Sunday, March 16, 3:30pm & Tuesday, March 18, 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 3pm & 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Programme notes
by Andrea Budgey

The Bestiary, a compendium of descriptions of real animals and fantastical creatures, holds up a mirror to human nature. In medieval versions, the traits of these creatures (real or imagined) offered opportunities for moral and ethical lessons, usually quite explicitly. But the texts chosen by the composers of this programme are somewhat more subtle in their approach. In fact, in some respects they turn the medieval version on its head, describing and depicting animals with all-too-human foibles.

The creatures we meet in this programme include lovers, philosophers, poets, and operatic rivals, as well as closely-observed denizens of the natural world. The musical settings reflect the variety of poetic perspectives at work: absorption, reflection, quasi-scientific detachment, irony, and light-hearted appreciation of all the creatures who are both like and unlike us.

Francis Poulenc: Le Bestiaire. Poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire
Miriam Gideon: Creature to Creature (excerpts). Poetry by Nancy Cardozo
Alexander Rapoport: archy and mehitabel. Text by Don Marquis
Giachino Rossini / C.E.F. Weyse: Duetto buffo di due gatti.
Lee Hoiby: Rainforest. Poetry by Elizabeth Bishop
Flanders & Swann (arr. L. Jones): Songs from "The Bestiary"

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Le bestiaire (1919) for mezzo soprano, string quartet, flute, clarinet and bassoon. Poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).

This group of songs on short, almost epigrammatic texts by Guillaume Apollinaire was Poulenc's first venture in the song-cycle form. It was written in 1919, during his early student years in Paris, when he was one of a group of young composers called 'Les nouveaux jeunes', the most prominent of whom later came to be known as 'Les Six'. The piece is dedicated to Louis Durey, another member of this group.

The style of this early work is typical of the spirit of Les Six (and their inadvertent mentor Satie); the apparent diatonic simplicity of each separate part serves to convey the poet's genuine reflections, but the acerbic discord of the whole ensures that no tonality is ever entirely committed to, and a certain detachment is preserved. The string quartet and woodwind trio function in almost stereotypical ways, the former providing the formal continuity and coherence of each short movement, and the latter offering skittish bursts of colour and rhythmic activity in response to the deceptively straightforward vocal part.

For all their brevity and transparency, these are sophisticated texts, and the young composer's settings present them sympathetically as well as picturesquely. 'Le dromadaire' alludes to an almost unknown anecdote from Portuguese historical chronicle to depict the poet's longing to transcend his circumstances; 'La chèvre du Thibet' draws a connection between the beauty of the exotic and that of the beloved, with a clever reference to classical mythology, all in nine measures. Biblical allusion in 'La sauterelle' conveys a curious combination of poetic modesty and aspiration, while 'Le dauphin' expresses a fundamental pessimism, albeit with a light touch. To the crayfish of 'L'écrevisse' Apollinaire attributes his own existential uncertainties and doubts, while the great shadow-dwelling fish of 'La carpe' becomes a symbol of long, melancholy old age: Poulenc frames the four lines of text with an inexorable clock-like accompaniment.

It is worth noting that twenty years later Poulenc said of these songs: "To sing Le Bestiaire with irony is a complete nonsense. That is to fail to understand either the poetry of Apollinaire or my music".

Miriam Gideon (1906-1996): Creature to Creature (1985) for voice, flute, and harp. Poetry by Nancy Cardozo, from "Creature to Creature: An Animalculary"

Miriam Gideon was born in Colorado in 1906, grew up in Boston, and spent most of her adult life in New York City (she died in 1996). She studied piano and musicology, and took composition lessons privately with Lazare Saminsky and Roger Sessions. The latter was an important influence on her style, which can for the most part be described as rigorously atonal. Gideon taught composition at Brooklyn College, City College of the City University of New York, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and her output includes music in a variety of vocal genres, including a large body of Jewish liturgical music.

At the première of Creature to Creature by the Jubal Trio, in 1985, the cycle was greeted as "limpid, lilting and good-humoured" and "deftly wrought". The five movements performed on this programme depict a curious assortment of creatures, and Gideon's astringent, angular, and rhythmically quixotic settings are the perfect foil for Cardozo's self-consciously witty texts. The vocal and instrumental parts are tightly integrated, echoing the inextricability of objectivity and subjectivity in our observation of the natural world. The subtle evocations of animal movement and sound attach the poet's interior conversations securely to an environmental frame, but metaphor remains at the centre of each compact portrait.

Alexander Rapoport (b. 1957): archy and mehitabel (2014) for mezzo-soprano, baritone, flute, clarinet, and string trio. Text by Don Marquis (1878-1937), with supplementary text by Alexander Rapoport.

