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Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

2. A VERY STRANGE MAN?

“I honestly don’t know if Debussy ever loved anybody really. He loved his music – and perhaps himself. I think he was wrapped up in his genius…. He was a very, very strange man.”

—Mary Garden, who premiered Mélisande in the original production of Pelléas et Mélisande

 

So, how strange was this very, very strange man?

A few bare and random facts:

– Claude Debussy lived a Bohemian life, for much of it, anyway.

– He was the oldest of five children and grew up in Paris. There is no traceable artistic talent in his ancestry.

– His father was imprisoned, and his mother educated him at home.

– His talent, recognized by age 10, gained him admittance into the Paris Conservatory. An evaluation at age 12 included this note: “Charming child, true temperament of an artist; will become a distinguished musician; a great future.” At age 17, another one said this: “Extremely gifted in harmony, but desperately careless.”

– He won the Prix de Rome and was utterly miserable in the Eternal City for two years. He did not warm to his fellow musicians and claimed he could produce little of value. (From a letter of 1886: “My fellow students have come to regard me with a certain animosity. They accuse me, unfairly, of trying to parade my individuality, or else they philosophize all over me in a style which, I dare say, they picked up in the bars on the boulevard Saint-Michel….”)

– In Rome he kept up correspondence with Eugène Vasnier, a friend and wealthy building contractor, with whose wife he was having an affair. In fact, Debussy would have several tempestuous affairs, with women married and not, before settling down to a “respectable life,” yet one that still could not give him peace.

– His letters reveal him to have been a friend of poets, painters, composers and musicians. He valued those with whom he had “artistic sympathies.”

– They also reveal that he compartmentalized his friendships, had quite the acerbic tongue, and not a little ill humor. But this is only part of a big story. What is ultimately revealed is a composer who had complete clarity of vision for the music he wanted to write. And that music was a complete departure from the status quo. On this point Debussy was unbending: “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”

* * *

Here then, are two songs sung by soprano Mary Garden, the very same one whose words opened today’s blog.

The first is Debussy’s earliest published song, Beau soir, recorded here in 1929.

And for the second, by the miracle of YouTube, you can hear Debussy at the piano, as the two performed together one of his finest songs, Green, from his spectacular Ariettes oubliées, written during his stay in Rome. The recording is from 1904.

Enjoy!

 

Beau soir (1880 – written when Debussy was 18)

When streams turn pink in the setting sun,

And a slight shudder rushes through the wheat fields,

A plea for happiness seems to rise out of all things

And it climbs up towards the troubled heart.

A plea to relish the charm of life

While there is youth and the evening is fair,

For we pass away, as the wave passes:

The wave to the sea, we to the grave.

—Paul Bourget

 

 

Green (from Ariettes oubliées, composed mostly in Rome in 1886, completed in Paris in March 1887)

Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and some branches,

And then here is my heart, which beats only for you.

Do not tear it apart with your two white hands,

And may the humble present be sweet in your beautiful eyes!

 

I arrive all covered in dew,

The morning wind chills it upon my forehead.

Suffer my weariness as I repose at your feet,

Dreaming of the hour that will refresh me.

 

On your young breast allow my head to rest,

Still ringing with your last kisses;

Till it recover from the stormy thrill,

And let me sleep a little, since you rest.

—Paul Verlaine

Lyric Fest Presents Claude Debussy: Biography in Music

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact: Robert Rimm
r.rimm@88keys.com
215.870.8800

 Lyric Fest Presents
Claude Debussy: Biography in Music

Saturday, February 10, 2018 at 4 PM
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

8855 Germantown Avenue • Philadelphia

 

Sunday, February 11, 2018 at 3 PM
The Academy of Vocal Arts

1920 Spruce Street • Philadelphia

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA – January 11, 2018

Continuing its 15th-anniversary season, Lyric Fest presents the latest in its spirited biography series in a program featuring the fascinating life, tempestuous times and sublime songs of one of the greatest song composers, Claude Debussy.

 

Narrating and reading from Debussy’s letters—interspersed with the music—will be Lyric Fest’s composer-in-residence Benjamin C.S. Boyle, who himself has composed a compelling repertoire of art songs and is immersed in the world of Debussy, Paris and the French literary tradition.

 

“Every Biography in Music program we do is unique, but the heart and soul of them all is to give an understanding of the composer behind the music, and to deepen our appreciation of the music we love,” shares Lyric Fest’s co-Artistic Director Suzanne DuPlantis. “Debussy’s music is hard not to love, but what was it that made his sound so recognizable and sublime? These programs explore such aspects while providing context. So many times the circumstances, quirks and synchronicities that make up a life are fascinating to ponder, which makes for a fascinating program!”

