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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

A Gothic Romance: a Halloween recital

(Schubert by Gustav Klimt)

Here are the program contents, including notes and translations for the recital my Collective Euphonia colleagues, Anna Billias and Julia Goudimova and I will be sharing this Sunday, Oct. 31 at 3 pm.

The program is free and open to the public, and is also available to stream online via Livestream


I. The Siren, the Witch, and the Crow

Die Krähe (from Winterreise) music by Franz Schubert

poem by Wilhelm Müller

Lorelei music by Clara Wieck Schumann

poem by Heinrich Heine

Song to the Witch of the Cloisters music by John Corigliano

poem by William M. Hoffmann

Waldesgespräch, op. 39, no. 3 music by Robert Schumann

poem by Joseph Eichendorff

II. The Poet Blames Pushkin

Ya lyublu vas (from Eugene Onegin) music by Piotr Tchaikovsky

libretto after Aleksandr Pushkin

from The Poet’s Echo, Op. 76 music by Benjamin Britten

Echo poems by Aleksandr Pushkin

My heart… translations by Peter Pears


Lines Written During a Sleepless Night

Kuda, kuda (from Eugene Onegin) Tchaikovsky

III. Intermezzo: The Poet hears Visions at the Museum

from Pictures at an Exhibition Modest Mussorgsky

The Castle

The Gnome

Catacombs. With the Dead in a Dead Language

IV. The Poet’s Alter Egos

Moonfall (from The Mystery of Edwin Drood) music & lyrics by Rupert Holmes

Lorelei (from Pardon My English) music by George Gershwin

lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Epilogue: Prayer for All Soul’s Day

Allerseelen, Op. 10, no. 8 music by Richard Strauss

poem by Hermann von Gilm

Program notes and translations

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is considered the “father” of the German Lieder (art song) and his pair of song cycles setting Wilhelm Müller’s (1794-1827) poetry are touchstones of the repertoire. Winterreise (Winter Journey) appeared in the composer’s final, illness-ridden year. While his friends expressed bafflement at the cycle’s originality, Schubert called these songs his favorites of the nearly 700 he wrote, saying, “you will come to love them, too.”

“Die Krähe” is the 15th song of the 24 (a symbolic number in classical music since Bach’s famous preludes and fugues). The high tessitura and circling triplet figures in the piano evoke the ominous bird the wanderer calls “wunderliches.” The adjective for “strange” or “bizarre” is used only once more in the journey, in the final song, when the poet addresses the hurdy-gurdy man (“Der Leiermann”). The crow and the street musician are threshold guardians, gothic omens of death. Schubert underscores Müller’s meaning here by pairing the piano’s only descent with the singer’s one ascending line in the final anguished plea of this wonderfully eerie song.

Die Krähe / The Crow (Müller)

A crow has come with me

from the town,

and to this day

has been flying ceaselessly about my head.

Crow, you strange creature,

will you not leave me?

Do you intend soon

to seize my body as prey?

Well, I do not have much further to walk

with my staff.

Crow, let me at last see

faithfulness unto the grave.

(Translation by Richard Wigmore, author of Schubert: The Complete Song Texts)

(Robert and Clara Schumann)

Though we won’t meet the Gershwin’s “Lorelei” until later, Ira’s verse is a clever nod to one of German mythology’s most popular “Rhine Maidens.”

Back in the days of Knights in Armor

There once lived a lovely charmer

Swimming in the Rhine

Her figure was divine…

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was one of the finest concert pianists of her generation,

and her recent bicentennial helped bring her original music to even wider audiences. With her husband, Robert (1810-1856) she composed and published many Lieder, of which “Lorelei” is exemplary. Clara’s version of Heinrich Heine’s (1797 -1856) poem is a dramatic monologue relating a variation on a tale which reads like an amalgam of Homer’s Sirens and a rogue version of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. For a more recent, feminist take, see Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s debut film, The Lure (2015), a “mermaid musical-horror-fantasy.”

Lorelei (Heine)

I do not know what it means

That I should feel so sad;

There is a tale from olden times

I cannot get out of my mind.

The air is cool, and twilight falls,

And the Rhine flows quietly by;

The summit of the mountains glitters

In the evening sun.

The fairest maiden is sitting

In wondrous beauty up there,

Her golden jewels are sparkling,

She combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb

And sings a song the while;

It has an awe-inspiring,

Powerful melody.

