On Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton, offers his impressions of studying and rehearsing Mahler's Das Lied van der Erde:

Writing on Mahler, in a famous essay, “The Metaphysical Cosmos of Gustav Mahler,” the historian William McGrath declared: “No one was more aware than Mahler of the difficulty of expressing...verbally the content of his music; it is perhaps because of this realization that he succeeds as well as he does.” As someone eager to give an account of Das Lied von der Erde, I can boast of an equally intense feeling of perplexity: it is very difficult to express the content of this music in words! But unlike McGrath on Mahler, I cannot imagine that the very weight of my perplexity will guarantee my success.

Now this burden might be lifted a little by what the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Mahler’s contemporary, calls “the fascination of what’s difficult.” This is the important phrase, even if Yeats’s reading of it is onerous: “The fascination of what’s difficult,” he writes,

              has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
              Spontaneous joy and natural content
              Out of my heart. * * *

On the contrary, I feel that the fascination of the difficulty of doing justice to Das Lied von der Erde is driving sap through my veins and pouring spontaneous joy into my heart.

If you try to give another voice to this symphony, you will be confronted with a quite peculiar difficulty in the object itself—the dazzling intricacy of its layerings, especially in Schoenberg’s (never completed) “reduction”. We have the interlacement of voice, verbal image, and instrumentation in the moment of listening and at the same time the sense of another depth of time: a time when Central Europe—here Vienna—suffered its own fascination with the poetry and painting of the Far East. The text of the six songs of “Das Lied von der Erde” will surprise the listener whose preconception of that “Erde”—that “earth”—in the musical imagination of an urbane Hapsburg composer is the earth of the Viennese woods. In fact it is the earth of rural China [!], though one filtered through many modulations of a turn-of-the-century European sensibility. The Chinese poems used by Mahler—“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Misery,” “The Lonely One in Autumn,” Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell” —were composed by Li-Tai-Po, Mong-Kao-Yen, and Wang-Wei, wandering poets of the T’ang dynasty (618-907), a period of high cultural and military glory. The lyrics come down to Mahler in the “imitations” of Hans Bethge (1876-1946), a poet and scholar of T’ang dynasty poetry, in his book The Chinese Flute (1907). They lend themselves to musical settings, as witness works by Strauss, Schoenberg, and von Webern, among others. Bethge’s imitations rely, in turn, on other people’s versions, themselves not notably rigorous, found in Hans Heilman’s Chinese Lyric Poetry (1907). And Heilman, in turn, draws upon French translations from the Chinese, several of which are from The Book of Jade by Judith Gautier, the daughter of the important poet and critic Jules Théophile Gautier (“Art for Art’s Sake”)—a woman sexually intimate with Richard Wagner. It is bemusing, finally, to think that Wagner would have turned over in his mind the very texts that were to find their way into Das Lied von der Erde. In Mahler’s hands, however, they serve a quite different, indeed an opposed position to Wagner’s philosophical mythology: Wagner’s collective symbolism is, in the words of Carl Niekerk, “conservative, nationalistic, and religiously dogmatic.” In “Das Lied von der Erde, instead, we hear echoes of “an earlier Romantic sense of a community of all living beings, fundamental relativism toward religious orthodoxy, and the constitutive roles of irony and fragment.” The implicit irony is that these Chinese poems have traveled a long way from the T’ang Dynasty, and in the course of their wandering acquired a decided Central European flavor. And so we are back, although not altogether back, in the Viennese Woods.

In fact we are now in the woods of Vermont, the perfectly responsive setting, listening to Yellow Barn’s rehearsal of the “Lied", here where lovely earth predominates and its misery is a thing of the past. In this assembly hall, all is presentness, symphony, immediate communication not only musical: I am awed by the swiftness and economy of word and gesture with which the players relate to one another in their tireless devotion to the score—“vanilla,” “bring out the duplets", “sforzando!” Not a wasted word or gesture: the rehearsal is the very model of intimacy, which I am lucky to share, a dip into an Edenic world unlike our everyday—a world of cooperation, precision, and felt purpose. Hearing these players I recall words spoken by Heather Betts—greatly talented artist and wife of the greatly talented composer Brett Dean: “the condition of health is a sense of purpose, security, and belonging.” This rehearsal—itself an affair of “intimate decisions”—bodies forth this maxim. You hear it with a renewed understanding of Nietzsche’s aperçu, “Every artist knows how far from the feeling of letting himself go his “natural” condition strictly and subtly he then obeys thousandfold laws which precisely on account of their severity and definiteness mock all formulation in concepts—.”

