Kings, Queens, Saints, and Sinners: Program Notes Preview

By May 26, 2015Previews

Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila (1947)

Lennox Randal François Berkeley (1903-1989) was introduced to music by his father’s pianola rolls, a godmother who had studied piano and singing in Paris, and an aunt who was a salon composer. He read music and French at Merton College, Oxford, while coxing for the crew team and was the first composer to set the poetry of his friend W. H. Auden. From 1926-1932, Berkeley studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, attending and reviewing concerts and socializing with the Diaghilev circle. He had met Francis Poulenc at Oxford, and they formed a lifelong friendship that resulted in visits, arrangements of each other’s works, and written tributes.

Berkeley was remarkably prolific, composing more than 200 orchestral, chamber, vocal, and choral works. His liturgical music (especially the Missa Brevis) is part of the repertoire of every cathedral choir, and his guitar music—among the greatest of the twentieth century—is in constant demand around the world. After working for the BBC during the 1940s, he was a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music until 1968, teaching such diverse talents as Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Sir John Tavener.

A convert to Roman Catholicism in his mid-twenties, Berkeley composed a good deal of music for both Catholic and Anglican worship, as well as several concert works on sacred or devotional texts. Among the best known of the latter is his fourteen-minute Four Poems of St. Teresa of Ávila, op. 27, written in 1947 shortly before the Piano Concerto. It was first performed in a BBC broadcast conducted by Arnold Goldsborough in April 1948 with the internationally renowned English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) as soloist. The voice is accompanied by string orchestra, with some solo writing for violin and cello, and with the sections frequently divided to produce rich harmonies and full textures.

The texts are English translations by the poet and critic Arthur Symons (1865-1945) of poems by the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). They are noteworthy both for their fervor, bordering on the erotic, and for their visionary incorporation of the Holy Family into everyday Spanish life. The first song is a dialogue with God, to music based on an anguished, turning motive that underpins, in the cellos and basses, the final stanza. The second song begins over a bagpipe-like drone of open fifths and shepherds’ song; the fourth evokes a pastoral scene through a Bachian chorale prelude and contrapuntal melody. The third song, with the voice mostly in its lower register, is the intense heart of the cycle. In his book about the composer, Peter Dickinson quotes the composer’s son Michael Berkeley: he describes the third song as “just a perfect little piece of music. It perhaps brought from [my father] some of the strongest emotions—the sacred went straight to his heart and the music came straight back out again.”

Ophelia, cantata for countertenor (1987)

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) was a jazz pianist and composer. He was best known for his fifty scores for film and television, and spent the last thirty-three years of his life in New York City, occasionally performing at the Algonquin Hotel. His mother was a pianist who had trained with Holst and sung in the premiere of The Planets; she encouraged him to study piano and to compose at an early age. Both a student and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Bennett’s colleagues (including Howard Ferguson and Lennox Berkeley) referred to him as “extraordinarily brilliant” and “having perhaps the greatest talent of any composer in his generation.”

Bennett studied with Pierre Boulez at Darmstadt and developed his own “dramato-abstract” style, which gave way in the late 1970s to an increasingly tonal idiom. He published both original jazz songs and his own arrangements from the American Songbook. Three film scores earned Academy Award nominations, including Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which won a BAFTA award. His work contemporaneous with Ophelia included the Three Choirs Festival commission Symphony No. 3 (1987) and his score for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). He was also a prolific composer of operas, works for piano, and choral anthems, although these works rarely involved stylistic crossover or jazz influences.

Ophelia (1987) is a fifteen-minute setting of Ophélie by the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), written when Rimbaud was sixteen. Bennett had planned to set it for many years, and thought it an ideal text when British countertenor Michael Chance (b.1955) asked him for a work for voice and ondes Martenot. This early electronic instrument was invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928. The instrument’s eerie, wavering tones come from oscillating radio tubes producing electric pulses at two supersonic sound-wave frequencies. They in turn produce a lower frequency within audible range, equal to the difference in their rates of vibration, that is amplified and converted into sound by a loudspeaker. Although formal production of new instruments stopped in 1988, four French conservatories still teach the ondes Martenot.