It seizes the boatman in his skiff

With wildly aching pain;

He does not see the rocky reefs,

He only looks up to the heights.

I think at last the waves swallow

The boatman and his boat;

And that, with her singing,

The Lorelei has done.

(Translation by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder, Faber, 2005)

(Nomellini: Sinfonia della Luna, panel detail)

John Corigliano (b. 1938) and William M. Hoffman (b. 1939) are best known for their collaboration on the 1990 Metropolitan Opera commission, The Ghosts of Versailles. Their knack for the fantastic dates to 1967 with this “urban legend” from northern Manhattan, set in the Cloisters of Fort Tryon Park (literally “In the Heights”). Hoffman conjures a classic New York scenario with an unusual quartet of characters. Corigliano (whose father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein) matches his poet-librettist with music mixing spicy dissonance and haunting lyricism.

Song to the Witch of the Cloisters (Hoffman)

Old lady in the herb garden This Sunday in the lavender Fat lady in the crawling leaves White lady in the sun I know by moonlight Sweet lady, what you are Granny, Granny, the lovers wake and Oh, they sigh and fold White shades glow like stained glass; Their cigarettes burn like incense Mistress who rules coriander And curbs scents without mercy In whose palace grows the woven pomegranate Help me stop that stirring Without me willing Their kissing, their sleeping, their soaring My lady of the Cloisters Where Mary is forever weeping The holy baby never wakes And Christ lies unresurrected Before the moon moves And is laced gently by leaves Make the lovers be still

Robert Schumann’s setting of Eichendorff’s (1788-1857) “Waldesgespräch” finds the mythic Siren away from her underwater castle and hunting the hunters. The composer matches the poet’s ironic framing device, reserving the musical and dramatic climax for the end, as the Lorelei turns the hunter’s greeting into a fatal curse.

Waldesgespräch / Dialogue in the Woods (Eichendorff)

It is already late, already cold,

Why ride lonely through the forest?

The forest is long, you are alone,

You lovely bride! I’ll lead you home!

‘Great is the deceit and cunning of men,

My heart is broken with grief,

The hunting horn echoes here and there,

O flee! You do not know who I am.’

So richly adorned are steed and lady,

So wondrous fair her youthful form,

Now I know you—may God protect me!

You are the enchantress Lorelei.

‘You know me well—from its towering rock

My castle looks silently into the Rhine.

It is already late, already cold,

You shall never leave this forest again!’

(Translation by Richard Stokes)

(Pushkin, by Trepinin)

In Russia, the biracial poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) is literally referred to as “our everything.” His most famous play, Boris Godunov and his beloved novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin are the sources of Russia’s two most popular operas. Reluctant to set the verse-novel, Tchaikovsky later exclaimed, “what poetry there is in Onegin!” He called his 1879 work “lyrical scenes in 3 acts.” Like Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears would do with their A Midsummer Night’s Dream libretto, Tchaikovsky let the original verse speak for itself and set entire sections of poetry unedited. Lensky’s two arias are examples of this approach, and the composer’s affinity for Pushkin’s lyricism are audible from the opening bars of each. In a tragic example of life imitating art, Pushkin, like his poet Lensky, was fatally wounded in a duel.

Ya lyubla vas / I Love you (after Pushkin)

I love you, I love you, Olga, As only a poet’s mad heart.

Can still be fated to love.

Always, everywhere one dream, One constant longing, One insistent sadness.

As a boy I was captivated by you, When heartache was still unknown; I witnessed, with tender emotion,

Your childhood games.

In the shadow of the guardian oak I shared your fun. Ah,

I love you, I love you With that love known only

To a poet’s heart For you alone I dream,

For you alone I long,

You are my joy and my suffering, I love you, I love you. And nothing, not the chilling distance, the hour of parting, nor pleasure’s clamor

Can quench that heart aflame With the fire of love.

I love you…

(Rostropovich, Britten & Shostakovich)

The professional and life partnership of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Peter Pears (1910-1986) lasted 37 years, from their first concert tour together as pianist and tenor to Britten’s death. The Poet’s Echo was one of the rare solo vocal works Britten composed for another singer. Britten and Pears formed warm friendships and creative partnerships with Russian musicians like the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the cellist-conductor-pianist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The latter pair were the dedicatees of Britten’s Pushkin cycle, written in 1965 in Armenia.

