Concert Notes: Songs of the Night

MCO’s Songs of the Night can be heard in Melbourne on Sunday 18 June at Melbourne Recital Centre & Thursday 22 June at The Deakin Edge, Federation Square.

This program focuses on ‘the night’ and in particular the songs of the night. The night has provided writers, artists and composers with a canvas that stretches from the evocative to the magical, the traumatic to the spiritual, and the romance of the fanciful excited through to quiet repose. In music we have the forms of the nocturne (exemplified by Field and Chopin), the notturno (Haydn, J. C. Bach, Schubert), nachtmusik (Mozart), nachtstück (Schumann, Mahler), and many more.

The song aspect of the program is exemplified by the German lied or art-song. The term lied was originally used to designate the setting of German poetry to music, usually for voice and piano. From the time of Mozart and Beethoven, and epitomized by Schubert, the lied developed a balance between the poetry and the music – the soloist and the piano, or in the case of the program, the soloist and the ensemble.

Richard Wagner arr Gürtler
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude (arr string orchestra)

Richard Wagner (1813–1883) commenced work on the opera Tristan und Isolde in 1857. The published work appears between the monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The Prelude presents the main motifs that are developed through the opera. It is filled with yearning and unresolved tension. As a work this Prelude is regarded as one of the most influential movements in music history because of its influence on the development of tonality through the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sebastian Gürtler produced three arrangements of the Prelude for string sextet, string orchestra, and 23 solo strings, transforming the lush orchestral original into colourful chamber works.

Richard Strauss
Die Nacht (from 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blätter’) Op 10

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864–1949) continued the tradition of Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. His understanding of the voice is exemplified not only in the more than 200 songs composed throughout his life but also in his operas.

The first songs of Strauss to appear in print were the 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blätter’ von Hermann Gilm (Eight Poems from Hermann Gilm’s ‘Last Pages’) Op 10 of 1885. This collection of eight songs displays great maturity and includes some of the composer’s most loved songs – Zueignung, Allerseen, and Die Nacht. Die Nacht (The Night) Op 10 No 3 presents an account of the power of night against the gentle pulsations of the accompaniment.

Arnold Schoenberg
Waldesnacht (1894/6)
Verklärte Nacht Op 4

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was a composer, conductor and teacher whose life and music spanned immense change over the last quarter of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. As a composer he pursued the push of harmonic developments from Wagner, moving through atonality to develop his revolutionary 12 tone serialism. In this, he charted a remarkable tranche of musical development that still resonates strongly today.

Waldesnacht (Forest Night) (1894/6) is a short song that predates Verklärte Nacht by a few years. The composer packs so much into this song. It is a setting of a poem by Paul Heyse (1830–1914) and describes the transported beauty of a night in a forest. Schoenberg’s model for this song was Brahms’ setting of the same text for mixed chorus Op 62.

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was composed in three weeks in 1899 for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, but was not premiered until 1902. It is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) from Weib und Welt (Woman and world). The composer made an arrangement for string orchestra in 1917 and subsequently revised it in 1943. It is considered one of his important early works, one that marks a seismic development in music history around the turn of the twentieth century.

The work is composed in one movement and divides into five sections programmatically following the structure of the original text. Peter Gutmann describes the program: “In cold, moonlit woods, a woman confesses to her lover that she carries the child of another man she never loved but to whom she yielded for fulfilment. After a long pause of brooding meditation, he resolves that their love will make the child their own. They embrace and walk on, the formerly barren night transformed by hope and devotion.”

Franz Schubert
Der Erlkönig D328*
Nacht und Träume D827*
Nachtstück D672*
Gute Nacht* (from Winterreise D911)

Over a relatively short life Franz Schubert (1797–1828) composed a vast amount of music across many genres. His contribution to the German lied is immense. Through his more than 600 songs he developed, expanded and owned the genre.

Schubert’s lifelong friend Joseph von Spaun said “Every one of his songs is in reality a poem on the poem he set to music … Who among those who had the good fortune to hear some of his greatest songs does not remember how this music made a long familiar poem new for him, how it was suddenly revealed to him and penetrated to his very depth.”

Erlkönig is a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe depicting the death of a child who is pursued by the supernatural spirit – the Erlking. This is a psychological drama played out between a narrator, the child, the father and the Erlking as they hurtle through the night on horseback. The work is the earliest work of Schubert’s in the program and was composed in 1815. He revised the work three times before its publication in 1821.

Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) was published in 1825 and is the setting of a text by Matthäus von Collin. The song is a quiet, pensive, slow meditation on night and dreams.

Nachtstück (Night-piece) was composed in 1819 and published in 1825 and is a setting of a text by Johann Mayrhofer. It is an account of an old man approaching the woods, and his contemplation and acceptance of his impending death.

Die Winterreise (Winter Journey) is a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller published in 1827. Gute nacht (Good night) sets the emotional tone of lost love for the song cycle: “A stranger I arrived; a stranger I depart”

Felix Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op 61: Scherzo*

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired two works by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). The first was a concert overture Op 21 composed in 1826, and the second was the incidental music Ein Sommernachtstraum Op 61 of 1842 which incorporated the original overture.

Beginning with the overture, the work’s 14 sections consist of purely instrumental music through to vocal sections including a number of songs. The sprightly Scherzo is an intermezzo between Acts I and II of the play. The magic and spirit of midsummer is carried through the music.

Béla Bartók
String Quartet No 4 Sz 91: IV Allegretto pizzicato

The Hungarian composer, pianist and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was a great collector of Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak folk music. His music was influenced by Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Bartok’s six quartets hold an important place in the repertoire. They were written over a period of thirty years. String Quartet No 4 was written in the summer of 1928 and builds on the sonorities displayed in the third quartet. This quartet is in five movements with a central slow movement.

The quartet employs a number of extended instrumental techniques producing a wide range of colour and sonorities. The fourth movement is performed entirely pizzicato i.e. plucked.

Lachlan Skipworth
The Expanse

The music of Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth has been described as featuring “bold, innovative textures, and compelling melody”. His individual and highly personal compositional language is coloured by three years spent in Japan, where his immersion in the study of the shakuhachi bamboo flute inevitably became a part of his muse. He has recently been awarded the coveted Paul Lowin prize for orchestral composition for his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2014), which was premiered by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with whom he is currently composer-in-residence.

The Expanse is a setting of Rilke’s poem At the Edge of Night for tenor and string orchestra. The singer is placed amongst a sonic backdrop suggested by the poem’s vivid nocturnal imagery, such as “murmuring darkness” and “a breadth of resonant noise”. Ponderous harmonies in dark hues are punctuated by occasional splashes of moonlight to establish a dream-like quietude. The Expanse was commissioned by Melbourne Chamber Orchestra with the support of the Robert Salzer Foundation.

Catalogues and numbers

Today’s program presents a range of catalogue numbers and designations of composers’ works. These are sometimes logical and considered while in other cases they are seemingly inconsistent.

Béla Bartók’s works have been catalogued at least three times: by László Somfai (1996), Denijs Dille (1974) and András Szőllősy (1948). The Szőllősy (Sz) index (Bartók Béla válogatott zenei írásai. Zenetörténet kézikönyvei) includes his compositions and musicological writings.

There are 173 works of Franz Schubert that are identified with opus numbers. Some of these were added after the composer’s death. As with the works in this program, these numbers generally do not coincide with the order of composition. In 1951 Otto Deutsch published Schubert Thematic Catalogue with each work designated with a D number, which attempts to order Schubert’s works chronologically. Many of Schubert’s works are identified with both a D and opus number.

*David Forrest