Song Fest

Song Fest

August 19 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

Luca Marenzio’s (1553-1599) Solo e pensoso represents the Italian Renaissance madrigal in its full bloom. A five-voice work from the composer’s ninth book of madrigals (1599), it is based on a sonnet by that most serious of all Italian poets, Petrarch, a lament of a jilted lover who cannot escape cupid. Marenzio’s setting takes each image in the poem in turn, expressing the sense of virtually every word. The justly famous opening of the madrigal features a long slow stepwise chromatic ascent and descent by the soprano in response to the words “alone and pensive I measure the deserted fields with slow and heavy steps,” while the other voices emphasize her solitude by a counterpoint of completely different leaping figures and jarring harmonies.

Songs were one of Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) major compositional outlets, and he produced three collections over the course of his career. The three songs on today’s program are from different periods in his life. The earliest, Dans les ruines d’une abbaye, to a poem by Victor Hugo, dates from around 1866, the early part of his career. Au bord de l’eau, published in 1887, and the famous Clair de lune (1888, on a text by Paul Verlaine that also inspired Debussy) both come from his middle period. All three are classic examples of French art songs, or mélodies. Based on poems that suggest emotions via description, Fauré’s settings emphasize graceful and almost speechlike lyricism with simple but colorful accompaniments.

American composer John Cage (1912-1992)—inspired by non-Western musics and philosophies—became famous for compositions that explore sound as a concept, employing many unorthodox avant-garde techniques to promote listening in new and different ways. Five is the first of his so-called “number pieces” written later in his life, whose titles indicate the number of performers. In this case, it also refers to the length of the piece (five minutes) and the number of different “time brackets” in each singer’s part. These brackets specify a time period in which a singer can perform the sounds indicated by the composer at any point they wish. The result is a quasi-improvised, quasi-composed collection of sounds that is different each time the work is performed.

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) had a life-long love of poetry and song, something that informed his most basic views about music. His Blake Songs for voice and oboe were composed toward the end of his life in 1957 for a film about the poet William Blake (1757-1827). Vaughan Williams drew on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) in which Blake contrasted unspoiled childhood innocence with the ravages wrought by the experience of society. The five songs on today’s program are a selection from the ten that Vaughan Williams composed, and often dwell on Blake’s vision of divine love. The songs’ deceptively simple lyricism suits the lucidity of Blake’s verse and reflects Vaughan Williams’ interest in English folk song, which he studied in such depth that he was elected president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1932.

Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) served the English royal chapel from the reign of Henry VIII through Elizabeth I, managing to navigate alternations between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, and proving himself adept at composing for both liturgies. His Latin motet, O Sacrum Convivium appeared in his Cantiones Sacrae (1575), issued just after Elizabeth I had granted him the right to publish music. The text of the motet, for the Vespers of Corpus Christi, is a joyful celebration of the Eucharist, the sacred banquet. Tallis used what was then a traditional medium: a thick texture of five vocal parts. The text is clearly audible despite the complexity of the overlapping imitative counterpoint via a melodic setting in which each syllable largely receives largely only one note.

© Don Fader, 2021