Along with a gift for setting texts with vocally apt lines, Britten excelled at finding musical gestures to fit the poetic and dramatic atmospheres of his works. The “Echo” of the title is brilliantly evoked through the composer’s use of heterophony. This polyphonic texture proliferates (or echoes) a single melody across multiple voices using various rhythms. Audible from the outset in the sparse piano writing, the “echo” returns at the end of the cycle, threading together both the poetry and musical fabric. Britten translates Pushkin’s gothic imagery into expressive dissonance and dramatic vocal lines in the opening and closing songs. The poet’s heart beats in the gently insistent piano pulse of the second song before rising like “inflamed wounds” of desire. If Tchaikovsky emphasizes the romantic poet, then “Epigram” reveals Pushkin’s ironic, pithy wit, mirrored in the composer’s compact response. “Lines written during a sleepless night” recalls the setting of Onegin’s most famous number, Tatiana’s “letter scene.” Rather than musicalizing the painstaking draft of a love-letter, this nocturne finds us closer to Schubert’s winter wanderer, addressing the air, projecting phantasmagoria. Like his favorite composer, Britten mirrors Schubert by using word-painting devices to depict the ticking of time and the mouse-like scurrying of the poet’s feverish imagination. The cycle concludes with the reprise of the opening echo, an enigmatic answer to the poet’s existential unanswered question.

from The Poet’s Echo (Pushkin, translations by Peter Pears)

1. Echo

From leafy woods the savage howl,

A distant horn, the thunder’s roll,

A maiden singing up the hill

To every sound

Your answering cry the air doth fill

In quick rebound.

You listen for the thunder’s voice,

The ocean wave’s wild stormy noise,

The distant mountain-shepherd’s cries

You answer free;

To you comes no reply. Likewise

O poet, to thee!

2. My heart

My heart, I fancied it was over,

That road of suffering and pain,

And I resolved: ‘Tis gone for ever,

Never again! never again!

That ancient rapture and its yearning,

The dreams, the credulous desire…

But now old wounds have started burning

Inflamed by beauty and her fire.

5. Epigram

Half a milord, half a boss,

Half of a sage, half a baby,

Half of a cheat; there’s hope that maybe

He’ll be a whole one by and by.

6. Lines written during a sleepless night

Sleep forsakes me with the light;

Shadowy gloom and haunting darkness;

Time ticks on its way relentless

And its sound invades the night.

Fateful crones are at their mumbling,

Set the sleepy night atrembling,

Scurrying mouse-like, life slips by…

Why do you disturb me, say?

What’s your purpose, tedious whispers?

Do you breathe reproachful murmurs

At my lost and wasted day?

What is this you want to tell me?

Do you prophesy or call me?

Answer me, I long to hear!

Voices, make your meaning clear…

Kuda, kuda / Where, oh where… (after Pushkin)

Where, oh where have you gone, golden days of my youth?

What does the coming day hold for me? My gaze searches in vain; all is shrouded in darkness! No matter: Fate's law is just.

Should I fall, pierced by the arrow, or should it fly wide, ‘tis all one; both sleeping and waking have their appointed hour.

Blessed is the day of care, blessed, too, the coming of darkness!

Early in the morning the dawn-light gleams and the day begins to brighten, while I, perhaps, will enter the mysterious shadow of the grave!

And the memory of a young poet will be engulfed by Lethe's sluggish stream. The world will forget me; but you, You! Olga …

Say, will you come, maid of beauty, to shed a tear on the untimely urn and think: he loved me! To me alone he devoted the sad dawn of his storm-tossed life!

Oh, Olga, I loved you, to you alone I devoted the sad dawn of my storm-tossed life! Oh, Olga, I loved you!

My heart's beloved, my desired one, come, oh come! My desired one, come, I am your betrothed, come, come! I wait for you, my desired one, come, come; I am your betrothed!

Where, where, where have you gone, golden days, golden days of my youth?

(A late portrait of Mussorgsky by Repin)

Pictures at an Exhibition

Like Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was drawn to Pushkin, and it is his epic opera, Boris Godunov, which has immortalized the drama for non-Russian speakers. Mussorgsky favored the tableaux format for both his opera and his “album series on the genius architect [Victor] Hartman,” as he referred to his set of piano portraits, Pictures at an Exhibition. The 1874 exhibition of the late architect’s building, set and costume designs, watercolors and drawings so inspired the composer he wrote the 16-movement collection in just three weeks. “The Old Castle” has the Italian title, Il Vecchio Castello in the original, and is based on the drawing of a French castle replete with singing Troubadour. “The Gnome” is based on a variation of a Nutcracker figure. “The Catacombs” depicts the lantern-lit exploration of the Paris underground, based on an expedition Hartman undertook in his inspiring travels.

