wonders, the composer touches upon another tonal realm in a panoply of beautiful colors.

Schack was also the poet of the immortal "Ständchen." This serenade is a lover's plea to his beloved to steal softly from her house by night and meet him under the linden tree that was the chosen spot for poetic rendezvous both licit and illicit since the Middle Ages.

The songs of Op. 10 were composed when Strauss was working as assistant conductor of the ducal court orchestra in Meiningen; at the time, he was in love with a married woman, Dora Wihan, the wife of a cellist who was a colleague of his father's. If one reads the Austrian civil servant and amateur poet Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg's text for "Die Nacht," one might expect a more shivery, menace-filled song about night as a thief of all beauty, but Strauss mutes the fear and brings to sounding life a lover's nocturnal ecstasy.

—Susan Youens 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


In 1987, baritone Vincent Bouchot became a member of La Chapelle Royale under the leadership of Philippe Herreweghe and in 1994 joined the Ensemble Clément Janequin. His acquaintance with director Mireille Larroche led to his resolve to become a composer; his works include the operetta La belle Lurette (1999), Ubu Roi (2002) and the opera Brèves de comptoir (2005), among others.

Turn-of-century German poet Christian Morgenstern was inspired by English literary nonsense of the sort immortalized by Lewis Carroll, full of word play, fantastic forms (a funnel-shaped poem), and anti-academic wit (the footnote reference "Christ, J., op. cit." is one example). His most famous collection is the Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) of 1905, from which Bouchot drew the texts for his cycle by the same name. "Mondendinge" starts as an ethereal, sweet children's song and turns into shocking violence—"sulphurous hyenas" and eerie silence from craters—in short order.

Those who know Gustav Mahler's setting of the folk song "Saint Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon" ("Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt") will chuckle at its even more irreverent cousin, "Der Hecht." A pike, inspired by the saint, decides to go vegetarian, with disastrous, fish-killing diarrhea in consequence. When appealed for help, the saint sings only "Holy, holy, holy" to what sounds like virtuosic coloratura giggling at first, culminating in a bit of pomposity when he remembers that he is, after all, a saint and must set an example.

Before the singer begins each stanza of "Die Mitternachtsmaus," we hear midnight chime in the piano's treble register-the signal for the "midnight mouse" to run 12 times lightly through the "heaven house." With similar crystalline treble delicacy, the piano's waters course throughout "Das Wasser." Better, the poet declares, that water is wordless; otherwise, it would tell only of eternal verities and needs like itself.

In "Galgenkindes Wiegenlied," a child is sung to sleep with a bizarre lullaby: One of the sheep that children traditionally count becomes a vaporous creature eaten by the sun. The cloud-sheep, we are told, must fight for its existence "like you"—and it loses, this to lulling strains with a twist. Morgenstern's characteristic blend of the grotesque, the childlike, the gentle, and the savage finds apt musical expression in Bouchot's song.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Guillaume Apollinaire's verse was of enormous importance to Poulenc: By 1954, he had composed 34 songs to Apollinaire's poetry, including "Montparnasse" and "Hyde Park."

The name "Montparnasse," or "Mount Parnassus," was conferred on a hilly portion of Paris's Left Bank (of the Seine River) by 17th-century students who came there to recite poetry; their hill was leveled in the next century to construct the Boulevard Montparnasse. In Apollinaire's day, there was a thriving artistic community in the district, including Pablo Picasso, Marie Laurencin, Max Jacob, and Jean Cocteau. In his poem, the poet hymns Paris through the eyes of a newly arrived émigré, "a lyric poet from Germany" who is Apollinaire's alter ego. The tenderness of Poulenc's love for Paris is evident in every bar.

We follow Poulenc's brand of grave beauty with "Hyde Park," Apollinaire's invocation of London's famous green space, with its soap-box orators ranting away and its lovers who pay no heed to the preaching.

We hear both of Poulenc's most typical moods in the Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon of 1943. (Aragon, born illegitimately as Louis Andrieux in a dreadfully complicated family complex, was a founding member of the Surrealists, a Resistance fighter during World War II, and an anti-fascist, anti-Stalinist publisher-intellectual-poet.) The bridges of "C" are the four "Caesar Bridges" near Angiers where the Gauls led by Dumnacus were defeated by the Romans in 51 BCE. In 1940, the French were again defeated, this time by the Germans. The persona laments the rottenness in French history past and present as well as the depredations of France's conquerors. Every line ends with the rhyme "cé"—shorthand for "cesser," "cease"—in a call to resistance. Poulenc's grave strains are an exercise in anger made elegiac.

Typically for this composer, who had a reputation for satire and comedy, the gravity of "C" is followed by "Fêtes galantes," a loaded title if ever there was one; it evokes Antoine Watteau's court paintings and Verlaine's atmospheric poetry. Here, a people of all kinds in the poet's occupied Paris go on with life anyhow, anyway they can, as their world collapses around them.

—Susan Youens


© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


There is a long tradition in music history of arrangements of Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English folksongs by all manner of composers, with no less than Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber jumping on the bandwagon in the early 19th century. Many years later, Britten began making arrangements of folk songs for his wartime recitals with Peter Pears; these unashamedly artful songs are not meant to be reverential to "authenticity" in folk music.

"The Salley Gardens" was the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats's reconstruction of a traditional song from three lines imperfectly remembered by a peasant woman in Ballisodare, Sligo. Salley is an Anglicization of the Irish word Saileach, meaning willow, the tree emblematic of mournfulness since the ancient Greeks.

Britten found the Scottish lament "There's None to Soothe" in The Song Book: Words and Tunes from theBest Poets and Musicians (1866), arranged by British music educator John Pyke Hullah (1812–1884). Britten's weighty, dissonant chords in the right hand; the wonky rhythms (two equal, funereal octaves in each bar of the left hand against three beats per bar in the right hand); the plaintive melody with its desperate leap upward in the first phrase, heard four times: This music is a powerful distillation of grief.

In his autobiography, the ballad-collector and singer John Jacob Niles wrote that he heard a girl named Annie Morgan in Murphy, North Carolina, sing a single line of song. Struck by its beauty, Niles had her repeat it seven times and then extended the fragment into the famous Christmas carol, "I Wonder as I Wander." In Britten's arrangement, the singer performs the famous melody largely unaccompanied, with the piano playing plaintive, flute-like treble interludes at the beginning, between stanzas, and at the end.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert and the Pure Voice series are sponsored by the Jean & Jula Goldwurm Memorial Foundation in memory of Jula Goldwurm.