Program notes: Sasha Cooke with Festival Musicians

Wednesday, August 9, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Johannes Brahms: Two Songs for Voice, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91

Ernest Chausson: Chanson perpétuelle (Perpetual Song), Op. 37

Hector Berlioz: Les nuits d’été [Summer Nights], Op. 7

Note: text and translations for the following works will be distributed at the concert.

Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1863-1864 and 1884
Length: c. 13 minutes
Instrumentation: Alto voice, viola, and piano

Brahms wrote over 200 songs during his lifetime, but the two of Op. 91 are the only ones he scored for voice, piano, and another instrument. Both were written for his good friends, violinist and violist Joseph Joachim, and his wife Amalie Weiss, who was an alto. The works were likely written for the three of them to perform, with Brahms on piano. Both songs explore the close relationship between the low voice part and the depth of the viola’s timbre. Setting text by Emanuel Geibel, Brahms presented Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby) on the occasion of his friends’ marriage. Brahms once wrote, “Only one thing on earth is better and more beautiful than a wife—a mother.” This sentiment is echoed musically in his careful treatment of Geibel’s text. Emphasizing Mary’s maternal love for her son, Brahms conveys her deep understanding of his needs and her commitment to protecting him. The setting begins with a viola melody taken from the 14th-century Christmas carol “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” in which Mary beseeches Joseph to help rock the baby Jesus to sleep. This melody reappears in the viola throughout the song.

Gestillte Sehnsucht (Stilled Longing), was written over 20 years later and published as a gesture to encourage Joseph and Amalie to reconcile after their separation. Friedrich Rückert’s text uses wind as a metaphor, though here it unites with birdsong to gently lull the world to sleep, a natural lullaby paired with Mary’s human one. After a depiction of peaceable dusk in the forest in the first stanza, the second becomes agitated with passions that long to be calmed. The third stanza returns to the subdued swaying of the first. Brahms scholar Eric Sams notes that “the viola is the mellow voice of autumn itself, singing of warm sunshine or cold winds…. No richer sounds of sunset had ever been heard in music.”

Chanson perpétuelle (Perpetual Song), Op. 37

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)

Composed: 1898
Length: c. 7 minutes
Instrumentation: Voice, 2 violins, viola, cello, and piano

Though he was brought up surrounded by art, literature, and music, Chausson did not turn to composition until he was in his twenties, after completing a law degree. His relatively small output covers many genres, but songs figured prominently throughout his life, matching well with his gift for writing luxurious melodies.

Chanson perpétuelle is the final work Chausson completed in his 21-year composition career (cut short by a freak bicycle accident). Written originally for voice and piano, Chausson quickly arranged his setting of Charles Cros’s sorrowful poem for orchestra, and finally for piano quintet. The haunting song projects two contrasting moods: one somber and melancholic as the singer reflects on her missing lover and her broken heart, and the other bright, excited, then tender to accompany her reminiscence of the time she spent with him. In the final section of the song, these two moods are alternately presented in quick transition, as if the singer’s bitter sadness has led to an emotional juxtaposition of love and death, sacrificing herself to the whims of nature which itself comes to represent her lost lover.

Les nuits d’été [Summer Nights], Op. 7

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Composed: 1841
Length: c. 31 minutes
Instrumentation: Voice and piano

Unlike Brahms (and Chausson, for that matter), Berlioz was not a composer focused on miniatures to represent a certain idea or feeling or ideal, but rather one who took every opportunity to find drama in the music that he composed and apply that dramatic sense to the particular musical context he was working within. It is perhaps not surprising that he never composed for solo piano (so closely associated with contemporaries like Schumann and Chopin) or even for intimate chamber ensembles (like Schubert and Brahms). What he did compose, in addition to his symphonic music, was vocal music, including five operas, numerous dramatic choral works, and dozens of songs, precursors to the golden age of mélodie in France coming in the decades to follow.

Les nuits d’été is a setting of six poems by Berlioz’s neighborhood friend, French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier. In composing them for piano and voice in 1941, Berlioz did not conceive them as a cycle, but rather as separate settings. By 1856, however, he had orchestrated all six, and published them as a set with his own title, Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights). There is a thematic and musical coherence to the songs, though, whose texts all come from Gautier’s volume La comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death). Each of the songs revolves around love and mostly loss. The bright energy of the springlike “Villanelle” leads into the surprisingly joyful lament of a dead rose (“Le spectre de la rose”), grateful to have been plucked by the charming sleeping girl who had pinned it to her dress the night before. The sailor’s lament in “Sur les legunes” is darker as he expresses his bitterness over the death of his love. In “Absence,” the singer drifts between reverie and passion, yearning for a faraway lover. Music, memory, and the pain of loss merge in the plaintive “Au cimetière.” And with “L’ile inconnue,” the set concludes with another sailing song, the sailor dashing the hopes of the lover who longs to find a land where love lasts forever.

What to listen for

  • As “Le spectre de la rose” ends, listen for the careful way Berlioz sets the rose’s words declaring its own epitaph, “Here lies a rose/Of which all kings will be jealous,” in a low sotto voce accompanied by a single clarinet.
  • “Sur les legunes” is set in a lilting 6/8 meter, typical of barcarolles, traditionally associated with gentle waves navigated by Venetian gondoliers. The swaying sea rhythms return in the final song of the set “L’ile inconnue.”
  • At the very end of “Au cimetière,” listen for the stubbornly dissonant and unsettling B-flat in the clarinet against the D major chord, suggesting the haunting memory of the dead lover.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi