by Peter Rutenberg
Neither love nor the songs that encourage it are the sole province of humankind. Many species mate for life - some with a ritual song. Yet only with us human beings is there such a legacy of beauty, intensity and complexity of emotion as can be traced through the ancient poets of China and India, the Song of Songs, the great empires of Greece, Rome, and Persia, the Scandinavian sagas, the warrior-poets of the Age of Chivalry, the sonnets of Shakespeare, and the Romantic Era of Europe, right down to the hit songs of the jazz, folk, rock and popular idioms of the late 20th century. The further distinguishing feature of human love is, of course, its instability. So fertile is its propensity to sour and disintegrate, that we can scarcely coin the term without invoking the specter of its flipside. Indeed, who among us has not felt or supposed it emanating from the object of our fondest desire? Yet each year, as the days lengthen, we recall both the anniversary of the martyred patron saint of love (St.Valentine) and the pagan fertility festival (Lupercalia, February 15th) and celebrate our ideal notions of this "crazy little thing" with Songs of Love.
Minnesota-based composer Dominick Argento's stated commitment to "working with characters, feelings and emotions" is certainly borne out in the cycle I Hate and I love (Odi et Amo), based on the poetry of Catullus (Rome, first century B.C.E.). The seven texts that make up the eight-movement work for chorus and percussion begin and end with a summary theme: "I hate and I love. Perhaps you will ask how that can be possible. I do not know; but that is what I feel and it torments me." Written on a commission from the Dale Warland Singers to honor their tenth anniversary in 1981, I Hate and I Love employs a range of compositional techniques including melodic unison and inversion, tortured harmonies, and rhythmically- free declamation to argue effectively for relief from the torments of love.
Johannes Brahms' Love Song Waltzes, Op. 52 are among the most endearingly charming works in the repertoire. Completed in 1869, they and the later set (Opus 65) pay homage to Vienna's waltz-king Strauss, and, through the composer's diligence, maintain the distinctive simplicity of the Austrian folk style that inspired them. It is further to Brahms' credit that the 18 songs, set for four voices and piano four hands, elevate the rather unexceptional tone of Daumer's brief poems by probing in true Romantic fashion every subtlety of emotion, every nuance of human longing, with refined musical gestures that speak directly to the heart. Highlights are to be found in the waves crashing on the rocks, the pretty little bird chirps, the furtive glance of the maiden's eyes, the nightingale's song, and the trembling leaves.
Brahms was not given to self-praise, but as biographer Karl Geiringer points out, he "had a special place for them in his heart. When the score was printed, the composer ... unbent sufficiently to write to his publisher, Sirnrock: 'I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work - of mine! I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder don't give pleasure to a few people."'
Les Chansons des Roses, by Morten Lauridsen, to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, were written for Bruce Browne and his Portland, Oregon-based ensemble, Choral CrossTies, who gave the premiere on April 23, 1993. The Chansons have quickly become one of the most popular works in choral history and it's easy to understand why: they are beautifully crafted gems - intense without being overwrought - and are most gratifying for all ages and types of voice to sing. The compositional technique, while thorough-going, is not obvious. Rather, it accomplishes the adroit feat of being virtually invisible, while its effects are palpable within the cycle of emotions revealed in the developing musical scheme.
About the inspiration for his Chansons Lauridsen has written: "In addition to his vast output of German poetry, Rilke (1875- 1926) wrote nearly 400 poems in French. His poems on roses struck me as especially charming, filled with gorgeous lyricism, deftly crafted and elegant in their imagery. These exquisite poems are primarily light, joyous and playful, and the musical settings are designed to enhance these characteristics and capture their delicate beauty and sensuousness. "Distinct melodic and harmonic materials recur throughout the cycle, especially between Rilke's poignant Contre Qui, Rose (set as a wistful nocturne) and his moving La Rose Complete. The final piece, Dirait-on, is composed as a tuneful chanson populaire, or folksong, that weaves together two melodic ideas first heard in fragmentary form in preceding movements."
The first four Chansons are scored for mixed chorus a cappella, the last with piano accompaniment. As with Lauridsen's other cycles, the structure of this set is based on the arch, with compositional parallels between movements I and V, and II and IV, and all of these girding the intricately playful counterpoint of the centerpiece - the third movement - itself replete with clever subtleties, such as mirror-image melodies throughout, and canonic restatements of these duets in rhythmic augmentation and diminution (i.e., half-time and double-time). Perhaps the cleverest sleight of the composer's hand lies in the sly foreshadowing of the Dirait-on tune. Les Chansons des Roses have been recorded by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Paul Salamunovich, with the composer at the piano, on the Grammy-nominted CD LAURIDSEN LUX AETERNA (RCM 19705).
Chicago composer Richard Proulx is well-known for his extensive catalogue of sacred choral literature. The Songs of Love and Old Age are a clever set of four anonymous English secular texts (written between 1550 and 1680), originally commissioned by the vocal sextet, The Oriana Singers, William Chin, director. Although they were originally conceived for solo voices, like the Liebeslieder Waltzer, they are well-suited to performance by a larger ensemble. Their precise gestures - formed of snappy rhythms, stylish melodies, and expanded harmonies - blend vestiges of the English Madrigal with a modern jazz idiom to yield delicate yet vigorous works of charm and delight.
The haunting beauty of Celtic folk music comes to the fore in Gustav Holst's arrangement of the Cornish folksong I Love My Love. The modal tune is instantly recognizable (he and other symphonic composers used it) and his treatment of it is decidedly out of the ordinary, with sopranos carrying the first two verses, followed by tenors and basses in turn. With text based on the poem "Echo" by Christina Rossetti, Come to Me, My Love by Norman Dello Joio exhibits its folk-like elements in an elevated tone, with rich sweeping harmonies strummed by the piano. The gentle force of the climax aptly portrays the strength of the text's wish in the untethered domain of its dreamworld. A Red, Red Rose - the first of James Mulholland's Four Robert Burns Ballads - captures the simplicity of its folk text with sonorous harmonies, leading to a broad proclamation of the lover's intent to return "Though it were ten thousand miles."
Vaudeville, Broadway, the Silver Screen and Radio's Golden Microphone all illuminated the 1930s with the gossamer giddiness of a moment's repose from the heaviness of the Depression: it was the songwriter's heyday. Four memorable songs from that decade by the Gershwins, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart conclude this program. Roy Ringwald's classy piano four hands arrangements of the Cole Porter classic In the Still of the Night and My Romance by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart open the finale with the sparkle and glamour of their top-hat-and-tails style.
Jerry Rubino is in his 22nd year as Associate Conductor, pianist, singer, arranger, and Director of Educational Outreach for the Dale Warland Singers, and recently completed engagements with the Taipei Foundation for Culture and Education, and the Oahu Honors Choir in Hawaii. He served as guest conductor with the Master Chorale several seasons ago and returns on this concert as the arranger of two George Gershwin hits - Love is Here to Stay and I Got Rhythm.