Don Marquis' daily columns in the New York Evening Sun, recounting the adventures of Archy the cockroach (reincarnation of a free verse poet) and Mehitabel the cat (Cleopatra in one of her many past lives), who use the writer's office typewriter during the night, are a classic of early 20th-century American humour and social satire. They purport to be in the voice of Archy, writing on the newsroom typewriter late at night, by diving headfirst onto the keys. Famously, he is unable to hold down the shift key, so all his writing is in lower-case letters (something not audible in performance, of course) and there are no question marks or exclamation points.

From the large anthologized Archy and Mehitabel corpus, Alexander Rapoport, one of the Talisker Players' favourite composer collaborators, has selected five pieces and set them for two singers, woodwind duo, and string trio. 'the coming of archy' and 'the song of mehitabel' introduce the protagonists, while 'archy declares war' and 'the mother spider' depict the struggles (and revenge fantasies) of oppressed and impoverished underclasses (from insect and arachnid perspectives). The selection culminates in the duet 'archy's encomium to big bill', in which Archy compares his life (and, by implication, that of Marquis) to Shakespeare's experience: "the other writers of his day snubbed and jeered and sniffed at his work … but when there was a job to do, he got the job done. ..."

Rapoport's colourful, rhythmically pointed settings frame the short lines of the verse with great effectiveness, and the often antiphonal treatment of the wind duo and string trio highlights the multiple (human and animal) perspectives at work. The style shifts smoothly from accompanied speech, through sung declamation, waltz and march metres, the delicate background textures of 'the mother spider' and the cockeyed interrupted jig of the "shakespearian" finale.

Giachino Rossini (1792-1868) / C.E.F. Weyse (1774-1842): Duetto buffo di due gatti (compiled 1825).

The popular, humorous Cat Duet has long been attributed to Rossini, but is, in fact, a compilation: a 'Katte-Cavatine' by the Danish composer Christoph Ernst Friedrich Weyse, followed by elements from Rossini's 1816 opera Otello (a duet and part of an aria from Act 2). The identity of the compiler is uncertain, although a pseudonymous "G. Berthold" has been given credit, and the date is circa 1825. The piece has been known so long with its broadly comic "Miau" text that the original operatic context would now probably sound incongruous to most audiences.

Lee Hoiby (1926-2011 ): Rainforest (1969) for voice, wind quintet, and piano. Poetry by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).

Lee Hoiby, born in Wisconsin in 1926, originally planned a career as a concert pianist, but changed his mind when he was invited to study composition with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute. Menotti's influence led Hoiby in the direction of opera, and his dramatic works have been presented by the Spoleto Festival, the New York City Opera, the Des Moines Metro Opera, the Dallas Opera, and Pacific Opera Victoria in British Columbia, as well as on and off Broadway. His operas range from The Scarf of 1957 to Romeo and Juliet in 2004.

Hoiby's songs, many of them settings of texts by distinguished American poets, are widely performed. His set of songs entitled Rainy Season, Sub-tropics, based on poems of Elizabeth Bishop, dates from 1969. It was re-introduced, with the addition of a fourth movement (not part of Bishop's original trio of poems), as Rainforest, at the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where Hoiby was composer-in-residence. This evening's programme, however, presents the work in its original form.

The three poems, 'Giant Toad', 'Strayed Crab', and 'Giant Snail' are cross-referenced miniatures, interior monologues of three unusual animals close to one another on a rainy night. Bishop spent roughly twenty years in Brazil, and these poems – minutely observed, but suffused with alienation – reflect her ambivalence about her experiential intimacy with a country which never became her home. Hoiby's rich palette of instrumental colour creates the rainforest world, dark, complex, and mysteriouly alive, in which the three unlikely protagonists declaim their stream-of-consciousness reflections. The highly chromatic arioso style of the vocal part conveys both a physical portrait of the animal narrators and the interior affect of each poem.

Donald Swann (1923-1994): Songs from The Bestiary (c. 1960-70). Lyrics by Michael Flanders. Arranged by Laura Jones for baritone, horn, violin, viola, and cello.

The fame of the English composer Donald Swann is inseparable from that of Michael Flanders, his writing partner in the comic-song duo which created two abidingly popular revues, At the Drop of a Hat in 1956 and At the Drop of Another Hat in 1963. The two first worked together at school in 1939, and resumed their collaboration in 1948.

In the late 1960s, songs about animals from both revues were gathered and released as The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann. Laura Jones has arranged four of these clever, gently satirical pieces for baritone, horn, and string trio, a combination in which the interplay between voice and horn recalls the witty on-stage exchanges between the original performers. 'The Warthog', 'The Sloth', and 'The Hippopotamus' (one of their most beloved songs) are light-hearted waltzes which offer their title characters anthropomorphized happy endings, while 'The Armadillo' is a melancholy lyrical reflection on the role which delusion plays in love.

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