Mike Stephenson 1st February 2017
IN SWEET MUSIC IS SUCH ART
“Music to Enjoy” said Mike, well, he certainly hoped so. This presentation was a reflection on some of Shakespeare’s songs. He had helpfully prepared a hand out for everyone of the various Shakespearean songs that would feature in his programme and the music he was going to play. He quoted the lines that had inspired his title:
“Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountaintops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
In sweet music is such art
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.” Henry VIII Act 3 Scene 3
Sweet music might suggest something light and frothy, happy and harmless. There is an image or archetype, he thought, that Shakespeare’s songs reflect rustics and their lovers tripping through the woods on a sunny day. But the words go much further than that, and the music too. This collection was something of a reflection on the relation between words and music and picks up themes which are found elsewhere in the musical canon. All he would say is that he truly liked every one of these pieces of music and hoped that we would too.
Mike’s first music was It was a Lover and his Lass, performed by Les Sirenes, a female chamber choir, with Andrew Nunn, musical director, and Fionnuala Ward, accompanist (piano). It came from a CD entitled Sing Willow.
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
Well, that was the archetype, and where better place to start? It is an evocation of the pastoral – and very charming it is too. The pastoral and the seasons are perennial themes in music of all types.
Mike’s next piece was the most modern of all that he was going to play. It fitted perfectly into that Shakespearean context that he had been describing. It was by Fleet Foxes (an American Indie folk band formed in Seattle, comprising Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, Nicholas Peterson, Casey Westcott, and Craig Curran), and we heard White Winter Hymnal.
Then it was time to slow down for some thoughtfulness and reflection. And we heard the third movement – Tempo di valzer lentissimo – of Prokofiev’s 6th piano sonata, played by Sviastoslav Richter.
The mood was now a bit more sombre, said Mike. As You Like It is a gentle play, but what about this?
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou are not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly;
Then hey ho, the holly
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky
Freeze thou bitter sky. As You Like It Act 2 Scene 7
We heard Les Sirenes again singing Blow, blow, thou winter wind, and that somehow rather led Mike to Nina Simone singing Wild is the Wind to follow.
Hard to match the power of Nina Simone, and after those two tracks one might be forgiven for wondering where is the way forward? Judgment is coming, the Day of Wrath. Verdi’s Dies Irae performed by Maud Cunitz, Elizabeth Hongen, Walther Ludwig, and Josef Greindl with the Choir und Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Eugen Jochum.
Is there a way forward? That was obviously the question for King David after confessing to having committed adultery with Bathsheba:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your loving kindness:
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies
Blot out my transgressions.
For I acknowledge my transgressions:
And my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned
And done this evil in Your sight. Psalm 51
Known as the Miserere, we heard the setting by Gregorio Allegri from the 1630s. it was the setting of that psalm in the vulgate (Latin) to be performed in the Sistine Chapel for the service of Tenebrae (shadows or darkness). The Pope refused to allow copies of the Miserere to be removed from the chapel, on pain of excommunication. There is an alternation between the plainchant verses and different choral elaborations. The great castrati added the leap to high C at the end of each verse. We heard a world premiere recording by the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse.
Mike said that he could not think of a more beautiful or moving piece of music. Incidentally, Mozart heard it in 1770 at the age of 14 and afterwards wrote out the forbidden music from memory!
Back to Shakespeare – on death.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange The Tempest Act 1 Scene 2
We heard Les Sirenes again singing Full Fathom Five. But as Mike said, did we see that beautiful as that picture is, the transformation is solid, it is final. There is nothing more to come.
Likewise in this song:
Fear no more the heat of the sun
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Quiet consummation have
And renowned be thy grave. Cymbeline Act 4 Scene 2
This too was sung by Les Sirenes: Fear no more the heat of the sun.
So that is the pagan world, to put it that way.
The Christian world, and musical genius, can offer this and personally, said Mike, I find the Latin completely beautiful even before it is set to music.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Filius Patris Rex Caelestis
Qui tollis peccata mundi
Suscipe deprecationem nostrum.
(Lord God, Lamb of God
Son of the Father, King of the Heavens
Who takes away the sins of the world
Receive our supplication.)
The setting of the Gloria Mike played was by Poulenc (1899-1963), Domine Deus Agnus Dei, sung by Christine Brewer (soprano) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
Mike started the second half with Moondance by Van Morrison. Yes, it was back to that magic world of woodland and Shakespearean songs. All innocence and it seems nothing can go wrong.
Then Under the Greenwood Tree, sung by Les Sirenes again.
Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather As You Like It Act 2 Scene 5
Romance, love – and all sense of time has gone. And that led Mike to Madeleine Peyroux, and Dance Me to the End of Love. (Madeleine Peyroux, born 1974, a French American jazz and blues singer songwriter.)
Mike’s next selection was for him a piece of great romantic music – the Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello. We heard the opening movement (allegro), played by Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorski with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. Mike liked the coming together of the different yet similar instruments and the interplay between them.
Next we heard an aria from Mike’s favourite opera – La Traviata, by Verdi – also supposedly also the world’s favourite opera. Violetta, whom we know to be dying of consumption, has heard a declaration of love by Alfredo, and to her surprise finds that she has been much affected by it. In this aria she reveals her longing for that which represents to her Alfredo – to love and be loved.
Maria Callas sang Ah Fors a lui – sempre libera. With Alfredo Kraus (tenor) and the Orquestra Sinfonia de Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos, Lisbon under Franco Ghione, a recording from 1958. In any competition between the orchestra and Callas, thought Mike, Callas would win!
So, it would seem love means: “always free”. That was something to ponder.
So on the subject of lovers in the perennial Shakespearean woodland where we started, night is falling and the stars are out. And Artie Shaw (clarinet) played Stardust.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. The Tempest Act 4 Scene 1
Our revels now are ended. The last word was given to Les Sirenes.
Mike thanked us for the opportunity to do this, but we of course are grateful to him for putting together such an intriguing programme and indeed such sweet music.