Mozart was, we can infer, a little bit in love with the first Susanna, singer Nancy Storace; for her, he wrote one of the most winsome roles in all of opera. Since love is always vulnerable to jealousy, so we hear the maidservant Susanna giving her fiancé, Figaro, both a bit of payback for his mistrust of her vis-à-vis with the amorous Count Almaviva, and a true statement of her love. In the recitative "Giunse alfin il momento ..." ("At last the moment is near ..."), we hear her grace, charm, and even a bit of throaty sexiness, while the aria "Deh, vieni, non tardar" ("Come now, delay not") is an idyllic invitation to love. At the end, she repeatedly sails up to higher pitches and remains there momentarily, elevated and entranced by love.
Seventy-four of Schubert's more than 600 songs are settings of poetry by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, travel writer, memoirist, and artist extraordinaire. "Geheimes" ("Secret")-from The Book of Love in Goethe's 1819 anthology Der West-östliche Divan (inspired by Persian poetry)-could be subtitled "How to enhance the delights of love by secrecy and anticipation." The omnipresent trochaic (accented-unaccented) rhythms in the piano seem to be a stylization of erotic panting and happy sighs of longing.
On March 3, 1825, the great soprano Sophie Müller wrote in her diary, "After lunch Schubert came and brought a new song, 'Die junge Nonne' ('The Young Nun') … It is splendidly composed." Tempests in nature and tempests in the heart as a young nun seeks surcease for sorrow in mystic union with Christ elicited some of Schubert's most daring harmonies. We hear bells in the piano at the end as the dying nun's soul is received into heaven.
In Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the title character grows up and is molded, as we all are, by the people he encounters, including the mysterious half-mad Harper. Once Augustin, the son of the eccentric Marquis Cipriani in Italy, the Harper was raised apart from his younger sister, Sperata, and ignorant of her existence until he meets her as a young man. They fall in love and she bears him a child: Mignon. Upon discovering their kinship, Sperata dies, and the Harper wanders hither and yon, singing songs of alienation and guilt. In the novel, "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" is Wilhelm's incomplete transcription of a duet by the Harper and Mignon. We hear Schubert's sixth and final version of this poem, "Lied der Mignon," and it is a thorough re-working of an earlier song, "Ins stille Land," D. 403, set to a different poem by Johann Gaudenz von Salis-Seewis. This solo version is a lament, varied in mid-song by emotional upheaval registered in powerful harmonies over a slowly rising bass line, the tension palpable. Of many beautiful details in this song, Schubert's ultra-soft, suspended-in-mid-air rendition of Mignon's thoughts about far-off loved ones, "Ach! der mich liebt und kennt" ("Ach! He who loves and knows me"), is among the most magical.
Brahms once said that Schubert's setting of "Suleika I" was "the loveliest song that has ever been written," and one can only agree. In Persian poetry, the west and east winds carry messages between separated lovers; we hear both the east wind's arrival and rising desire in the piano introduction. Not until 1858 would the world know the authorship of this poem and two others by Marianne von Willemer, a former Austrian actress in love with Goethe and he with her.
Much of the first part of Goethe's Faust is taken up by the tale of Faust's love for the village girl Gretchen ("Marguerite" in French), who is both a traditional "good-girl type" from the Old World that is passing and the mirror onto which the "modern man" Faust projects his vision of the ideal. In the scene "Gretchen's Room," before her seduction and ruin, Gretchen sits at her spinning wheel and sings of peace of mind lost to waves of desire in "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel)." Word-painting becomes psychological portraiture in sound: The circular spinning wheel motif and the thump of the treadle here bespeak the idée fixe of passion. The primal power of female sexuality is unleashed in a floodtide of music; that a 17-year-old youth wrote this song is forever astonishing.
Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a transcendent, Masonic fairytale opera in which music-through magic bells and a magic flute-guides us through life and expresses our deepest, truest selves. We hear how much love meant to Mozart in Princess Pamina's second-act lament, "Ach, ich fühl's" ("Ah, I feel"), when she fears that her beloved Prince Tamino no longer loves her. Beginning with the simplest chords in G minor, Pamina sings of all happiness lost. Both the huge melodic wingspan of almost two octaves and the immense leaps bespeak the range and depth of her character, as does the complex melodic flourish that soars into the stratosphere when she invokes "my heart."
Scholar Hans Rectanus called Hans Pfitzner "a citizen of two worlds and two centuries," while Pfitzner spoke of himself as the "last Romanticist." He loathed 12-tone music as too intellectual; scholar Walter Frisch has described him as "a regressive modernist," and the paradoxical term is apt. In his poetic cycle Alte Weisen, Swiss realist writer Gottfried Keller gives us eight versified character portraits of vivid women, from young girls to an old woman near death.
Pfitzner's crystalline delicacy and unique harmonic language are on display at the start of "Mir glänzen die Augen" ("My eyes gleam"), in which a village girl ultimately dismisses the hussar whose horse tramples her flowers and whose spurs tear her spinning (one need not be Freud to decode all this sexual symbolism). We are treated to wonderfully graphic pawing and snorting from the pianistic horse as she upbraids an unmannerly lover. In "Ich fürcht' nit Gespenster" ("I fear no ghosts"), an equally spirited young woman proclaims her lack of fear when confronted with a ghostly-white "night woman" who is jealous of the living woman's beauty. Again, to establish an eerie atmosphere for the spectral lake-spirit, Pfitzner sinks the left hand ominously low and sends shivery trills through the right hand part.
