About this Recording
8.559658 - WHEELER, S.: Songs (Wasting the Night) (Phillips, River, Kaiser, Sharp, Berman)
English 

Scott Wheeler (b. 1952)
Wasting the Night: Songs

 

My first musical memories are songs from the Great American Songbook, in recordings by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others. My parents themselves sang these songs; my mother sang over the radio in Greece during World War II and my dad sang a cappella with the Kingsmen at Columbia. As a teenager, I played these standard tunes in my own jazzy piano arrangements, and cherished their sensuous combination of words and music. When I began to play and sing in rock bands, I came to love a simpler sort of song, which was not always as simple as it seemed. The 1960s rock and pop lyrics were not as clever as Cole Porter, but their occasional ambiguity came from a need for poetry, the same need that made me want to set the poems of William Blake, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden and others.

When I began composing concert music in the 1970s, it was in a high modernist academic milieu where most vocal music was so heavily influenced by Schoenberg it might as well have been in German. Classic German and French art song was seldom taught—I came to love the songs of Schumann and Fauré by accompanying singers and by studying singing myself. American art song was almost completely ignored in the university. Around 1975, Rodney Lister, an independent-minded composer colleague who shared my love of the standard pop repertoire, introduced me to the remarkable songs of Virgil Thomson.

Rodney also introduced me to Thomson himself. In 1981, Rodney and I studied text-setting with Virgil, at his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. Thomson’s teaching had no nonsense about it, focusing on vocal range, groupings of syllables, and placement of vowels. Virgil never discussed the emotional content of a song—not because the emotion isn’t important, but because emotion is the easiest part, and tends to take care of itself if the text setting is handled professionally. His advice was that “the composer who scans his text correctly will do it better service than the one who violates its clarity in order to illustrate some secondary meaning, or to impress us with how deeply he himself feels about it all. The basis of communicating in vocal music, in other words, is correct verbal prosody.”¹ I agree with this, but it no longer fully describes my own attitude and approach. To me, songs are simply the most sensuous kind of fun one can have with the combination of words and music. That combination can range from humor to melancholy to high operatic drama. This recording is a selection from over twenty years of explorations of that expressive range. I’m deeply grateful to the wonderful singers and pianists who have shared in these explorations, especially the five intensely communicative artists on this disc.

Serenata (1993) was originally written for tenor and guitar. That combination suggested a lover’s serenade, which in turn led me to these five poems by Mark Van Doren, all drawn from his book Morning Worship. Serenata was premiered by Marshall Hughes and John Muratore in 1991. The version for voice and piano was premiered by Paul Kirby and Anthony Tommasini in 1994.

In Sunday Songs (1999) Oriole and Keeping the Sabbath were written for Renée Fleming’s all-Dickinson program with the actress Julie Harris, presented at Alice Tully Hall in New York and Wigmore Hall in London in 2000. Since Dickinson did not give her poems titles, the titles of these songs are my own, as is the title of the set; the concerns with the divine and the everyday are of course very much those of this poet.

Heaven and Earth (2007), a selection of poems by William Blake, focuses on the contrasts between the tenderness of heaven and the violence of earth. Night sets an earthly scene and ends with a vision of heaven. The Little Vagabond finds a lesson in the alehouse here on earth. Holy Thursday depicts the annual tradition at St Paul’s of bringing the poor children of London into the Cathedral; Blake dramatizes the pious condescension of this sort of charity. In Oh For a Voice Like Thunder, Blake’s moral fervor takes on the tones of an Old Testament prophet. Heaven and Earth was commissioned by the Marilyn Horne Foundation and the ASCAP Foundation/Charles Kingsford Fund. The set was premiered by Dmitri Pittas and Carrie Ann Matheson as part of the 2008 Marilyn Horne Foundation festival The Song Continues.

Singing To Sleep is a set of three lullabies, none of them from mother to child; the second two are included on this recording. To Say to Go to Sleep (1984) is dedicated to Christen Frothingham, whom I married in 1985. Lullaby (1979) is dedicated to Megan Murphy, who premiered it as part of her senior recital at Emerson College. The entire set was premiered by Gail Abbey, accompanied by the composer.

Litany (2006) was commissioned by baritone Marcus DeLoach, with the assistance of American Opera Projects. I have heard Billy Collins read this poem, explaining to the audience that he began by considering the opening two lines, by a poet named Jacques Crickillon: You are the bread and the knife,/The crystal goblet and the wine. Collins deadpanned to the audience that “some guys think they can get somewhere with a woman by comparing her to something else.” His Litany takes this couplet, and this notion, to its logical, absurd and funny extreme.

Wasting the Night (1990) is a song cycle on poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who explores some of the ways in which we “waste the night in wanting.” The five songs are conceived as a single piece, with numerous cross-references between songs, mostly in the accompaniment. Commissioned and premiered by Alea III in Boston, these songs were first presented as “cabaret songs,” featuring the classically trained cabaret performer Susan Lambert, accompanied by Thomas Stumpf. My own notion of cabaret centers on certain songs from recordings of Mabel Mercer (“You are not my first love”) and Blossom Dearie (“I know my lines”). The Millay poems of Wasting the Night have a similar alternation of yearning and cynicism.

Mozart, 1935 (1997) was commissioned by the playwright, director and teacher Carol Korty, as a birthday present for her husband, the singer and painter Dale Macurdy. It was Dale who suggested this little known Wallace Stevens poem. The accompaniment quotes Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor for piano and the second movement of the A major Piano Concerto, K. 488. When the poet is asked to “play the present,” I took the present as 1935, possibly in Germany or Austria—my musical image (suggested by Dale) was of Kurt Weill.

The poems of Turning Back (2007), like much of the work of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), take a modern look at classical literature. In Aubade (my title for the song—H.D.’s poem, after Sappho, is called Fragment Thirtysix) I imagine that the singer is debating whether to leave for rehearsal (“song’s gift”) or to wake the lovely person in her bed (“love’s gift”). Circe, well aware of her power over men, doesn’t call them pigs, she just allows them to be themselves; she regrets that Ulysses is less easily manipulated. Lethe is a lullaby invoking the forgetfulness of death. H.D.’s Eurydice questions Orpheus’s motives in bringing her back from the dead; her operatic rage is as punishing as that of the Furies. Turning Back was commissioned by the Boston Cecilia and Concert Artists Guild, with the generous help of Dr. Anne Guenzel. The songs are dedicated to Krista River, who premiered them, with pianist Judith Gordon.


Scott Wheeler

¹ Virgil Thomson, lecture notes entitled Words and Music (typescript obtained from Thomson)

 

If I Had a Wife, Her Hand in My Hand, Little Trip, Desire Like This and Love Me Little © Mrs Mark Van Doren.
Used by permission.

A Variation on ‘To Say to Go to Sleep’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, adapted by Randall Jarrell, © W.W. Norton & Co.
Used by permission.

Lullaby by W.H. Auden, © Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Used by permission.

Litan” by Billy Collins, © Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Used by permission.

Thursday, Recuerdo and I shall forget you by Edna St Vincent Millay, © 1922, 1950 by Edna St Vincent Millay. “Time does not bring relief” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, © 1917, 1945 by Edna St Vincent Millay.

Betrothal by Edna St. Vincent Millay, © 1923, 1951 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis.
Used by permission.

Mozart, 1935 by Wallace Stevens, © Alfred A. Knopf.
Used by permission.

Fragment Thirty-six, Circe, Lethe, and Eurydice by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), from Collected Poems, 1912-1944, copyright ©1982 by the Estate of Hilda Doolittle.
Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


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