About this Recording
8.573780 - Vocal Recital: d'Or, Yaniv - SCHUMANN, R. / DUPARC, H. / DEBUSSY, C. / HAHN, R. / POULENC, F. (Thoughts Observed)

Thoughts Observed
Songs by Schumann, Duparc, Debussy, Hahn and Poulenc


In 2013, the young British countertenor Yaniv d’Or began to explore a repertoire appropriate to his culture, that of Sephardic Jewry, which in 1492 was expelled from Spain and dispersed around the Mediterranean. His Spanish, Turkish, Egyptian and Libyan ancestry provided him with time-honed, hauntingly beautiful, folk songs, many passed orally down the generations, recounting a popular history of love, loss and longing for home which he recorded on two albums, Liquefacta Est and A La Una Yo Naci. Having, as he says, discovered himself through a music which came from the heart, a natural curiosity for Romanticism, for Lieder and string quartets, began to flourish, where previously it might have been forced as an adjunct to his studies at the Guildhall, London. Now, he felt an affinity with the lovesick nineteenth century and brought a refreshing southern perspective to the established academic repertoire.

D’Or was drawn to Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet-love), settings of sixteen lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine who, like the singer, had a Jewish heritage. This comes out in a certain ironic detachment from the world, a disjunct with society, the poet’s poetlove constantly misfiring. Thoughts are observed from an egregious position. Schumann greatly admired Heine and as an 18-year-old school-leaver he travelled from his home near Leipzig to visit him in Munich. The 30-year-old celebrity received him warmly and showed him the city, sharing his caustic insights and acerbic wit at the expense of the pedantic and petty-minded, which Schumann appreciated. Heine had converted to Christianity two years earlier in 1825 but regretted it, observing sardonically that he was now resented by both Jews and Gentiles. He was disappointed that the new era ushered in by the French Revolution had not brought with it the equalities many had hoped for.

At that stage, the student Schumann was unsure of his direction. He briefly studied law, read books and took piano lessons. Literature fed his creativity and inspired a large amount of solo piano music which, for the first ten years of his working life, preoccupied him exclusively. As a piano-poet, he fell hopelessly in love with the teenage virtuoso Clara Wieck and engaged in an epic struggle to marry her against the wishes of her father, who happened to be his piano teacher. The matter went to trial, which the lovers eventually won. In the year of their victory, 1840, Schumann exploded into song as if his previously single instrument had also now found its partner in poetry. For months he wrote almost nothing else, and produced nearly 150 Lieder, with the Dichterliebe cycle sketched out in a week at the end of May.

Once married, banal domestic trivia intruded, like the thin walls of their home in Inselstrasse, Leipzig, which, despite having pianos in separate rooms, prevented the couple from practising simultaneously. Clara, who was soon pregnant, gave way, restricted her playing times and helped Robert select poems for treatment. They wrote out their favourites in a notebook, choosing not just Heine’s, though his predominated, but a wide range of mostly contemporary writers from Goethe to members of the Junges Deutschland group of radical idealists. Clara composed too and the following year they produced a joint opus of songs to words by Friedrich Rückert, from his collection Liebesfrühling (Love’s Spring), which contains the line ‘Dichterlieb hat eigenes Unglück stets betroffen’ (‘Poet-love has constantly brought its own misfortune’), which gave them the title for the earlier, still unpublished, cycle. It seemed to encapsulate both Heine’s experience and their own jaundiced view of the ironic miseries which accompany love. When it was eventually published in 1844, Dichterliebe was dedicated to the Wagnerian soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, a surprising choice given her voluminous sound (Schumann said she was the only singer who could compete with Liszt as accompanist) and the male perspective of the texts. At least Schröder-Devrient had a colourful love life with three husbands and an anonymous book about her amorous exploits which counted among the first examples of erotic literature. Whether she gave the first performance is unknown, but since publication the cycle has generally been the province of the high male voice, the tenor. D’Or in his even higher male voice tackles them paradoxically in keys appropriate to a bass voice, the vocal line raised an octave.

The poems chosen for Dichterliebe come from the Lyrisches Intermezzo section of Heine’s massive, four-part Buch der Lieder, published in 1827, just prior to the poet’s and future composer’s Munich encounter. D’Or speaks of the songs taking at least a year ‘to cook’ before he felt ready to perform them and it seems they underwent a similar gestation in the mind of the composer. Schumann set twenty of the 65 Lyrisches Intermezzo poems, though by the time they were printed in 1844 he had dropped four, which he would publish separately. The settings are compact, the poems mostly short. Schumann maintains their aphoristic brevity, repeats few lines and often runs one into the other so that the cycle has an almost continuous flow, a concept new to the form.

