Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...




Program notes  –  NCS Artist-in-Residence Recital

performed May 2003

Although I usually have organized my recitals in some thematic fashion, when I began to put this program together my first thought was merely to sing pieces I had always wanted to perform and never had. The Frank Martin Quatre Sonnets I had first encountered in college, and was a long-unfulfilled dream for me; The Rückert- Lieder, a pinnacle of the mezzo repertoire which I was eager to test myself upon. Schumann's early Heine-Liederkreis, admittedly, was not new to me, as I had performed it in the past, but had never done it justice. And finally, Scott's wonderful cantata/mini-opera so charmed me when he shared it with me a few years ago that I knew I needed to sink my teeth into it. It was only after I had settled on these four pieces that hidden correspondences began to suggest themselves to me. Here are a few: Ronsard, Heine and Rückert all point to themselves as poets in their poems, and make art an explicit subject of their works. Ronsard, Heine and the tragic heroes of Helena all reach for something beyond their grasp, forbidden. The mastery of Ronsard's balanced cadences is matched by the brilliant, but not sterile, wordplay of Rückert; and the unmatched simplicity of Heine's diction is mirrored by the directness of the Helena libretto.

Frank Martin was born in Geneva, Switzerland at the end of the nineteenth century. The Ronsard settings come from a very early phase of his career, before he became influenced by the twelve-tone experiments of Arnold Schönberg. A lifelong influence on his writing was J.S. Bach, and Martin eventually forged a synthesis between the serial system and traditional tonality in his mature writings. In the Quatre Sonnets, however, he explores an interesting landscape that is formed partly from the post-impressionist world, and partly from a sensibility derived from Renaissance rhythm and harmony. This is clearly intended to reflect the archaic language and imagery of the poetry. To achieve this, Martin avoids the impressionistic harmonies of the Debussy school and restricts himself to a palette of modal figures. The result of this choice is a cool, elegant work that serves the sentiment of Ronsard's gentle yet ironic diction and remains utterly original.

Robert Schumann wrote the bulk of his songs in one year: the great song year, 1840. This was the year he was finally free to marry Clara Wieck, for whose hand he had contested over three years with her obstinate father. One of his very first compositions in this genre was the Heine-Liederkreis, op. 24. The pairing of Schumann and Heine was uncanny; rarely has a composer been so well-matched to a poet. The op. 24 has been overshadowed by its better-known cousin, Dichterliebe, op. 48 (written in the same year), which is also set to Heine songs. Both cycles tell exactly the same story: the unhappy love affair that the young Heinrich Heine suffered in Hamburg. This unfortunate experience became the source for almost all of Heine's best known works, so it is not surprising to encounter the same imagery, the same patterns, in the two cycles. It is fascinating, however, to compare them: the early cycle, briefer, is set to a self-contained cycle of poems by Heine, whereas Schumann assembled the poems for the Dichterliebe himself from miscellaneous poems. The early set has a simplicity of diction that is all but astonishing: Heine puts his thoughts into the most ordinary and common language. The story is the same, of course: at first the poet believes his passion is returned by the young lady, and then lashes out in anger, grief, and close to madness when he is rebuffed. Each cycle ends with a ceremonial "burial" of the love songs that chronicle the unhappy affair. But the early cycle has many virtues: astonishing miniatures (#4, #8) which set up large, central songs like the magnificent "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden;" a vivid etching of impatience in song #2, "Es treibt mich hin;" and what may be the most brutal and violent expression of anger in all of Schumann's vocal music, #6 "Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann." These unsettling moments are offset by gorgeous lyricism in the hallucinogenic "Ich wandelte under den Bäumen" #3 and the strophic "Berg und Burgen" #7.

Gustav Mahler was a great enthusiast of vocal literature. Although he wrote no operas, he incorporated both solo and choral singing into many of his symphonic works, and one of his greatest symphonic works is a song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. In addition, he built his First Symphony around a previously-written song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Because of his talent for and love of orchestral sonorities, almost all of Mahler's songs exist in orchestral versions, and many are only known in this form. This is also true about the Rückert Lieder, a loosely-organized cycle of five songs set to poems of Friedrich Rückert. I say "loosely organized" because there is no clearly established order for the five songs, and you find them presented in various sequences on concerts, recordings, and in published collections. Three of the five songs were originally published with piano accompaniment, but two seem to be originally conceived for orchestra: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"

and "Um Mitternacht." These two songs, in addition, are by far the grander and more profound of the five. Indeed, other than the common poet, there might seem to be little holding these songs together as a group. Nevertheless, is has become traditional to perform them as a cycle, and as such they cast interesting reflections on each other. The airy insubstantiality of "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft", enhanced by its evanescent and virtually untranslatable punning, is in maximal contrast to the apocalyptically dark "Um Mitternacht" which echoes its lighter cousin with its equivocal rhymes and economy of vocabulary. The busy, merry hum of "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder" could not be farther from the stillness and calm of the exquisite "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," but both of these songs are explicit in the identification of the artist as creator, living and experiencing his art as almost more real than reality itself. "Liebst du um Schönheit," dedicated to his wife, Alma, also has ties to "Ich bin der Welt" by virtue of its warmth and rejection of the outward things of the world for the inner truth of love. Unlike Schumann's tightly-organized Heine collaboration, therefore, Mahler creates a unified world out of diverse and unrelated songs.

Scott Wheeler's cantata "Helena and the Moonstone" was written in 1999, but receives its premiere performance this evening. Based on the famous myth of Actaeon, the hunter who was transformed into a stag and killed when he stumbled on the goddess Diana sleeping (or bathing), Wheeler has expanded the myth into a complete drama, composing his own libretto. The piece is structured not unlike a large-scale Baroque cantata: without distinct movements, there are clearly defined sections, and the narrative expands into full-fledged dialogue calling upon the singer to play as many as five different roles. Operatic in concept, the opportunity to tell a story from so many points of view is what makes this type of 'cantata' piece distinct from playing an opera role. Here are the composer's notes:

"Like many operatic heroines, Helena is strong, sensual, and beguilingly determined to have her own way, however unwise that might be. She doesn't want to submit to the limitations marriage would put on her freedom, so she vows to continue her tomboy existence of hunting with the virgin goddess Diana. But her carnal passions lead her to Actaeon, so she tries to have it both ways by continuing with Diana but marrying in secret.

"Actaeon guesses that it is this conflicted situation that causes Helena's barrenness, but she is determined enough to turn to witchcraft, which seems to have been an interest of hers for a while. This technological solution to the fertility problem has its complications and dangers. Actaeon is strong, but is understandable entranced by Helena, and is no match for her guile. His love for her and his confidence in his physical prowess lead him to take fatal risks with both the moon-goddess Diana and the witch-goddess Hecate." – Scott Wheeler

© Pamela Dellal