|Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)|
Wedding Day at Troldhaugen
|Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681/2-1732)|
Il mio bel foco [previously attrib. to B. Marcello]
|Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941)|
|Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)|
Donde lieta from “La Boheme”
|Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)|
Notturno, Op. 54, no. 4
|Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)|
The Swan from “Carnival of Animals”
|Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)|
Chi bel il sogno from “La Rondine”
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne
(O never sing to me again)
Deuxieme Annees de Pelerinage
V. Sonnetto 104 del Petrarca
My Funny Valentine from “Babes in Arms”
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a Norwegian composer and virtuoso pianist best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor and the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, but it is with his Lyriske stykker (Lyric Pieces) for piano solo that Grieg perhaps shows his originality most convincingly. These 66 short works were composed between 1864 and 1901 and published in 10 separate volumes. Among them, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (1896) is one of the most famous. The titular “Troldaugen” (literally, “Troll’s Hill”) is the name of Grieg’s house in Bergen, and the piece is said to be a recollection of the composer’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration held there in 1892. Another favorite Lyric Piece is the hauntingly beautiful and evocative Notturno, published in 1891, which, in addition to capturing the essence of a moonlit evening, provides an effective study in two-against-three cross rhythms.
Although Il mio bel foco has long been attributed to Venetian composer and statesman Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739), recent scholarship now identifies the Florentine Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681?-1732) as the likely composer of this lovely song. The confusion arose with the misattribution first given in the 1890 publication, Arie antiche, compiled and arranged by Alessandro Parisotti (1853-1913), and reedited and published in this country by G. Schirmer as 24 Italian Songs and Arias—virtually every classically-trained singer has performed at least a couple of selections from this famous set. Parisotti took the old Italian melodies, but wrote new accompaniments according to Victorian fashion, and in some cases he deliberately identified his own compositions as “newly-discovered” works of baroque masters. In fact, there is still debate as to whether the recitative that begins Il mio bel foco is by Conti, Parisotti, or even by another 19th Century musician, Carl Banck! Regardless, the controversy surrounding Il mio bel foco does not diminish the emotional impact of the oft-sung song.
In 1919 at age forty, the French flutist, conductor and composer Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) became one of the most prominent musicians in France by earning three important appointments almost simultaneously: Professor of Flute at the Conservatoire de Paris, and Principal Conductor of both the Paris Opéra and the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Gaubert composed a wide variety of instrumental, orchestral and vocal music, plus two operas, and it is not surprising that many of his most effective compositions are for flute. Gaubert’s Madrigal for flute and piano (1908) demonstrates the composer’s affinity with Franck and Fauré.
Chi bel il sogno di Doretta (“Doretta's beautiful dream”) is a newly composed song introduced at a cocktail party by “Prunier,” a poet and composer. But he has no ending for his song, so he invites “Magda,” a demimondaine who harbors her own romantic dreams, to join him at the piano to make up an ending. Magda’s contribution becomes one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head (despite being almost impossible to sing), so one might assume that the song became a hit!
Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne (Do not Sing for Me) (1892)
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) came from a long line of Italian church musicians, and it was assumed he’d inherit the “family business” in Tuscany. But a fateful trek from Lucca to Pisa to see Verdi’s Aïda convinced Puccini to give up organ pedals for footlights, and he became the only real successor of Verdi in the realm of Italian opera. When Puccini died of throat cancer the whole of Italy went into mourning, and no opera composer since has enjoyed the same kind of sustained international following that he still has. Puccini’s La bohème (1896), one of the most frequently staged operas in the repertoire, relates the tragic story of Parisians “Mimì,” a struggling seamstress, and “Rodolfo,” a struggling artist, and their on-again off-again relationship. In Mimì’s 3rd Act aria, Donde lieta, the consumptive heroine resigns herself to the notion that it might be best if they separated amicably, alluding to souvenirs of happier times. (But by the end of the scene they decide not to part until spring—who could be sad then, when the world is in bloom?)
By the age of three, the French composer and keyboard virtuoso Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) could read and write and had penned his first piano piece; by seven he had mastered Latin; and by ten he could perform from memory all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas upon request. An expert mathematician and a successful playwright, he published poetry, scholarly works in acoustics and philosophy, and popular travelogues. He was a confidant of Berlioz, Liszt, and Fauré (his most famous student), and a notorious enemy of Franck, Massenet, and especially of Debussy. Although first performed in 1886, Saint-Saëns withheld from publication all but Le cygne (“The Swan”) from The Carnival of the Animals until after his death because he felt that the overall comic tone of the suite would diminish his standing as a “serious” composer. Ironically, the imagination and wit on display in The Carnival have kept it at the top of the dozen or so of his works (out of over 300!) that are still performed with any regularity, and The Swan, an obvious favorite of cellists, is performed even more frequently on its own.
The lush harmonies and sweeping melodies that characterize the orchestral music of Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) assure him a continuing place in the world’s concert halls. Astonishingly, Rachmaninoff had what might be called a “phonographic” memory in that, upon hearing virtually any piece, he could play it back at the piano, even years later—and if he really liked the piece it would sound like a polished performance! Although his songs are not nearly as well known as his solo piano music and concertos, Rachmaninoff’s melodic talent was perfectly suited to vocal music, and he composed songs throughout his career. The six songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 4 are student works dating from 1890-93, but this is around the same time as the famous Prelude in C# minor, Op. 3, so elements of his mature style are already in play.
Text by Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Hungarian-born Franz Liszt (1811-1886) is widely regarded to as the greatest pianist of all time, and his performances excited an hysteria that today is reserved for only the most popular of rock stars. Despite great fame following a sometimes impoverished youth, Liszt remained unspoiled and donated great sums of his concert earnings to a wide variety of charitable causes, and in later life he even took orders in the church. His generosity extended to helping increase the fortunes of struggling musicians, among them Hector Berlioz and Liszt’s future son-in-law, Richard Wagner. An innovative composer, Liszt is credited with creating the symphonic tone poem as a form, developing the technique of thematic transformation, and he even anticipated some of the harmonic devices of Impressionist composers. Naturally, piano music is central to his output, and he was equally gifted in writing introspective poetical works and extroverted virtuoso pieces. Liszt’s Sonnet 104 of Petrarch combines both aspects of his musical personality. The fifth piece in Years of Pilgrimage, 2nd Year: Italy, it started out as song setting of Petrarch’s poem, and it ably reflects the unsettled and conflicted feelings expressed in the verse.
American composer Stephen Yarbrough (b.1946) has been teaching music at the University of South Dakota since 1982, following a stint as a flutist and arranger for the United States Air Force Academy Band. The winner of numerous national composition awards and grants, Dr. Yarbrough writes for a wide variety of vocal and instrumental combinations, ranging from solo vocal and choral pieces to chamber music and works for orchestra and symphonic band. Heartsong, inspired by Bible verses Luke 4:18-19, is performed by cello and piano on a CD of the composer’s “17 most requested works,” but the piece was also published in 1987 as a solo for hand bells and piano!
Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) wrote over 900 songs and his collaborative work with different lyricists, mainly Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), pretty much defined the Broadway musical for four decades. The Rodgers & Hart showtune My Funny Valentine originated in the 1937 musical Babes in Arms, and it has since become a jazz and pop standard, reportedly appearing on more than 1300 albums recorded by over 600 artists.
Notes ©2009, Edward Lein -- Please attribute if quoting.