Composed in May the first song is about May, the wunderschönen Monat (wonderful month) when love rises like sap, yet is accompanied by the ache of longing  1 . The pedal depressed, the dripping tones linger. The direction zart (tender or delicate) heads the score. The key shifts uneasily between major and minor, the ending suspended on the latter’s dominant which resolves on the first chord of the second song Aus meinen Tränen (From My Tears)  2 . Here the poet sings a monotone characteristic of the Nachtigall (nightingale) whose sad, high warbling his sighs imitate. With sudden, rare happiness in the third song, the pianist bounces fast alternating hands while the poet lists what he once loved—die Rose, die Lilie (rose and lily), and what now, Kleine, Feine, Reine (delicacy, elegance, feminine purity)  3 . Simpering sensuality arrives in Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ (When I Look into Your Eyes)  4 , the piano echoing the voice in dotted rhythm sobs, as the poet finds the treasured words ich liebe dich cause not for joy, but unbearable melancholy. In Ich will meine Seele tauchen (I Will Dip My Soul)  5 , the poet takes the Romanticist’s nature metaphors to extremes as the lily sings a tremulous kissing song illustrated by piano palpitations. The song Im Rhein (In the Rhine)  6  has organ power as the poet contemplates a picture of the Virgin in Cologne Cathedral, her features now confused with those he loves, a blasphemy seemingly criticised by the stern accompaniment. The defiant mood persists in Ich grolle nicht (I Bear No Grudge)  7 , which is often performed independently as if it were Sinatra’s My Way, though in context the poet’s protest that he bears no resentment towards his now unreciprocating lover is ironic. At the halfway point, the poet recalls in Und wüßten’s die Blumen (If the Little Flowers Knew)  8  how nature’s emblems might cure the poet’s anxiety, represented in the tremulous piano chords. These culminate in the searing unison of the last phrase with its repeated ‘zerrissen’ (ripped).

The first edition published the cycle in two parts, the second beginning with the ninth song Das ist ein Flöten, (There Is Fluting and Fiddling)  9 . Life for the poet is now in a whirl, the piano part a spinning waltz, the poet lost in misery just from hearing a song his lover used to sing. The ironic jauntiness of Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen (A Young Man Loved a Maiden)  11 , the piano right hand syncopated against the left’s heavy clump, grits its teeth through the sentiment that all is fair in love. The gentle six-eight beat of Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (In the Shining Summer Morning)  12  sees the pale poet dazed and wandering dumbly with only the flowers sympathetic. The poet’s unaccompanied phrases in Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (Every Night in My Dreams I See You)  13  emphasise his loneliness, while the piano responds with distant echoes. The poet retreats into his dreams where all seems peaceful, gulping between hesitant phrases of uneven lengths, recalling no words but only morbid images, like the cypress branch, associated with wreaths and graveyards. The penultimate song, Aus alten Märchen (From Old Tales)  15 , is mock-heroic, the poet conjuring cliched Romantic symbols such as lily-white hands, diaphanous bridal-wear, camp fires and babbling brooks before his climactic Ach! and a reminder that these images inhabit dreams and dreams end. In the final song, Die alten bösen Lieder (The Old, Evil Songs)  16 , the poet bundles together his work and his love and nails them into an enormous coffin which floats down the Rhine like a Heidelberg beer-barrel and out to sea, the only grave big enough to accommodate it. The singer is silent as he watches the casket bob away with the tide on a long and bitter coda.

Heine felt more at home, or at least less unwelcome, in France where he lived in self-imposed exile from 1831 until his death in 1856. D’Or follows him there for the second half of this recording, turning his exotic voice to thoughts on journeying in the song L’Invitation au voyage (Invitation to Journey)  17 , written in 1870 by the 21-year-old French composer Henri Duparc. It is a setting of a voluptuous text by the poet Charles Baudelaire, longing for the freedom and excitement of an unnamed oriental land far from home. Duparc’s piano shimmers over the drone of an open fifth. The melody is smooth as silk against the floating harmony. Stillness comes only with the refrain, claiming the destination as the source of order, beauty, luxury, peace and sensual pleasure. Baudelaire included L’Invitation in the collection Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), published in 1857, which created a sensation. Six of the most erotic poems were banned from future reprints. Duparc later gave up composition, destroyed most of his works, practised law and turned to God.

