IN: Reviews

Women’s Lives Through Various Lenses


Illustration by George Barbier

Music Mondays hosted mezzo-soprano Christina English, and pianist Christina Wright-Ivanova in “Fabricating Femininity” on Memorial Day at the Scandinavian Cultural Center in Newton and on live-stream.

In Chansons de Bilitis* Debussy set three songs to poems of Pierre Louÿs which the latter claimed to have discovered in a cave in Cyprus and merely translated from ancient Greek. The eventual debunking of his fabrication seems not to have diminished interest in the poems. La flute de Pan is slow and languid, characterized by whole tone scales, polyrhythms and disappearing bar lines. In La Chevelure lush chords accompany a slow-moving melody. Overtly sensual, the music and text reach a climax (“so intertwined were our limbs, that I was becoming you…”) before dropping back to a pensive and resigned ending. Le tombeau des Naïades offers the trio’s homage to nature. Repeated four-note fragments evoke the relentless darkness of the forest. As the narrator searches for the satyr’s track, rolled chords in the piano evoke the sparkle of frost. Excitement generates as the narrator envisions the satyr’s tomb which is melded with pale sky and fragments of ice. Mercurial, vibrant and beautifully crafted, these three are quintessential Debussy. Wright-Ivanova’s delicate, yet fluid touch and English’s mellow sound conveyed the Impressionist mood.

Grieg set four of the songs in Haugtussa (the Mountain Maid) to poems by Arne Garborg which tell the story of a young herding girl’s first love. Motifs in The Little Maiden move by 3rds, 5ths, and 2nds and sound straightforward, as is the chordal accompaniment. The Encounter achieves more drama. In Love, the Norwegian folk element is most evident in the rapid middle section with the heroine asking her lover to “bind me with flax and twine.” In Sorrowful Day, the lover fails to appear, and our heroine must cope with grief and sorrow. The Grieg and the subsequent Schumann felt similar in mood. Love brings joy, excitement and ultimately grief.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben stands as one of the 19th century’s odes to love, marriage and womanhood. Composer Cheryl Frances Hoad describes vocalist Jennifer Johnston’s frustration with the outdated feel of the Schumann text. Hoad obliged by pairing with poet Sophie Hannah in the composition of One Life Stand, a song cycle that is modern in text and musical language, but nonetheless pays homage to Schumann. The performers interspersed the two cycles most artfully for the concert’s centerpiece.

Wright Ivanova spoke of both composers interrupting the musical flow in order to convey the disbelief, even breathlessness of the young ingenue who is in love. The first measure of the Schumann, in 3/4 time, exemplifies this “hesitation.” The first song opens with three staccato chords, the first two on beat 1 and 2 while the third is heard after an eighth note rest on the third beat. At times the motif stands on its own, but it is at its most powerful following the two measure lyrical phrases Schumann intersperses throughout. Ich Kann Nicht follows, a turbulent song in which the heroine expresses her amazement at being the “chosen one.” Staccato chords relieved with lyricism again express the state of mind, in this instance dreamy rather than passionate and preoccupied. In Süsser Freund, du blickest, hesitation has given way to yearning and desire, expressed by the descending major third that opens the piece and introduces subsequent short lyrical phrases. The death of her lover is the subject of the cycle’s final song. A piercing D minor chord opens the piece. The melody in the voice moves principally by step, creating a spoken feel. The piano accompanies with chords that seem most designed not to interfere with the anguish of the moment. The cycle closes with a recapitulation of the opening material.

In Brief Encounter by Hoad, the heroine bids her lover farewell at the train station. The text, in a vein similar to the Schumann’s, describes love via visual and tangible devices. Rising chords in the piano seem to stop in midair, evoking hesitation and disbelief. In The Pros and the Cons, our heroine vacillates over whether to call her lover rather than wait for him to call her, a dilemma no author in Schumann’s time would have poeticized. Here the notes are intoned, while the piano provides commentary via chords and arpeggios. The Chill opens with a D-minor chord, recalling the opening chords of the Schumann. The spoken feel of the vocal line and the spare accompaniment once again create a holding back. But this holding back is of a different nature. Fully aware of her emotions, the heroine withdraws because she senses the full impact of her loss. The same contrast comes in the opening and ending of the Schumann. In the cycle the narrator describes mental anguish. But she is not a passive 19th-century vessel for sorrow and despair. Moreover, no composer or poet of that era would even depict the decision to divorce. The polyrhythmic arpeggiated piano accompaniment added to the restlessness rather than creating a backdrop for it. The poetry captures irressolution: “I cannot start again…I cannot stay.” As the vocal line drops off, the rocking chords of the cycle’s beginning provide the sole consolation.

With outstanding teamwork English and Wright-Ivanova met the demands of phrasing, dynamics and tempo equally well across a variety of styles. Wright-Ivanova’s sounded warm and reassuring—English, round and mellow. Helpful handouts included Christina English’s translations of the poetry. We look forward to hearing this duo again.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

*Debussy later penned a quite-rich version for female narrator, two flutes, two harps and celesta.

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