Tuesday & Wednesday, May 27 & 28, 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Programme notes
by Andrea Budgey

The final concert of our season brings together four cycles which explore the breadth and volatility of the experience of love with a poetic imagination. Two – the Fauré and the Schumann – are beloved staples of the art-song repertoire, while the Beckwith and Rapoport cycles provide refreshing perspectives on the same themes.

While John Beckwith’s Love Lines offers an objective, reflective second glance at familiar and much-loved songs, the three other cycles on the programme are original settings of text. Alexander Rapoport deconstructs Verlaine by applying the theme of elusiveness to the poems themselves. The two 19th-century cycles perform a different sort of alchemical transformation – not ignoring or obscuring the irony and bitterness in Heine’s and Verlaine’s texts, but redeeming their subjects by means of a delicate exercise of musical sympathy, and finding hope even through the experience of rejection and sorrow.

John Beckwith, arr: Love Lines. Various composers and poets
Gabriel Fauré: La bonne chanson. Poetry by Paul Verlaine
Alexander Rapoport: Fragments of Verlaine.
Robert Schumann, arr. H. Birston: Dichterliebe. Poetry by Heinrich Heine

John Beckwith, arr. (1927- ): Love Lines (2008/2014) for baritone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Various composers and poets.

Love Lines was given its first performance in an arrangement for baritone, guitar, and cello at Mount Allison University in 2008. It has been re-arranged, by the composer, for voice and string trio with contrabass for this evening’s programme. The five love songs – an operatic aria from Handel’s Semele, a lute-song attributed to Robert Johnson, “Silent Noon”, from Vaughan Williams cycle The House of Life, and musical theatre excerpts from Jerome Kern’s Very Warm for May, and Gershwin’s 1931 film Delicious – depict a variety of attitudes to love ranging from the rapturous to the bashful.

Beckwith’s settings treat the melodic “lines” of the original songs with great fidelity, and their harmonic structures with a respectful but objective detachment. The result is a quietly transformative strangeness which prompts the listener to recognize the familiar tunes and texts in a new and different way.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924): La bonne chanson (1892-94) for voice, string quintet and piano, op.61. Poetry by Paul Verlaine.

In 1892, when he was in his late forties, Fauré met the singer Emma Bardac. Both were married to others, but he instantly fell in love with her. Inspired by their affair, he began the collection of nine songs on texts from La bonne chanson by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) which was eventually published in 1894. He always described Emma as “the most moving interpreter” of the cycle.

Verlaine had written these poems in 1870, at the time of his doomed marriage to Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. They express in highly idealized language his hopes and anxieties for the couple’s future happiness, soon to be eclipsed by his abusive and violent temper, and by his affair with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud. The unalloyed optimism of the poems must have weighed more heavily with Fauré than their real-life aftermath!

The cycle was first published in a version for voice and piano, but a setting for voice, piano, and string quintet was announced at the same time. In 1898, Fauré seems to have prepared such a version for a private performance in London, but nothing was known of it until a score was sent anonymously to the French baritone Martial Singher in 1944; this is the version on this evening’s programme.

Fauré sets the naïve but subtle rhythms of Verlaine’s poems with great sympathy, in the deeply expressive arioso so characteristic of his vocal music. The melodies mediate the text without drawing particular attention to themselves, so that the overall effect is one of accompanied poems, the atmosphere and structures of the instrumental parts supporting the poetry directly. He unifies the cycle with recurring melodic motives, harmonic successions, and accompanimental figurations. Several of these are brought together in the final song, L’hiver a cessé, for a splendid declaration of confidence in the future of love.

Alexander Rapoport (1957- ): Fragments of Verlaine (1996) for voice and string quartet quintet. Poetry by Paul Verlaine.

The “fragments” in this piece are all adapted and rearranged from a single poem, ‘Mon rêve familier’, from Verlaine’s first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1866), which reflects Verlaine’s combination of romantic idealism and deep ambivalence about women. Alexander Rapoport explains the origins of the musical materials:

“Film director Chris Philpott suggested that I use settings of Paul Verlaine’s poem in my score for his feature The Eternal Husband Canada, 1999). Verlaine’s haunting lines about an unknown – and unknowable – woman fit Chris’s treatment of Dostoyevsky’s novelette perfectly. In my setting I decided to treat the poem itself as the femme inconnue. In none of the movements are we allowed to hear the entire poem: we hear only fragments, and even these fade away before are able to grasp their significance.”

The fragments of the poem are repeated in different combinations, as if the speaker were trying out different strategies for approaching the unknowable. They are separated by instrumental movements which reinforce the elusiveness of the inconnue.

The concert version of Fragments of Verlaine was created especially for the Talisker Players, and premiered in June, 2005.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Dichterliebe, op. 48 (1840), arr. for voice and string quartet by Harold Birston. Poetry by Heinrich Heine.

Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in its original piano-vocal form, is one of the best-known works in the German Romantic Liederkreis genre. Vancouver-based composer and arranger Harold Birston has clothed Schumann’s melodies and harmonies (and Heine’s text) in fresh new instrumental colours and textures. This setting was premiered last year with string orchestra, and is performed tonight in a precise and streamlined quartet version.

The 16 poems of the cycle are drawn from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, a much longer work, which depicts the progress – or rather lack thereof – of a poet’s obsessive but unrequited love. Schumann adapted the texts, varying and repeating lines for his own purposes, creating a more coherent narrative arc and creating delicate miniatures which highlight Heine’s use of nature imagery and the concretely physical expression of the lover’s distress.

This musical attention to textual detail shifts the tone of the work. Heine was an energetic critic of the Romantic movement, and the Lyrisches Intermezzo is regarded by many as an anti-romantic work. But Schumann treats the lover’s exaltation and pain, for the most part at least, seriously and un-ironically. Even the morbid grotesquery of “Die alten, bösen Lieder”, in which the poet finally commits songs, dreams, love, and sorrow to an enormous coffin, gives way to a postlude which draws on the material of “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen, concluding the cycle on a note of resignation and forgiveness.

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