French composer Claude Debussy underwent no such conversion. As a student at the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1880s, he earned pocket money by accompanying the amateur soprano Madame Vasnier, who inspired his first song compositions including those d’Or performs here. Debussy set poets he knew such as Paul Bourget, who would make his name as a novelist and critic. From his 1882 anthology Les aveux (Confessions), the 20-year-old Debussy set Beau soir (Lovely Evening)  18 , conjuring a sultry heat in simple modal harmony and diffuse three-time, each beat in rippling triplets. The shifting uneasiness mirrors the coeur troublé (troubled heart), whose remedy is to taste life’s charms. The climax on beau is followed by the thought that a wave travels only to the sea, but we to the grave. In Bourget’s Romance  19 , from the same collection, Debussy resolves dissonances with conventional cadences like the evaporating odours of Bourget’s verse. A middle section of running quavers hints at the whole tone harmony of the mature composer.

The older poet Theodore de Banville provided the words for the student Debussy’s first published song, Nuit d’étoiles (Starlit Night)  20  which, on publication forty years earlier, Banville had called La dernière pensée de Weber (Weber’s Last Thought). The dead German composer is not mentioned in the lyric, which makes musical allusions, referring to the lyre. Debussy accompanies this with twinkling spread chords. The music is a rondo, the theme returning twice with identical words. Two verses quicken the pulse in triplets, travelling to distant keys, presaging the exotic harmonic sense which would be Debussy’s hallmark. The atmosphere of a Chopin nocturne pervades these early songs and it is significant that Debussy’s first piano teacher Madame Mauté had been a pupil of the exiled Pole. Her son-in-law was the poet Paul Verlaine, author of the poem Mandoline !, whose colourful lyric pushes Debussy’s technique to new heights. Crisply strummed piano chords imitate the serenaders and an urgent six-eight beat evokes the animated chatter of the listeners. Debussy paints the word chanteuses (singing girls) with an exotic falling melisma, and repeats the technique on Clitandre. A middle section describing the women’s silk coats and long dresses runs to smoother triplets, but the hard, exciting strumming returns for the conclusion, with Debussy taking liberties with a lalala coda, not present in Verlaine.

Romantic thought idealised the pre-industrial past and revived forgotten or once persecuted artists like the Huguenot poet Théophile de Viau, who was condemned to die at the stake in the 1620s. He wrote the poem À Chloris  22  which the Venezuelan-born, French composer Reynaldo Hahn set in 1916 to a pastiche of J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String. The war years intensified the longing for Eden. It was the theme of the seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Hahn’s lover

The tendency of Romantics to look back provided one of the escape routes for the post-Romantics. The 20-year-old French composer Francis Poulenc, brought up by his pianist mother on Mozart and Schubert, applied Classical simplicity to his first songs, Le bestiaire (The Bestiary)  23  28 , six settings of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Poulenc was a child when he read them although the thoughts observed in them are not childish. The camel makes the poet reflect on beauty, the goat love, the dolphin joy, the carp death. The lessons of the classicists are in brevity, repetition and simple close harmony, clear as a cubist painting, of which movement Apollinaire made himself the literary exponent. Injured during the First World War, the poet died in the flu epidemic of 1818, a year before Poulenc’s settings, though he continued to inspire the composer posthumously. He was introduced to the cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque by fellow poet Max Jacob, all of them members of the large and influential Paris-based artistic community in the first decades of the twentieth century. Jacob wrote Vous n’écrivez plus? (Have You Given Up Writing?)  29 , which Poulenc set in the two-song cycle Parisiana in 1954. Here are observed metro stations (Barbès, Richelieu), cafés (Pain d’Epice, La Paix) and humdrum lowlifers which the poet encountered on his rounds (the newsagent, the chestnut seller). Poulenc’s busy thirty-second score, fleeting as thought, breezes through the scenes with cartoon alacrity, the poet indignant at the lack of recognition from the human fixtures he recalls so well. It was something of a premonition as the Nazi invaders denied Jacob’s status as a Parisian and he died en route to Auschwitz. The Paix (peace) in the poem is laden with irony. D’Or’s last song, Priez pour paix (Pray for Peace)  30  takes the hint and addresses an earnest plea to the Virgin Mary in solemn steady crotchets, voice and piano in hymnlike homophony, oozing chromaticism at the mention of son sang (his blood), and concluding the recording in sober thought. The poem, which Poulenc read in a 1938 newspaper article observing German re-armament, is by the fifteenth century writer Charles Duc d’Orleans. The singer returns at the last to the era of his ancestors’ exile.

Richard Jones

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