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Brad Mehldau on his 'Love Songs'

Brad Mehldau writes, "When I received a commission from Carnegie Hall to write songs for Anne Sofie von Otter, I found three poems of Sara Teasdale fairly quickly and began to set them. The poet made her subject and the songlike nature of her poems very clear in her book of poems, simply titled Love Songs. I have used the title of her collection for the five songs here."

"Child, Child" is the first of the group as it is in the original book of poems. It begins with an iconic chord on the piano and establishes a dancing figure in 5/4 meter:


Here, the tone is imperative: "Love," it commands, and tells us how and why; this is a statement of purpose for the poems that follow, and voices the poet's conviction that love is not just another feeling, but a necessity for us to live. Mehldau explains, "I imagined a ritualistic dance in my setting—perhaps with women only—in which love is praised and prayed for." In "Twilight," the piano traces the sound of the falling rain and the falling wings of night; from the voice, we hear the sound of the bird calling and the woman's own voice calling out to her lover. Because is the ballad of the 5 songs here, meant to mirror the devotion expressed in the poem.

"Dreams" is the most violent of the group. "To me," Mehldau says, "this poem is about sexual feeling and desire—that's the way I read it. The female speaker of the poem has an erotic dream that culminates in a climax. I tried to telegraph that experience in the music." Finally, there is "Did You Never Know," which is told from a later perspective, looking back—the narrator has loved, and speaks to the object of her love once more. The Teasdale cycle ends like this,


tracing the same chord that began the cycle. It is, Mehldau explains, his "love" chord: "It's a chord you hear cropping up in music from various places sources—western, eastern, modern, ancient. It's an important sound, for example, in Nick Drake's "River Man." There is an open fifth in the chord, which suggests unity and balance, yet it is offset by the presence of the tritone right below the fifth, the wonderful rubbing dissonance of the major second above the tonic, and the absence of a major or minor third to make it a triad proper. For me, here, it's the love chord. It expresses desire and consummation all at once—perpetual longing, Sehnsucht. That chord starts the cycle in a brighter D tonality, and at the end of the cycle, it has descended a half step to the more hymnlike C-sharp. Formally, I've been stuck on cycles for a while, but I also like the idea more specifically of a cycle where the tonal center descends and we end lower than we started—it's a way of telegraphing the aging process perhaps, or more generally giving a feeling of time passing."

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