What's Your Favorite Art Song?
Art song, lied, lieder, mélodie, canzona, song, or boring, German, turgid, fat people screaming? The art of lyric poetry being set to music for one voice with piano accompaniment has a bad rap among many. You mean we gotta' sit there while somebody sings at us in a language we don't understand about babbling brooks, wifty-eyed maidens and stupid swans? No sets, no costumes, no pulchritude? And you can't dance to it? Gimme a break.
It took this writer a long time to leave off Donizetti's mad scenes and turn to German lieder. It's hard to use your own imagination when Lucia di Lammermoor is stabbing her husband fifty times on their wedding night, with the chorus commenting on the horror of it all as the poor lady trills to the glass harmonica. You need patience and maturity to find the inner stillness necessary to be awestruck by these miniature music dramas. I'm still working on it, but have picked up a love for Schubert,Wolf, Brahms and Mahler along the way.
I've become a devotee of American art song too. Ned Rorem's For Poulenc is at the top of my list. So is Samuel Barber's Sure on this Shining Night. Italian art song needs a PR consultant, but we do have the exquisite I pastori by Italo Montemezzi and the songs of Respighi and Martucci; three composers worth knowing better.
French mélodie is difficult for a non French speaking artist, since not only the words but the sense of the words usually dictate the musical line. Ironically, my two favorite French singers from a time gone by weren't French: Maggie Teyte was British and Irma Kolassi; Greek. Go find them on Youtube.
I've asked fifty singers, instrumentalists, conductors, fans, radio listeners to name their favorite art song. Few chose just one. What the hell, I didn't.
The People's Choice Art Songs
This lied by Gustav Mahler, from the collection of folk poetry Des KnabenWunderhorn came up several times: Wo die schoenen trompeten blasen. This is a dialogue. The young man knocks and the maiden lets him in. He's off to war. The music tells us that he won't be coming back.
"Oh love on the green earth/I'm off to war on the green heath/ the green heath is so far away/Where there the fair trumpets sound/there is my home/on the green grass..."
I had a twenty-five percent return on my questionnaire, unheard of in my direct mail marketing days of the early 1980s. Here are some other favorites. These come from smart people whose hearts are filled with love and music. Go find these songs:
- R. Strauss Four Last Songs
- Wagner Wesendonck Lieder
- Liszt O quand je dors
- Britten: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (cheating) Neapolitan songs, "and Mario Lanza singing Be My Love because it drives my wife crazy."
- Debussy: Colloque Sentimental , " a seductively ruthlessly ironic dialog between two lovers (dead?) from his set Fetes galantes. The coolest recording? No question Maggie Teyte, who --when she's singing-- sounds like she's speaking"
- Schubert: Lied der Mignon and Mozart, the lied with the great title: Als luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte (Louise writes a letter to her faithless lover)
- Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel, especially The Roadside Fire. "I know its kind of a cliché song cycle, especially for undergrad male vocalists. The series performed end to end does more for me than an entire Schubert lied."
- Wolf: Verborgenheit (Withdrawal)
- Barber/Georg Heym : O Boundless, Boundless Evening
- Bolcom: Lime Jello Cottage Cheese Surprise "I'm sure you saw this coming! I have Bill's score."
- Schubert/Rellstab: Standchen
And as for me, this may not be my absolute favorite, but I can't stop listening to it.
- Bizet/Victor Hugo: L'adieu a l'hotesse arabe (The Farewell of the Arab Hostess)
The next time you have an extra three minutes, go to youtube and check out one of these songs. Then check out some more. Then type in Schubert lieder (or Brahms, or Schumann, or Strauss, or Wolf) or Debussy melodies, or Fauré, or Ravel, or Poulenc, or Spanish song Falla, Granados...and keep going. And when you've had enough, here's my other obsession. George Crumb's setting of poetry by Gabriel Garcia Lorca, Ancient Voices of Children. Who needs therapy?