The composition of songs is one of the most expressive and sublime tasks a composer can undertake. Many times the word “song” is used in the most generic sense to mean any piece of music. When I am writing about “songs” here, I am referring to “art songs”, usually a setting of a literary poem or text for piano and voice. (In fact, if you really want to get under the skin and annoy some hot soprano, call every bit of music a “song”.) Notice I did not refer to this as a song for voice and piano accompaniment. In the best hands, I hear the piano as an equal musical partner in a song, with its music every bit as intricate and essential to portraying the interpretation of the text. Some of the most wonderful musical moments can be heard in a recital of art songs.
Listening to song has some of the same challenges as listening to opera, namely language. Vocalists perform in German, French, Italian, English or whatever language in which the text was written. Vocal performers actually study specific diction for singing in each language, diction that is slightly different at times from what is normally spoken. To really appreciate the nuance of an art song, one must familiarize themself with the text (in translation, if necessary). So much of the craft of composing art songs is in word-painting, and portraying the composer’s interpretation of the text. So much of the experience is lost if one doesn’t know what the vocalist is singing about.
My native language is English, so it seems appropriate to present an example of song in that language. One of my favorite composers of song, and of music in general, is the American Samuel Barber. The song cycle composed by Barber that I am most familiar with is the ten “Hermit Songs”, Opus 29. I am absolutely infatuated with these works by Barber. He has taken the texts for the song cycle from anonymous writing of Irish monks from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Imagine the scene, a group of monks toiling away at their labors. All having taken vows of celibacy, silence, or something, they are working late into the night by candlelight copying books by hand. Each sitting at a desk, with quill and ink, doing calligraphy and illustrating texts. This was the only way books were made before the Gutenberg printing press. In spite of their vows, these monks were human beings who got bored at times and wrote poems and thoughts in the margins of the book they were copying. These stray thoughts and honest feelings of “pious” monks became the texts for Barber’s collection of ten songs.
Samuel Barber had a long fascination with Irish literature and poetry, and had previously set texts from Stephens and Joyce into songs. In the summer of 1952, he took a trip to the Emerald Isle, and spent time in Donegal and Dublin. This fed his interest in Irish culture, and he undertook composing the “Hermit Songs” in late 1952. The song cycle was premiered in October of 1953, with Samuel Barber at the piano and the great Leontyne Price singing. This was the first of many successful collaborations between Barber and Price.
The real significance of the texts, for me, comes from knowing the source. The moods of the songs vary, but realizing they are the inner thoughts of solitary monks creates a special significance. I know all the songs from memory, but the one that always comes to mind first is the seventh song in the cycle, entitled “Promiscuity”. The very unmonastic scribbles in the margins of some hand-copied book read:
I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,
but I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone.
Take a listen.
This brief 45 second composition has a world of implications. “Fair Edan”?? It seems entirely out of character for the writer of these words to be admiring the appearance of another presumed colleague. The interest in Edan’s activities seems to dive right into the area of gossip. These are monks, remember, pious men of God, presumably with vows of celibacy and the like. Dedicated to working in service to the monastery. Edan seems to get around like a tomcat, finding not one, but several partners to sleep with in his bed. I am sure that there was no central heating in a monastery in the middle ages, as sure as I am that Edan was doing a fair bit more than just sleeping!
Barber’s musical setting of the text is mysterious and full of tension. The piano shrouds the vocal line with just the right amount of cloudy, secretive dissonance. This is no Gregorian chant, or spiritual meditation on divinity. This is the honest, corporal, human sentiment of a human being sharing a secret thought of forbidden activity. The piano and voice are equals in setting the musical portrait of the text. This high level of craft is evident in all ten of the songs in the cycle. Great art songs are usually masterpieces in miniature, brief but full of musical meaning. Their form is dictated by the text that is being set to music, but the level of detail is astonishing. For me, it is always a worthwhile adventure to learn the text, translate it so I can comprehend the words, and study an art song in detail. The effort to do so never seems to disappoint me.