A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
It is a mark of high praise to declare that a singer is “a real artist”. Since the beginnings of my professional life, I’ve often noticed this dignified title bestowed upon some of the most renowned and remarkable singers of both the present day and the past, and it has sparked many questions in my mind: Is the singer not inherently an artist? What distinguishes a singer from the rest of his/her colleagues in this way? Even long before I was a professional musician, and just a curious teenager reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I’d been fascinated with this archetype of the artist. What makes an Artist? What is the Artist’s path? What is the Artist’s perspective? Who is the Artist? Are we all the Artist? Is it a choice that we make?
Tonight’s program is a meditation on the artist, and an exploration of what it means to take on the mantle of that moniker and all that it entails.
Robert Schumann – Dichterliebe
‘The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake
the sense of wonder in the world.’
- G.K. Chesterton
There is this sense that artists feel things differently than the rest of us - that they experience emotions and absorb the reality around them with a heightened intensity and hypersensitivity. In my experience, the greatest artists that I’ve encountered are those that never lose their sense of child-like wonder. Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe or A Poet’s Love, is an example of this artistic hypersensitivity and wonder.
Composed in 1840, Dichterliebe was part of a large outpouring of songs that Schumann composed in the tumultuous year in which he married Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher and one of the most famous concert pianists in the world at that time. In 1840, often referred to as his Liederjahr or ‘year of song’, Schumann composed 138 songs – Dichterliebe stands out as one of the pinnacles of this fruitful period.
A cycle of 16 settings of poems carefully culled from Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, Schumann’s cycle tells the story of a young poet who falls in love with a woman, only to have his heart torn to pieces when she spurns his affections for those of another man, whom she marries. The poet falls madly in love during the course of the first 6 songs, his experience of love a heightened and extreme one: he describes the month of May, in which he falls in love with this young woman as not just beautiful, but wonderfully beautiful; he weeps uncontrollably every time the young woman tells him that she loves him; he equates her likeness to a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary that hangs in the Cologne Cathedral. In the 7th song, she ends the relationship, and he growls out the first stage of his heartbreak – angrily declaring how he can now see the darkness in her heart and the snake that works through it. The remaining 9 songs document his journey through the stages of his heightened grief. The poet’s dreams and nightmares become his reality, his pain becomes so great that he becomes convinced that the flowers around him are speaking to him and he is driven to isolate himself in the forest hills until finally, he calls for a huge coffin in which to lock his feelings of love and pain and for 12 giants to submerge it in the sea. Schumann’s settings intensify the hypersensitive intensity of the poetry – particularly in the virtuosic piano writing underlying the text, which musically paints the dissonant, almost unresolvable chromaticism of the poet’s heartbreak, making each song a miniature drama of almost operatic proportions.
Benjamin Britten – Winter Words
"Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”
- Pablo Picasso
The inevitable threat that experience poses towards innocence was a theme that always occupied Benjamin Britten, particularly around the time in his compositional career during which he composed Winter Words, a collection of settings of poems by Thomas Hardy. His Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952) and opera The Turn of the Screw (first performed in September 1954) make for unsettling listening along this theme; Winter Words was written between the two, earlier in 1954.
A pacifist in wartime, a gay man during a time in which it was illegal, Britten always felt that he was an outsider of sorts, looking in, a perspective that he felt informed his artistry greatly. Each of the Thomas Hardy poems in Winter Words focuses on seemingly simple situations, in which an innocent is juxtaposed with some sort of background corrupt with experience. In ‘Wagtail and Baby’, a baby watches as a bird is drinks from a stream, unafraid of horses, bulls, and serpents, yet is scared off by the approach of a ‘perfect gentleman’. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ juxtaposes a young boy playing his violin with an older convict, chained in handcuffs, who sings along. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western’, an older passenger sits across from a young boy travelling alone in the same carriage, musing on the child’s purity and naiveté that contrasts with the ‘region of sin’ that surrounds him. The artist (Britten/Hardy) observes these seemingly normal and banal circumstances or objects and infuses them with deeper meaning, making them all parables aboutthe imminent threat to innocence, and lamentations on its inevitable corruption.