Twenty years before Marilyn Monroe created the most famous of modern Lorelei’s in Howard Hawks’ 1953 film, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, the Gershwin’s tried out their latest musical comedy, Pardon My English. Its surviving hits include this number, sung by a platinum blonde chanteuse in a Dresden nightclub. While the show has fared better in recent revivals, the “American Mozart” and his lyricist brother may have initially misread the Zeitgeist: it’s original run corresponded with Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. According to Ira, the public simply wasn’t ready for a Broadway spoof of German fascism. Pardon My English closed after just 46 performances, on Feb. 27, 1933, the same day of the Reichstag fire.

Lorelei (Ira Gershwin)

Back in the days of knights in armor

There once lived a lovely charmer

Swimming in the Rhine

Her figure was divine

She had a yen for all the sailors

Fishermen and gobs and whalers

She had a most immoral eye

They called her Lorelei

She created quite a stir

And I want to be like her

I want to be like that gal on the river

Who sang her song to the ships passing by

She had the goods and how she could deliver

The Lorelei

She used to love in a strange kind of fashion

With lots of hey-ho-de-ho-hi-de-hi

And I can guarantee I'm full of passion

Like the Lorelei

I'm treacherous, ja, ja!

Oh, I just can't hold myself in check

I'm lecherous, yeah-yeah

I want to bite my initials on a sailor's neck

Each affair has a kick and a wallop

For what they crave, I can always supply

I want to be just like that other trollop

The Lorelei

(George Gershwin painting a portrait of Arnold Schoenberg)

Moonfall (Rupert Homes)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Dickens’ final novel, unfinished at his death. Rupert Holmes (b. 1947 as David Goldstein) was known for pop songs like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” before composing a musical based on one of his literary obsessions. Holmes devised the novel idea of allowing the audience to vote on the title character’s murderer, and so the musical has multiple possible endings. “Moonfall” is diegetic or “source music,” heard by the characters on stage and part of the set. It is “composed” by the music teacher Jasper for Rosa, his pupil and love interest. It mirrors the operatic convention of a soprano playing a soprano. We mirror the operatic convention of transgressing gender roles, as we did in Gershwin’s Lorelei, by casting Rosa as a tenor.

Between the very dead of night and day, Upon a steely sheet of light, I'll lay, And in the moonfall, I'll give myself to you. I'll bathe in moonfall, And dress myself in dew.

Before the cloak of night reveals the morn, Time holds its breath while it conceals the dawn, And in the moonfall, all sound is frozen still. Yet warm against me, your skin will warm the chill of

Moonfall. I feel its fingers; Lingers the veil of nightshade, Light made from stars that all too soon fall, Moonfall that pours from you.

Betwixt our hearts, let nothing intervene. Between our eyes, the only sight I've seen Is lustrous moonfall as it blinds my view, So that soon I only see but you.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is sometimes referred to as “the last Romantic.” A complex and controversial figure, he served briefly under Hitler yet defended Jewish relatives and colleagues. Best known for his operas and tone poems, his songs bookend Schubert’s at the other end of the so-called “long 19th century.” Most of his Lieder are associated with the soprano voice and many were written for his wife, Pauline Maria de Ahna. The Op. 10 songs, setting poems by Hermann von Gilm (1812-1864), were originally written for tenor. Regardless of one’s preferred octave, Strauss’s gifts for soaring melody and romantic harmony are on display in this moving and open-ended poem. Is the poet-singer addressing a departed love, or the end of the affair?

Allerseelen / All Souls’ Day (von Gilm)

Set on the table the fragrant mignonettes,

Bring in the last red asters,

And let us talk of love again

As once in May.

Give me your hand to press in secret,

And if people see, I do not care,

Give me but one of your sweet glances

As once in May.

Each grave today has flowers and is fragrant,

One day each year is devoted to the dead;

Come to my heart and so be mine again,

As once in May.

(Translation by Richard Stokes. German translations courtesy of Oxford Lieder)

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