On Schumann's Dichterliebe

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton, offers this first-hand account of attending a rehearsal of Schumann's Dichterliebe:

You climb a mountain that may make you think of Purgatory Mountain: it is a bit rough and foggy and the dirt roads are slippery, but you are on the way to the Terrestrial Paradise of music. This is Yellow Barn, a cluster of lodges (called “pods”) from which emerges a foretaste of heavenly music, in pieces. I came in the evening to Nathan's Studio, a bit stunned, happily, by the beauty of the room and its setting: outside, slanting green slopes with patches of late sunlight, framed by huge, shapely pines; inside, a Zen atmosphere (“Please remove your shoes”)—sweet, fresh air; cream curtains barely blowing; the smell of polished wood; a woven white carpet on the floor; and behind the piano, a Japanese, plum-colored wall. I am going to experience the incomparable intimacy, fluency, and rigor of two superlative artists—the Artistic Director and pianist Seth Knopp, the baritone William Sharp—rehearsing Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A poet’s love)—a song cycle to texts from Heine’s Buch der Lieder (Book of songs).

The Japanese metaphor holds, since I know very little Japanese, and Seth and Bill speak about their music in a language nominally English but one that I mostly do not understand: instead I marvel at the perfection and ease of their understanding. They are native speakers of the idiom of accompaniment, the subtle work of adjusting piano music to song. But what I do understand belongs to a ritual of attentiveness and generosity: I hear Seth wonder if a piece of his playing “supports” Bill’s singing, whether his music “invites” the voice in. But I can assume from the gestures of enthusiasm from Bill to Seth that he is returning Seth’s kindness. 

From time to time I am allowed into their conversation, and now I know their language is not only pragmatic: it is full of wit (and wild comedy!), information, and canny judgments on Heine’s and Schumann’s artistic intentions.  One piece especially attracted a good deal of analysis: the Sixth Song.  The Heine text:

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
da spiegelt sich in den Well'n
mit seinem großen Dome
das große, heilige Köln.

Im Dom da steht ein Bildniß
auf goldenem Leder gemalt.
In meines Lebens Wildniß
hat's freundlich hineingestrahlt.

Es schweben Blumen und Eng'lein
um unsre liebe Frau;
die Augen, die Lippen, die Wänglein,
die gleichen der Liebsten genau.

In the Rhine, in the sacred river,
there is mirrored in the waves,
with its great cathedral,
great sacred Cologne.

In the cathedral, there stands an image
painted on golden leather.
into my life’s wilderness
it has shined in affectionately.

There hover flowers and little angels
around our beloved lady,
the eyes, the lips, the little cheeks,
match exactly those of the best beloved.

Bill pointed out that that at the time of Heine’s composition of this poem (1822-23), only part of the cathedral at Cologne had been built. A portion of the south tower stood at the belfry level: it was not yet the grand monument of the third line of his poem. That monument, in its fullness, is a poetic fiction, which means, it has no real referent. This led me to wonder whether the opening fiction of the poem was being picked up at its close: the golden cathedral image resembles precisely the best beloved or most dear person, whom I took to be the Virgin Mary. And once again, where the Virgin Mary is concerned, there is no real person at hand whom the image might be said to resemble. The underlying theme of the poem, I thought, is the independence of the poetic image from the real world, thus complicating the casual claim of the great cathedral’s perfect image in the waves.

Bill pointed out the error of this reading but graciously and creatively. The best beloved is not the sacred figure of the Virgin Mary; it is, unmistakably, the poet’s beloved. The point is not that an artistic fiction—the golden cathedral image—fails to refer to a real being. The point is that it precisely does refer to a real being—the poet’s beloved. This is an audacious, secularized theology.