The work begins with a dense cushion of nine solo strings (representing a stream), over which the harp and voice appear with the line (in French) “On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping, White Ophelia floats like a great lily…” The ondes Martenot (celestial music) enters with an echo of the vocal melody at the end of the fourth stanza: “A mysterious anthem falls from the golden sky…” The penultimate stanza features a beautiful cadenza for ondes Martenot and harp.

Phaedra, op. 93 (1975)

Benjamin Britten’s final vocal work, Phaedra, is a compact, demanding dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano, scored for strings, harpsichord, and percussion. This stark, economical work looks both forward and back; its virtuosic vocal part (originally written for Janet Baker) is tense, brooding, and emotionally charged. Eric Crozier proposed the idea in the 1940s as a subject for an opera (after the premiere of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia), but it was three decades before Britten and Peter Pears returned to the idea, taking the text from Robert Lowell’s acclaimed 1961 verse translation of Jean Racine’s Phèdre. The character of Phèdre is one of the most remarkable in Racine’s tragic plays: the instrument of others’ suffering, she falls victim to her own impulses, and inspires both terror and pity. Voltaire called Racine’s French tragedy, which was published in rhyming alexandrine couplets in 1667, “the masterpiece of the human mind.”

The story is an adaptation of the tragic Greek myth of Phaedra, who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus. Britten chronicles this fatal attraction through an ominous descending fifth motive representing “Medea’s poison” and a series of scenes depicting Phaedra’s wedding to Theseus, forbidden love, a descent into madness, and her attempt to find absolution. As in many of Britten’s postwar works, he explores the themes of forbidden love and an individual at odds with society with the utmost economy.

The form of the cantata is modeled on similar works of Handel and Purcell, especially in the quality of the word setting. The orchestration concentrates the leading character’s torment into two ascents of rich, overlapping, divided strings (symbolizing the drinking of poison) and stark, desolate harmonies punctuated with harpsichord and percussion.

King Harald’s Saga (1979)

Judith Weir (b. 1954) is a contemporary British composer and Master of the Queen’s Music since 2014 (succeeding Sir Peter Maxwell Davies). This opera joins many of her other recent compositions in having ties to medieval history, as well as the traditional stories from the ancient “North” (both her parents’ homeland of Scotland and the sagas of Iceland). She is best known for her dramatic vocal works, including “micro-operas,” three full-length operas, and works for television. In addition to Jane Manning’s commission of King Harald’s Saga, Weir has written pieces for Jessye Norman, Simon Rattle, the English National Opera, and the Barbican Centre in London.

Weir’s monodrama King Harald’s Saga is a tour-de-force for unaccompanied soprano singing eight roles. It was written for British concert and opera soprano Jane Manning (b. 1938), who has been called “the voice of classical music in this country” by English critic Ivan Hewitt. Over two hundred composers have created new works for Ms. Manning, including Harrison Birtwistle (Nenie: The Death of Orpheus, 1970), James MacMillan (The Beneficiaries, 2009), Colin Matthews (Marginalia, 2009), Richard Rodney Bennett (Spells, 1978), Oliver Knussen (Where the Wild Things Are, 1980), and Matthew King (The Snow Queen, 1982). Her books New Vocal Repertory are the most influential books on contemporary vocal music published in English (Oxford, 2 vol., 1990 and 1999). She and her husband, composer Anthony Payne, were both awarded honorary doctorates in music by the University of Durham in 2007.

