A great musical tradition gone missing

Why are song recitals so rare in Seattle? We are missing a large and beautiful repertory. Plus: a test for readers.
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Benjamin Britten, a master of the art song

Why are song recitals so rare in Seattle? We are missing a large and beautiful repertory. Plus: a test for readers.

A couple of months ago, I attended a chamber music concert in the newly refurbished and re-opened Alice Tully Hall, the Meany-sized concert venue at New York'ꀙs Lincoln Center. The concert, one of the first in the re-opened hall, was part of a series dedicated to the music of two mid-twentieth century geniuses, Prokofiev and Britten. The new hall came across very well, and the concert itself was excellent, not least for the superb playing of the Belcea Quartet whose concert in last year'ꀙs Meany Hall string quartet series created a deep impression.

But I was left pondering by a comment from Alex Ross, in a New Yorker article published to mark this new phase in Alice Tully'ꀙs history. Talking of its previous programs, he said: 'ꀜWhen Alice Tully opened, in September 1969, it served up such meat-and 'ꀓpotatoes fare as Schumann'ꀙs Dichterliebe, and Schubert'ꀙs Quintet in C.'ꀝ 'ꀜMeat-and- potatoes'ꀝ! Schumann'ꀙs beautiful song cycle for voice and piano about a poet'ꀙs love?

Well, evidently I'ꀙve been going to the wrong places for musical sustenance. In my years of concert-going in this and other countries, it has struck me as rare to encounter public performances of the large and beautiful repertory of classical art songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss. And in some cities, including Seattle, this music does not seem to be performed at all.

Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, including two magnificent narrative cycles: 'ꀜDie Schoene Muellerin'ꀝ (The Miller'ꀙs Beautiful Daughter), and the profoundly melancholy 'ꀜDie Winterreise'ꀝ ('ꀜA Journey in Winter'ꀝ). It'ꀙs arguable that Schumann'ꀙs very finest work lies in the field of song; as well as the 'ꀜDichterliebe'ꀝ cycle, there are two wonderful but grossly neglected cycles to poems by Heine and Eichendorf, a touching cycle on 'ꀜA Woman'ꀙs Life and Loves'ꀝ as well as many brilliant individual songs.

Brahms was a prolific song writer. As for Hugo Wolf, apart from two never-performed operas and some early chamber music, his output consisted almost entirely of songs. And they are songs of extraordinary and haunting intensity, unique in the classical music repertory. People who do not know, for example, his setting of 'ꀜKennst du das Land'ꀝ ('ꀜDo you know the country where lemons bloom....'ꀝ), a setting of Mignon'ꀙs song in Goethe'ꀙs Faust, a heart-achingly beautiful song of yearning for warmth, natural beauty, love and security, are depriving themselves of a major musical experience.

There are fine song repertories in French (Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Poulenc) and Russian (Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov). There is a particularly distinguished English-language inheritance of art song, with many fine examples from Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Roger Quilter, and Gerard Finzi, and in the US Charles Ives, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein. Indeed, in the case of Britten, some would argue that as with Schumann his songs represent the very best of his work. His cycle 'ꀜWinter Words,'ꀝ to poems by Thomas Hardy, is exceptionally fine.

In Seattle, we do well for symphony, early music, opera, and ballet. We do well for chamber music and reasonably well for solo recitals. But so far as I know we scarcely score at all in the field of the art song, at least since the Ladies Musical Club stopped presenting such song recitals many years ago. True, we sometimes have little-publicized faculty and student recitals at the University of Washington. Occasionally some great opera singer will tour with a recital, as Deborah Voigt did at Benaroya in 2007 when her program included American art songs and an interesting cycle by Respighi. Such events can be effective, but generally they do not work well for the more intimate repertory. I do not recall any art song concerts in any other Seattle venue. Nor do I recall ever hearing a Schubert song — or indeed any song at all — on Classic King FM.

There are some barriers between the classical song repertory and the wider musical public. Many classical art-songs have a particularly intimate relationship between words and music, with the sound and rhythms of the words very subtly reflected in the accompaniment. They do not translate well. Nor generally speaking do art songs project very extrovertly — they draw the listener in, but do not throw themselves at an audience. Such barriers are overcome in other fields. Much early music, particularly renaissance polyphony, is highly subtle and lacking extroversion. The language issue is overcome in opera by surtitles (has anyone thought of trying them in song recitals?).

I should be happy to know that I have misrepresented the situation, and that there is more art song available in Seattle and its 'ꀜGreat Nearby'ꀝ than I have realized. So I ask readers to send in their experiences and perceptions. I would particularly like to know when (and where) readers last heard live performances in Seattle or the region of Schumann'ꀙs 'ꀜDichterliebe'ꀝ cycle, of Schubert'ꀙs 'ꀜSchoene Muellerin'ꀝ cycle, or Britten'ꀙs 'ꀜWinter Words.'ꀝ


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