 

The celebrated artists featured in these concerts are sopranos Amy Burton and Rebecca Myers, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Laura Ward. The concert’s running time is approximately 2 hours.

 

Details on the concert season, featured artists and more may be found at www.lyricfest.org.

 

Lyric Fest’s mission is to bring people together through the shared experience of song by offering to diverse audiences lively, theme-oriented voice recitals designed to engage, educate, stimulate dialogue and foster community. LF is committed to expanding the region’s interest in and knowledge of song as an important and relevant art form, and to access through affordable ticket prices. With a growing national reputation for excellence and innovation, LF receives critical acclaim and attention in a number of national publications such as Opera News.

 

Lyric Fest’s recording, “Daron Hagen: 21st-Century Song Cycles,” has recently been released by Naxos and additional recordings are forthcoming.

 

Lyric Fest was founded in 2003 by three Philadelphia-area musicians: mezzo-soprano DuPlantis, pianist Ward and soprano Randi Marrazzo, with the shared goal of celebrating and revitalizing the song tradition. It has produced and presented over 100 concerts and recitals featuring more than 200 local, regional and national artists, actors, dancers and choral groups.

 

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Debussy and His Songs – A Blog

1. THE ALLURE OF THREE 

There is something so satisfying about the number three. Not too much, not too little. It says it all, or somehow all that needs to be said, anyway. I was thinking about this, and about the distilled perfection of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, a three-song cycle with its titillating encounter, erotic consummation and, finally (how could it be otherwise?), its icy parting. Chansons de Bilitis was the first song cycle that Laura and I ever did together, so we consider these songs to be old friends. It’s amazing after many years to revisit Debussy and Pierre Louÿs’s love tale. Never mind that the poetry—taken from 144 poems touted by Louÿs to be translations of a newly discovered Greek poetess and contemporary of Sappho—was a ginormous hoax! Satyrs or no, the story is sad, but essentially true.

 

The first encounter goes like this:

A young girl, alone in the forest, is enticed by a man to sit on his knee, as he teaches her to play the “Flute of Pan.” The flute tastes sweet like honey, and on it, their lips meet. How will her mother ever believe that she has stayed in the forest so long, in search of her lost belt?

 

The consummation follows:

The man describes to the girl in sensual, unhurried detail the dream that he has just had: her hair was wrapped around his neck and lay on his chest, becoming like his very own. Thus they were joined forever as one tress, mouth on mouth, limbs entwined, and she entered him, like his dream. After recounting this dream, he places his hands on her shoulders and gazes at her with a look so tender that she lowers her eyes with a shiver.

 

A cold parting:

It is winter and the girl trudges through the forest. Strands of her hair are coated with icicles and hang before her open mouth. Her sandals are caked with snow. The man almost barks at her: “What are you looking for?” Pathetically the girl says she is following the tiny footprints of the satyrs in the snow. “The satyrs and the nymphs are dead,” he says with no inflection. “Look, here is their tomb.” And with that, he breaks a large piece of ice from the spring where the nymphs used to play, and holds it up to the pale sky to gaze through.

* * *

And just like that, in three perfect songs, each about three minutes long, we have a complete tale of love—found, consummated… and frozen over.

Here is Régine Crespin, recorded live in 1969, to tell the tale:

 