Ned Rorem – selected settings of Walt Whitman
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”
- Henry Ward Beecher
One of the most influential American poets, Walt Whitman was inspired by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental essays to turn to writing poetry at the age of 37. Believing himself to be the new, distinctly American poet that Emerson described in his essay The Poet, Whitman sent Emerson a copy of the first edition of his collection, Leaves of Grass, crediting Emerson with helping him “find himself.” The influences of Emerson and his Transcendentalist colleagues are clearly visible in Whitman’s poetry, particularly in his early poem, Song of Myself. Despite general praise and enthusiasm for his work from transcendental icons Emerson and Thoreau, neither was able to fully embrace his poetry. Whitman took Transcendentalist views of the self and nature to a level where neither Emerson nor Thoreau were particularly comfortable – specifically into the realm of sexuality. For Whitman, the celebration of his own sexuality was his declaration of the self – it was part of the self-discovery of one’s own divinity through nature, which the transcendentalists meditated and preached upon (something that is addressed in his poem tonight, As Adam Early in the Morning).
An American Schubert who has composed more than 500 songs, Ned Rorem (b. 1923) has been frequently drawn towards Whitman’s writing throughout his compositional career. Rorem is well known for his prose writing in addition to his compositional output, and his famously confessional and frank diaries could be considered his own Song of Myself. As with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, while his diaries have been well-regarded, his frankness about his own sexuality (and that of his contemporaries) was considered controversial at the time of publication. When writing his songs, Rorem has confessed to often choosing poetry for mostly practical reasons, looking for poetry with sounds that express and conform to the music he already has inside him. Whitman proves to be an exception to this rule, however, as Rorem has written: “Looking back, I find that the dozen Whitman poems I have musicalized over the years were selected less from intellectual motives than because they spoke to my condition at a certain time. I adopted them through that dangerous impulse called inspiration, not for the music, but for their meaning.” In a sense, then, this set of Whitman settings by Rorem is a unique assertion of the self within his compositional output.
Jake Heggie – Friendly Persuasions
“Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.”
- Marc Chagall
No art is made in a vacuum. All artists seek to communicate with their community and the world around them and are inspired by various catalysts and muses. Jake Heggie’s song cycle, Friendly Persuasions, is a portrait of an artist through the eyes of the community of fellow artists and friends around him. Commissioned by Wigmore Hall as part of a celebration of the songs of Francis Poulenc in 2008, Heggie’s song cycle paints a picture of the famous French composer, through four vignettes, each involving a transformative figure in his life. In the first song, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (the woman largely responsible for reviving interest in the harpsichord last century), pressures Poulenc to finish his concerto for her, the Concert champêtre, one of many famous pieces she commissioned for the instrument. In the second song, Poulenc is showing new settings of Cocteau for the baritone, Pierre Bernac, who championed his songs and often performed with him. In total, Poulenc composed 90 songs for Bernac. The third song is a reminiscence of Raymonde Linossier, a woman who was very influential in early on Poulenc’s life, introducing him to many of the poets whose writing he later set to music. His feelings for her were so strong that, despite his homosexuality, he proposed marriage to her – a proposal which she turned down, causing a falling out between the two, which was leftunrepaired when she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1930 at the age of 32. Poulenc continued to dedicate pieces to her memory throughout the rest of his career. The fourth song focuses on the French Resistance poet Paul Éluard, whose poetry he set while in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II as a gesture of defiance against the Germans. Poulenc considered Éluard, Bernac and Landowska to be the “three great meetings” of his professional life.
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means
and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it,
it moves again since it is life.”
– William Faulkner
In the end, perhaps this is the role of the singer as artist: Simply to be the vessel that allows the stranger to look upon this multi-faceted art form that is song. To breathe life into the words and notes on the page, unlocking the visions of both poet and composer from their arrested state and allowing them to again become living things – acting as catalysts between a time past and the present day, reminding all of us that the experience of being human is one that is timeless.