Thursday, October 10, 2013

Conductor’s Notes for Love Songs Through the Ages, Chapter 2

By Stephen Gothold

The second group in our concert includes four pieces by twentieth century composers, in very different musical styles, but having in common very significant texts, beautifully and expressively set.

The first piece is William Walton’s  Set Me as a Seal Upon Thy Heart,  a setting from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament.  It is a testament of love, set in a late romantic motet style, and has been sung in Anglican and Episcopal churches, as well as concerts all over the English-speaking world, ever since it was composed in 1938.  The work was composed for the wedding of the Honourable Ivor Guest and Lady Mabel Fox-Stewart.

2013 marks the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, and we are pleased to present two of Britten’s many wonderful secular choral works on this program.
I Lov’d a Lass is set to a poem by George Wither (1588-1667) and was composed in 1934.  In this piece, Britten employs what were then somewhat “new” choral techniques  -  especially  portamento  -  vocal sliding between notes, in this case to emphasize the lament of the abandoned lover.

We turn next to Eric Whitacre, one of the most important composers in choral music today.  For his text he chooses a poem by Octavio Paz (1914-98),  Mexican writer, poet and diplomat.  During his very full life he was a political activist, studied for a time at UC Berkeley, and late in life lectured at Harvard University.  He also served as Mexico’s ambassador  to India, and was widely traveled through Europe.

The poem is short, and on the surface, simple, as it describes the arc of a life-long love. The poem was written in Spanish, but the composition is set to an English translation.

A Boy and a Girl
Stretched out on the grass a boy and a girl.
Savoring their oranges, giving kisses, like waves exchanging foam.
Stretched out on the beach a boy and girl.
  Savoring their limes, giving their kisses, like clouds exchanging foam.
Stretched out underground a boy and a girl.
Saying nothing, never kissing, giving silence for silence.

Whitacre scores the piece by employing a symmetry of sonorities to correspond to the symmetry of the text, resulting in a beautiful and captivating wedding of text and music.

The final piece in this group is by a very obscure composer named Gothold.  The poem is by Kenneth Patchen, one of the “beat” poets of the 1950’s in San Francisco, and a colleague of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac.  Unlike much of the writing and poetry of that era,  it is very lyrical and quite reassuring in its images:

    O sleeping lay the maiden snow upon the branches of the city,
And O my love was warm beside me.
O nearer came the rush of dark wings over the dreams of my people.
And O my heart was full of their pain.
O sleeping lay the maiden snow upon the bitter roofs of the world,
But ah, my love was safe in my arms.

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