A somewhat more mature woman teases a young boy, too infatuated with her to be able to speak, in "Du milchjunger Knabe" ("You barely weaned boy"). Even the wisest men cannot answer the question in his eyes, she tells him, and then bids him hold an empty snail's shell to his ear if he wants to learn something. In Pfitzner's setting, we can almost see her wagging her finger at him in the first musical gesture, while slithery inner voices hint at the unanswerable mystery of the woman's nature. The woman who wanders through the spring meadows in "Wandl' ich in dem Morgentau" ("When I wander in the morning dew") sees an affianced and fruitful nature and laments her loveless condition. The song ends on the last word, as if no more music was possible in such deep sorrow.
In contrast, the confident young woman of "Singt mein Schatz wie ein Fink" ("If my dear one sings like a finch") bids all other women to leave the handsomest fellow to her so that she might subjugate him properly. That she loves him, we don't doubt; that she will rule the roost, we also don't doubt. We hear a biting dissonance (a tone-cluster) resolving to a simple chord 10 times in the short "Röschen biß den Apfel an" ("Rosie bit into the apple"). Did anyone before Keller write poetry about a girl biting into an apple, losing a tooth, and weeping over it?
In "Tretet ein, hoher Krieger" ("Come in, noble warrior"), yet another bold, teasing, and confident woman bids her warrior-sweetheart to enter the hall-and promptly begin relinquishing all his manly prerogatives to thoroughgoing domestication. At the end, she declares that he must give his soul to Christ because his body is all hers, with no salvation possible. Everyone who set this poem to music, including Pfitzner, had fun with pomp-and-circumstance march music.
In the final song, "Wie glänzt der helle Mond so kalt und fern" ("How coldly and distantly the moon gleams"), an old woman envisions her forthcoming trip to Paradise. The beginning of this song epitomizes Pfitzner's unique style, its chords softly spiked with dissonance, yet with a Romantic core.
In "Chanson perpétuelle" (one of Chausson's last works), an abandoned maiden envisions an Ophelia-like death in the pond where she and her lover used to have their rendezvous. The sinking harmonic motion when she recalls saying, "You will love me for as long as you are able," is typical of Chausson's melancholy enchantments, and so too is the return of the opening lament when she tells us that he departed.
Nineteenth-century writers, painters, and composers were fascinated with Asian and Arab countries, often viewed through a Western lens that saw other cultures as exotic, uncivilized, and backward (what Edward Said would later famously call "Orientalism"). Victor Hugo's fantasy of a seductive Arabian "hostess" sorry to see a handsome Western stranger leave in "Adieux de l'hôtesse arabe" ("Farewell of the Arabian Hostess") is one of many such visions of soft-voiced dancing girls and desert palms. If we look askance nowadays at the cultural stance of these Orientalist fictions, this one elicited a charming song from Bizet, filled with musical signifiers of exoticism: a repetitive dance rhythm, vocal lines that dip and sway in erotic languorousness, and a colorful harmonic palette.
In scholar François Lesure's apt phrase, Debussy-the son of a china-shop proprietor and grandson of a wine-seller and joiner-was on a "lifelong quest to banish blatancy of musical expression." In his prelude inspired by Leconte de Lisle's "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The girl with the flaxen hair"), we hear many hallmarks of his style: sonorities that move up and down in parallel motion, pentatonic (the black keys of the piano) motifs, rhythmic subtleties, and the division of the piano into different sonorous registers. "Ondine," from Book II of Debussy's Preludes, was inspired by great British illustrator Arthur Rackham and his illustrations for Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's famous 1811 novella about a water sprite named Ondine (onde means "wave" in French), who marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. Debussy's sprite has a playful side: The work is marked "scherzando" and "jesting," and its range from low to high requires notation on three staves. At the end-with ever-softer swirling figures and a final splash-she disappears.
When Debussy was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he worked as an accompanist for the voice classes of Madame Moreau-Sainti, whose students included a gifted (and married) coloratura soprano named Marie-Blanche Vasnier, with whom he was infatuated. When Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884, he presented her with a collection of 13 songs: the Vasnier Songbook, from which two songs on this evening's program are taken.
Paul Bourget turned from poetry to novels and essays after 1882, but his early verse was a favorite of the young Debussy, including "Regret." The pianist's hand-crossing-through which we go from deep, sonorous bass sounds to bell-like tones in the treble-already signals Debussy's fascination with texture and sonority as compositional priorities. In the macabre "Coquetterie posthume," a woman bids those she will leave behind when she dies to adorn her corpse with makeup and her opal rosary, the former for a final rendezvous with her lover and the latter to unwind in the "couch from which no one rises." In this waltz-song, we hear harmonies that already go beyond conventional practice.
Gounod's fourth opera, Faust, was not an initial success. It was rejected by the Paris Opéra for being insufficiently showy, but it was a runaway hit at its revival in 1862. One of the opera's most famous numbers is "Air des Bijoux" ("Jewel Song"), in which the devil's emissary Mephistopheles has left a box of jewelry and a hand mirror on the village girl Marguerite's doorstep. The music sparkles as much as the gems: This is the metamorphosis of delight and wonder into music filled with staccato effervescence.