And yet, I wondered, is the beloved a real being? We decided to agree: she is real within the fiction of the poem. But even within the poem, isn’t she merely the poet’s fancy of a perfect beloved? We could not settle the matter on the spot—a theme that, owing to what Bill knew, turned the poem into a dizzying meditation on the riddle of poetic imitation. 

This riddle produced another riddle about the status of Schumann’s musical imitation: it mirrors the poem, and yet it does more than mirror the poem—it means to exceed it. And it does so precisely with its glorious sacerdotal postlude, as Seth pointed out—cathedral music at the close, picking up and completing the unfinished cathedral at the outset. It’s in the spirit of Bach, Seth added; of course, added Bill, Schumann was studying Bach intensively at the time, in Leipzig!

Such, such are the joys of rehearsal at Yellow Barn.

Yellow Barn's 2012 Scholarship Benefit Honoree

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

John Burt offers a personal account of Eric Bass in advance of Yellow Barn's Scholarship Benefit Concert:

Over a decade ago I invited Eric Bass to accompany me on one of the delegations of supporters and artists I host to visit Cambodian Living Arts. We envisioned together the possibility of how Sandglass Theater, as a western puppet company, might collaborate with one of the emerging Cambodian theater companies practicing the ancient art of shadow puppetry.

What I didn’t know about Sandglass or Eric at the time, was that a proposal of an idea from me was already becoming a reality in the Sandglass repertoire; that is to say, that if you share an artistic idea or concept with Eric and Sandglass that resonates with their artistic mission, then you can count on them already designing the opening scene of a show.

I recently was standing with the shadow puppet master, Man Kosal, in a hot, dusty, rust metal works part of a working neighborhood in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Kosal and Eric had co-directed “The Story of the Dog,” a collaboration between their two puppet companies. As Kosal and I leaned against his long, brightly painted flat bed truck that had toured the Sandglass/Sovannah Phum companies around the Cambodian countryside nearly 6 years ago, he told me that his company had recently performed the show again… He seemed proud and sheepish at the same time. Then he smiled and said, “We were meant to do the show together; it belongs to both of us.” It is a real tribute to Eric and Sandglass that their work lives on in the hands of the international artistic community.

Just as Man Kosal’s Sovanna Phum Arts Association is in the middle of an industrial neighborhood of Cambodia’s capital, Eric and Iness Bass’ Sandglass Theater is right in the middle of downtown Putney, behind what was a 19th century Village Tavern and next to what was the Center Church, now Next Stage Performing Arts and across the way from The Putney General Store. The twentieth century said good-bye to many small downtown villages across the United States.  At the beginning of the 21st Century our communities have been deeply challenged to redefine themselves, their employment and cultural identity. But for more than 30 years, Putney has been home to Eric and Iness Bass and their preeminent international theater ensemble, whose roots grow wide and far, but whose artistic sensibility is rooted in small town values and the expression of individuals and their community.

Eric, you and your beloved collaborator Ines, and your company, Sandglass Theater, have been practicing the art saying, “yes, we can,” for a very long time and our community and state and world are more resilient because of you. We are very grateful.

Bach abounds at Yellow Barn

Monday, July 9, 2012

David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:

It’s a safe bet that, at any given moment, somewhere on this earth, J.S. Bach’s music is being performed, rehearsed, heard, studied, and contemplated. And that is not likely to change anytime soon — not that anyone seems to be complaining.

Even so, next weekend sees an unusual Bach convergence at New England summer music festivals. Friday, Yellow Barn, the music school and festival based in southeastern Vermont, begins a two-concert exploration of Bach’s six suites for solo cello. Then on Sunday, the American violinist Jennifer Koh fills an afternoon at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival with the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. If you happen to be considering total immersion in Bach’s solo string works, the time is now.

The Yellow Barn shows are a tribute to the festival’s founder, cellist David Wells, who will turn 85 this month. “It’s an acknowledgment of David and what he’s done for this place,” said artistic director Seth Knopp. “And also of the special affinity he felt for those pieces.”

But the concerts are also unusual in that they divide up the movements of the suites among three of the festival’s cello faculty — Bonnie Hampton, Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and Natasha Brofsky — and students. It’s an arrangement that raises tangled questions about musical interpretation: how a number of musicians can create a unified reading of a piece, and whether they should even try.

