Songs of Love and War

The title of today’s noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre –“Songs  of Love and War”—is  a curious umbrella sheltering a diverse group of songs & composers.  I can only speculate on the rationale for the programme, created for members of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, except that it strikes me as ambitious and well-intended.  We were told that it started with the observation of the 25th anniversary of the end of the USSR & the removal of the Berlin Wall, but the songs remind me of other wars of the last hundred years of history, the same issues & the same horrible mistakes over and over.  It seems apt that I’m immersed in a production of Ödön von Horvath’s play Tales from the Vienna Woodsa play that premiered in 1931; the issues that hadn’t been settled in the Great War of 1914-1918 would resurface in the war that followed in 1939, issues that are still here even now.

World peace? we’re not there yet.

The five composers had completely different experiences of war & vocal music.   Korngold, Ives, Eisler, Poulenc & Britten are a wonderfully diverse group.

We began with five Korngold songs that date from after his emigration to the USA in the 1930s.  The title “Songs of Love and War” seems to be needed with Korngold, an exile in America whose songs don’t really show us pain or loss the way that the others do, which might be why we start with him, perhaps the happiest exile, a fortunate refugee in Hollywood.  I suspect Clarence Frazer (who sang the tunes elegantly in two languages) is a Korngold fan, as I clearly recall how beautifully he sang an aria from Die Tote Stadt at a previous concert.

Next came Charles Ives’ Three Songs of War, including two with texts by John McCrae (yes that John McCrae).  I quite love what Ives does with that famous text –“In Flanders Fields”—especially when we get to hear it without the politically correct framework of Remembrance Day.  I was surprised at how fresh it felt, particularly in Iain MacNeil’s reading.  The second of the three songs –also a McCrae text—is as joyful as the first is sad.  With the benefit of a century’s hindsight I pondered whether there was any irony meant in Ives’ quotes of American anthems such as “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”; chances are it’s my jaded ear, not anything Ives meant.

We were next treated to a two-man sampling by Frazer and MacNeil from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch, a much bigger collection of short songs & fragments than the nine songs we heard.  I wonder if the original concept for the concert began with Frazer & MacNeil singing Korngold & Eisler, and the other composers & singers were added later…? The net effect today was that the Ives & Poulenc were wonderful escapes & relief from the dark profundities of the two Germans, with the Britten as an intriguing epilogue at the end.

I suppose I felt this because Korngold & Eisler are such an amazing & interesting pair, both exiles from the Third Reich, both to become successful film composers (and film music is an obsession of mine & an academic area of study).  Yet they are a contrasting pair to be sure.  Where Korngold was a darling of the conservatory & concert world, acclaimed as a child prodigy, Eisler turned his back on many of his classical connections, becoming disenchanted with the second Viennese school composers such as Webern, Berg and their leader Schönberg –to which he could claim membership if not an actual allegiance—and instead aiming for something genuinely popular rather than elitist.  Where Korngold seemed to lead a charmed life, narrowly escaping the Nazis, and arriving in Hollywood at precisely the right time to be Warner Brothers’ poster boy for their new artistic legitimacy (as the studio sought to reinvent itself through such high-brow projects as Reinhardt’s Midsummernight’s Dream), Eisler was exile from not one but two countries.

I associate Eisler with his most famous composition, that is itself a perfect image of his tragic life, namely  the anthem of the German Democratic Republic (aka “East Germany”), the country to which he was deported during the American red scare.  The tune is a fond and idealistic song for a country rebuilding after the horrors of the world war, even if it came to symbolize the very lies told to the composer and all the believers who would become disillusioned. 

Seven of the nine Eisler’s songs sung today were settings of texts by Berthold Brecht, another exile who would go back to East Germany, but without the tragic ending.  I wish we could have heard a bigger portion of the book, but I suspect that the organizers might have thought it to be too risky, too darkly ironic.  Speaking of the organizers, I only wish the programmers had trusted the music a bit more.  We were treated to some fascinating pieces of music but also a great deal of text explaining it all, as if to suggest that maybe someone was looking over their shoulders, not believing we’d understand it or like it.

I know I liked it.

As with the Ives, the three Poulenc songs that followed were a wonderful escape, especially in Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure’s bravura reading of “Fêtes galantes” (Aragon not Verlaine), one of the most impressive pieces of singing I’ve heard at one of these noon-hour concerts.    We closed with Andrew Haji’s lovely reading of “What passing bells” from Britten’s War Requiem.  Again I felt the organizers didn’t trust the material enough.  After a brief explanatory lecture did we need to hear Haji read the Wilfrid Owen poem that is the text? It’s in English.  We’re sitting close to a singer with wonderful diction, and we have the words in the printed program as well.  I love ambition, I enjoyed every piece on this concert, but only wish there had been less talk and more silence around the songs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention pianist Jennifer Szeto who navigated so many different styles and idioms of music, bringing us home splendidly in each wonderful song.

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4 Responses to Songs of Love and War

  1. I wonder if it’s that they don’t trust “us” to understand those texts and settings or whether they are not confident they do themselves. And, in many ways, I’m not sure they did. I wouldn’t contextualize “Flanders Fields” as some kind of work of remembrance. It was written as anti-peace negotiation propaganda. One might, if one were to contextualize, examine the “world view” in “He is there!” that lumps Tsarist Russia in with the cause of “Freedom” and Ottoman Turkey with “warlords”. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The actors in these great dramas have passed on. Those of us who knew them grow old. To a 20 something today the Great War (that one to end wars..) must seem very remote.

    • barczablog says:

      Interesting…. I suppose i should come at this first with the assumption that they thought all that text was necessary. It’s just that the explanations narrow the focus, and in some respects tell us what to think or feel. I like the ambiguity of music, that it can sometimes suggest tragedy, sometimes comedy, sometimes burlesque or farce, all in the same moment. It’s very subversive, but not if someone is standing there telling you how solemn it’s supposed to be. Even the Britten has these playful capricious moments that are squelched when we’re all dressed in black, not allowed to smile or giggle. A nervous laugh is sometimes the most honest response to horror.

      Thanks for the comments & the ongoing conversation: an extension of the music.

      • I think there’s a lot in and around yesterday’s concert that needs to be unpacked. I reacted very, very strongly to some of what took place and was shocked by the strength of my reaction. Partly it’s that I’ve been obsessed by the cultural impact of the traumas of WW1 and its aftermath for generations. Katja has been heard to say that I react as if I had actually been there and she’s not far wrong. Can one inherit PTSD from one’s grandfather? It’s also partly a reaction to the incorporation of certain music and texts into the ritual of “Remembrance” that has actually become a ritual of justifying current and future wars based on some weird neocon notion of “Freedom”. And, I guess, some of the text served up yesterday for our guidance and edification owed more to the Harper playbook than to Ecksteins or Fussell.

  2. Pingback: Opera 5: Modern (Family) Opera | barczablog

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