King Harald’s Saga is a candidate for the shortest so-called “grand opera,” as its three acts and epilogue last under ten minutes. The characters are drawn from thirteenth-century Icelandic sage Snorri Sturlson’s Heimskringla saga and include King Harald (singing of his exploits), the English traitor Earl Tostig (urging the invasion of England), Harald’s dead brother Saint Olaf, Harald’s two wives (who sing a duet!), the whole Norwegian Army, a messenger, soldiers, and an Icelandic sage. The work is notable for its dramatic demands (a single singer portraying soloists, groups, and even sustaining a farewell duet with herself), diverse scoring and musical syntax, and historical resonance. The composer comments:

King Harald’s Saga is a three-act opera based, as is a good deal of nineteenth-century opera, on an actual historical event; in this case, the Norwegian invasion of England in 1066 led by King Harald ‘Hardradi,’ which ended in defeat at the battle of Stamford Bridge, nineteen days before the successful Norman invasion at the Battle of Hastings. …Since it would be difficult to stage a work which progresses so quickly, the soprano gives a short spoken introduction to each act to establish the staging, as might happen in a radio broadcast of a staged opera.

Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (born September 8, 1934) is one of the most important and influential British composers working today. He was the first classical composer to open a music download website (MaxOpus in 1996), and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the US (Princeton, with the support of Aaron Copland).

In 1967, he and Harrison Birtwistle founded the avant-garde Pierrot Players (since renamed the Fires of London); this ensemble, modeled on the forces required for Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionist song cycle Pierrot lunaire, inspired a series of masterpieces of experimental music theater. Eight Songs for a Mad King is a landmark of the 1960s. It reinterprets the operatic mad scene and calls for vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Maxwell Davies originally crafted the vocal part (the “Mad” King George III, 1738-1820) for South African baritone Roy Hart, who had a range of nearly five octaves and enjoyed experimenting with extended vocal techniques and distorted vocalizations.

The composer developed the work from eight monologues (fantasies and delusions) written by the Australian writer Randolph Stow (1935-2010), who had been in turn inspired by a miniature mechanical organ that had once belonged to King George III. Sources from the last years of George III’s life state that he suffered from dementia, and he had used the instrument to try to train his bullfinches to learn specific Baroque marches, minuets, and other dance tunes. Randolph Stow also provided the libretto for Maxwell Davies’s 1974 monodrama Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (based on the mental breakdown of a historical antecedent for Dickens’s Miss Havisham), and ironically suffered a physical and mental breakdown of his own four years later as a result of contracting malaria in Papua New Guinea.

The set of “mad” songs is unique in that the composer musically translates the manic psychological state of a complex and obsessive character while allowing the audience to connect with the unstable episodes and outbursts of the historical George III (who the librettist quotes in the text). Each section and phrase has its own psychological motivation, which in turn demands a varied musical and dramatic interpretation.

For the premiere, the percussionist acted as a “keeper” of the string and woodwind players, who sat inside large birdcages. The notation combines musical references known to George III (Handel is quoted in No. 77), Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, birdcalls, rigorously notated effects, improvised passages, and mechanical bird calls. The king’s “birds” are heard in the flute (No. 3), cello (No. 4), clarinet (No. 6), and violin (No. 7). Listeners at the premiere called the music “schizophrenic”—Handel’s “Comfort ye” morphs into a foxtrot and other innocent tunes are stretched and distorted. Maxwell Davies states that the violence with which the King reacts to the violin in the last scene “is a giving-in to insanity, and the ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of No. 8, he can announce his own death.”

© Laura Stanfield Prichard 2015.
Laura Stanfield Prichard is on the board of Choral Arts New England and has presented pre-concert lectures for one opera a year since 19998 for the San Francisco Opera and Merola Programs. This June they will premiere Marco Tutino’s
La Ciociara, based on the film Two Women. She is the principal pre-concert speaker for Boston Baroque, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the Masterworks Chorale, and presents regular lectures for the San Francisco and Chicago Symphonies. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and teaches music and dance students of all ages, in departments ranging from Northeastern University to the Winchester Cooperative Theater for Children.