music + words = transformation

This week’s soprano soloist, Karina Gauvin.
Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

Two of the three works that we’re performing on this weekend’s classical subscription concerts feature the juxtaposition of words and music.  And they couldn’t be more different.

The first work is Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of all time, and never fails to move me at some deep level, beneath my understanding.  As we were rehearsing the Barber Thursday afternoon, Carlos [Kalmar] said “This is such an American piece.  It just gets to the heart of it.”  And I replied, “Yes, and it’s just such a timeless piece — when I listen to it, time seems to stand still, I don’t know whether 10 minutes or an hour has passed.”  I think the most powerful aspect of this piece is the incredible language (from a short prose poem of James Agee, later adapted as the introduction to his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family) which captures so vividly the sensations of the gloaming of a sleepy southern neighborhood:

It has become the time of evening when people sit on their porches,
rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street
and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees,
of birds’ hung havens, hangers.
People go by; things go by.
A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt;
a loud auto; a quiet auto;
people in pairs, not in a hurry,
scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually,
the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk,
the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising its iron moan:
stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan
and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past,
the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks;
the iron whine rises on rising speed;
still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell;
rises again, still fainter, fainter, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.
Now is the night one blue dew.

Now is the night one blue dew,
my father has drained,
now he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns,
a frailing of fire who breathes …
Parents on porches: rock and rock.
From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts.
We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there …
They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet,
of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.
The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near.

All my people are larger bodies than mine, …
with voices gentle and meaningless like the voice of sleeping birds.
One is an artist, he is living at home.
One is a musician, she is living at home.
One is my mother who is good to me.
One is my father who is good to me.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth;
and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth,
lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.
May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father,
oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble;
and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to be.
Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her:
and those receive me, who quietly treat me,
as one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
but will not, no ,will not, not now, not ever;
but will not ever tell me who I am.

Barber so masterfully sets both the physical setting of the text as well as making the actual language work well in the context of being sung.

The other work on the program with both text and music is Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.  The last movement is truly an orchestral lieder, it easily be the centerpiece of one of his major orchestral song cycles, and it’s a fitting end to a jewel of a symphony, with perhaps only the misfortune to fall between two epic symphonies: the sprawling Third, and the powerful and majestic Fifth.

Heaven’s Life (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn’t cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.
Should a feast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecelia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

The interesting bit of programming magic for this concert is that the vocalist in both works on the program seems to be a youthful figure.  In the Barber, the protagonist is a young child lazing with their family on a warm summer’s evening.  In the Mahler, it is a cherubic angel, singing of the joys of heavenly existence.  In both, the outlook is wistful yet joyful — a quiet celebration of simple (Barber) or celestial (Mahler) pleasures.

Tickets available here.

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