“I’m a pianist who hears a lot of these suites at auditions, and I hear a lot of cellists playing them with completely different viewpoints,” said Knopp. “And I thought it might be a wonderful opportunity for them to share those viewpoints. I think there’ll be something of osmosis taking place as well.”

The suites, said Hampton, “are basic to our repertoire. They are unique.” For that reason, “cellists really want to add their insights and instincts to the suites, and be part of them.” But, she added, each suite has its own character, right down to its key. That acts as a check on performers’ flights of fancy. As Hampton put it, “I certainly want cellists to keep their own direction, but also get in the spirit of the particular suite they’re playing.”

The Boston Globe on Shostakovich's Romanzen-Suite

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jeremy Eichler, classical music critic for The Boston Globe, writes for his column "Third Ear":

Exploring a composer’s music can be a bit like visiting a foreign city.

Most tours will take you to the famous postcard sites, yet of course a different kind of visit or, better still, a rambling stroll is required before a city gives up its more intimate treasures: the secret courtyard tucked away off a bustling street, the neighborhood restaurant blissfully lost in time, that one transfixing view of the sea. It can be these more modest encounters that linger in one’s memory, if only because they disclose the essence of a place in its purest and perhaps most beautiful form.The musical estate of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) by now requires little introduction. The tour buses have circled, the major monuments — 15 Symphonies, 15 String Quartets — have been duly annotated in our guidebooks. Even the rancorous debates over the composer’s political beliefs are by now, it seems, themselves slowly receding into history.

But among his vast catalog of works, there are still so many smaller gems, and all too invisible. Having spotted a rare upcoming performance (July 7 at Yellow Barn music festival) of one of the composer’s more extraordinary pieces of vocal music, I can’t resist devoting today’s column to the “Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok.”

This song cycle of 1967, scored for soprano, cello, violin, and piano, not only contains some of the most piercingly beautiful music Shostakovich ever wrote, but also speaks with his most deeply personal tone. The texts by Blok, Russia’s most revered Symbolist poet, are transfigured by Shostakovich’s musical voice, sounding here free of accent or strain. One senses in this music that a composer of many masks has momentarily dropped them all. The songs glow with the quiet light of the real.

Their story begins in May of 1966, when, after years of declining health and nervous agitation, Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. His recovery was long and dispiriting, and he feared his creative gifts had been lost. The hospital doctors forbade him from composing, but he read Blok’s poetry. Months later, aided by a few furtive swigs of brandy, the floodgates opened and, in just three days, out poured this group of seven songs.

The composer had his pretexts. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich had requested a piece of music to perform with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and Shostakovich later claimed this was the impetus behind the Blok cycle, before, that is, he realized how many instruments were required to draw out the full implications of these remarkable poems. At another point, Shostakovich asked his wife to suggest her favorite Blok poems so that he might set them to music, but the final suite reflects none of her choices.

No, in the end, this was music written for no one but Shostakovich himself. His friend Isaak Glikman called these songs the composer’s “confession” and later wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” Vishnevskaya, to whom the cycle is dedicated, praised their “agonizing beauty” and wrote that Shostakovich, having survived his brush with death, “seems to survey his journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”

Read the full article

Images from "Le Noir de l'Etoile"

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On May 20th, six percussionists (James Beauton, Greg Beyer, Amy Garapic, Doug Perkins, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshigawa) and astronomer Tom Geballe arrived in Putney, Vermont for a week devoted to exploring Gérard Grisey's Le Noir de l'Etoile. For six days the ensemble rehearsed in the Greenwood School gynasium and Tom Geballe gave numerous talks for Greenwood students and faculty, members of the local community, and those who attended the performance on May 25th. While the original plan called for a starlit performance on the Greenwood School soccer field, questionable weather called for an indoor experience. Over 200 people, from as close as the houses next door and as far as Dallas, TX, settled onto mats and chairs beneath a giant silk pulsar created by Greenwood faculty member Annie Quest, surrounded on all sides by percussionists and the sound of pulsars.