Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Program notes  –  Borne on the air….

performed November 2011

This evening’s music is a meditation on existence. Featuring the great poetry of Rückert, Geibel, Rilke, and Lenau, our composers give form to the abstract concepts of transformation, longing, and air itself. The tension between striving and peace, stillness and constant change, silence and music, is central to all of these great works.

The two songs for contralto, viola, and piano, published as op. 91, were composed many years apart. Brahms wrote the ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied” (#2) in 1864 as a present for his dear friend Joseph Joachim (the brilliant violinist) when his first child was born. 20 years later he composed ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ (published as (#1) for the same forces, and published both together. The striking pairing of the alto voice and alto instrument creates a rich, warm texture that pervades both pieces. Although conceived for very different occasions, the two songs and the two poems interact in a number of ways. The Rückert poem, a meditation on the emotional turmoil of desire and the contemplated peace of passing beyond life, contains imagery of bird song, wind, and golden twilight. The gentle arpeggios and rocking figuration call forth the soothing, lulling effect of nature whispering the soul to sleep.

The same imagery pervades the cradle song, which is based on an old German carol ‘Joseph lieber, Joseph mein’ quoted by the viola at the opening. Here Mary pleads with the angels to quiet the tree-tops so that the baby Jesus can rest; his sleep being troubled, perhaps, by the premonitions of the burdens he will soon carry – both of the world’s suffering and his own great sacrifice. Again the wind is called into service as a lullaby, and the rocking arpeggios in the viola help calm the turbulence of the passionate interludes.

Peter Lieberson’s Rilke Songs were composed in 2001 and premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival that year. He wrote:

When I was growing up, my mother, whose first language was German, would often quote lines from Rilke. I have been drawn to his poetry ever since.

Rilke seems to evoke feelings, states of being that are at the edge of awareness, mysterious but close to the heart. One can’t always understand exactly what he means. I believe this is a deliberate elusiveness in order to provoke our intuition.

The Rilke Songs were written for my wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I think of them as love songs even though the poems themselves are not overtly about love. They are about being childlike and open in ‘O ihr Zärtlichen’; in ‘Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht!,’ about the breath being a complete exchange between our own essence and the universe, how the breath seems to go out into space like our wandering son; the mysterious way in which we might transform ourselves: “If drinking is bitter, turn yourself into wine (from ‘Stiller Freund’).” To me these Rilkean insights are a gift of love.      – Peter Lieberson

The five poems, from “Sonnets to Orpheus,” are complex philosophical meditations on life and spirituality. A constant theme is transformation – the transformation of youth to age, of air as breath, moving in and out of conscious beings, of the breathtaking extension of a tiny flower and its ability to change the world by its very openness. Lieberson’s music embodies Rilke’s exquisite language with a union of saturated harmonic exploration and intense lyricism. Just as with the poetry, the music demands great attention and rewards it with moments of rapturous simplicity.

Robert Schumann composed the seven songs comprising op. 90 in 1849. The songs from this period are less well known than the output of 1840-41, but are equally superb in their masterful blend of poetry and music. The first six songs are settings of poems by Nikolaus Lenau; the final song, ‘Requiem,’ is credited as an ‘old Catholic poem’ and traditionally considered to be a lament for Abelard written by Heloïse. Schumann wrote the final song as an elegy for Lenau, who died in the same month.

There is a consistent melancholy hanging over all the poems in this set. Even the nominally cheerful ‘Lied eines Schmiedes’ and ‘Der Sennin’ have a nostalgic cast, with premonitions of joyous present times being sadly recalled long after. The larger songs – ‘Meine Rose,’  ‘Einsamkeit,’ and ‘Requiem’ – are pinnacles of Schumann’s lyric gift, sweeping the listener along kaleidoscopic harmonic paths and drawing out melodic lines of heartbreaking tenderness. These lengthy pieces are offset by miniatures – ‘Kommen und Scheiden,’ ‘Der Schwere Abend’ – that recall the pithy irony of the Heine cycles and share their dark outlook. The troubled relationships that inhabit Lenau’s poems are transfigured by the ecstatic vision of the ‘Requiem’; perhaps as Heloïse’s tribute to her beloved husband, the humanity and passionate nature of the deceased soul is the foundation of its paradisiacal bliss.

Through all of this music the thread of motion, wind and air is woven. The ability of air to effect change – to comfort grief or sorrow, to illuminate the spiritual core of being or of love, or to unite humanity to nature – is explicitly the theme here. The murmuring of the wind in the two Brahms songs quiets troubled thoughts and effects transformation. Rilke celebrates air as breath and perpetual change. And Lenau finds solace in the companionship of a spirit of love, floating on the air.

© Pamela Dellal