Lyric Fest Presents Art Songs of Benjamin C.S. Boyle

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Media Contact: Robert Rimm
r.rimm@88keys.com
610.991.8550
Lyric Fest Presents
Art Songs of Benjamin C.S. Boyle
Sunday, December 3, 2017 at 3 p.m.
The Academy of Vocal Arts
1920 Spruce Street • Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA, PA – November 7, 2017
In a commemoration of its 15th-anniversary season, Lyric Fest is pleased to present a concert of works by the Stasiuk & Farion Composer-in-Residence Benjamin C.S. Boyle, who has produced a stunning body of art song that brings together his lyric and pianistic gifts with an affinity for exquisite verse. The concert program will include “Ophelia,” “Songs of Virtue and Loss” and the world premiere of Lyric Fest’s newly commissioned song cycle, “Spirits in Bondage,” settings from C.S. Lewis’s first published book of poetry. These texts have just come into public domain and have never before been set to music.
“Lyric Fest’s December 3rd concert marks the first performance completely dedicated to my large body of work in the art-song genre,” observes Boyle. “Featuring songs and song cycles written between 2001-2017, this concert is a showcase of my most personal and intimate work. Covering texts in English and French from Shakespeare and Donne, Baudelaire and Valery, and Wharton and C.S. Lewis, these songs embody the themes most prevalent in my writing: beauty gained and lost, love in times of war or conflict, and human striving for transcendence.”
Participating artists are mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig, soprano Sarah Shafer, baritone Daniel Teadt and pianist Laura Ward, with commentary by the composer. The concert’s running time is approximately 1 1⁄2 hours.
Commissioning and performing new works has become integral to Lyric Fest’s mission and programming philosophy. Since its founding, LF has premiered over 80 new works by local, regional and nationally recognized composers. Earlier this season, Artistic Directors Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward gave the premiere of Boyle’s Lullaby, a setting of a Sara Teasdale poem for mezzo-soprano and piano composed specifically for them.
Details on the concert season, featured artists and more may be found at www.lyricfest.org.
Lyric Fest’s mission is to bring people together through the shared experience of song by offering to diverse audiences lively, theme-oriented voice recitals designed to engage, educate, stimulate dialogue and foster community. LF is committed to expanding the region’s interest in and knowledge of song as an important and relevant art form, and to access through affordable ticket prices. With a growing national reputation for excellence and innovation, LF receives critical acclaim and attention in a number of national publications such as Opera News.
Lyric Fest was founded in 2003 by three Philadelphia-area musicians: mezzo-soprano DuPlantis, pianist Ward and soprano Randi Marrazzo, with the shared goal of celebrating and revitalizing the song tradition. It has produced and presented over 100 concerts and recitals featuring more than 200 local, regional and national artists, actors, dancers and choral groups.
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ARGENTO Song Blog – “Winter” from Six Elizabethan Songs

 

In 1958 Dominick Argento was 31, he had just landed his first job teaching theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. Did he celebrate by writing a few songs? He did. Since this was long before the allure of setting prose, letters, and diaries set in, Shakespeare would suffice…

 

Here are Jessica Lennick and Laura Ward performing Argento’s “Winter” from the Six Elizabethan Songs. 

 

You’ll hear it live on Lyric Fest’s Happy Hour and Mini Concert program DOMINICK ARGENTO TURNS 90, on Friday, October 27th, 2017 at Philadelphia Ethical Society Auditorium, Rittenhouse Square. Join us at 5:30 PM for a glass of wine and warm, Itanianate hors d’oeuvres. The forty minute Mini Concert starts at 6PM.


 

Now, since synchronicities have always fascinated me, I can’t resist leaving you with a few songs from that same year. Here is a sampling from my 1958 Playlist.  Enjoy!

*

Britten wrote one of my favorite song cycles, his Nocturne, for tenor, 7 obbligato instruments, and strings. Here is the beguiling 

“Encinctured with a twive of leaves.” 

*

Meanwhile, John Cage wrote his “Aria,” for solo voice and all the sounds that said solo voice might ever be able to make. (The score’s notation is color-coded.)

*

Peggy Lee came out with a classic: “Fever.”  

*

Under-appreciated song composer, Castelnuovo-Tedesco offered the world his 3 Songs, sung here exquisitely by Eileen Farrell.

*

And the eternal Édith Piaf recorded “Milord,” featured here on the Ed Sullivan show. 

 

I’d say it was a very good year for song!

 

Stay tuned for more Argento coming soon…

– Suzanne

Happy Birthday Irving Berlin

Raise a glass to a great American musical treasure, Irving Berlin. Part of the newly established Music for Midsummer Nights Series,  this short concert features his timeless songs and a brief biography of Berlin’s amazing life story. With Suzanne DuPlantis, Mezzo Soprano; Randall Scarlata, Baritone; and Laura Ward, Piano. Free-Will offering at the door

 

 

Lyric Fest Announces Argento Concert

Lyric Fest Announces Argento Concert
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Media contact: Suzanne DuPlantis    suzanneduplantis@gmail.com,    215 432 5946
Lyric Fest Announces its first of two Happy Hour and Mini Concerts
~ The songs and biography of living composer, Dominick Argento ~
celebrated on his birthday.
DOMINICK ARGENTO TURNS 90
Friday, October 27th, 2017 at 5:30 PM
at Philadelphia Ethical Society Auditorium, Rittenhouse Square
with Jessica Lennick, soprano, Claire Shackleton, mezzo soprano and Laura Ward, piano
Lyric Fest celebrates the 90th birthday of an acclaimed American treasure, composer Dominick Argento. A concert of Argento’s art songs serves as the first of the season’s two mini concerts, a concert series programmed by Lyric Fest to make it easier to put music in daily living for downtown Philadelphians.
Inspiration comes to the artist in many forms, but when it comes to a composer as a vocal muse, a soprano, it may change the course of a lifetime of composing. Such was the case for a promising young composer from York, Pennsylvania, Dominick Argento, who first began composing songs on his own, around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Argento met his wife-to-be at Peabody in the 40s on a blind date. The real purpose of the “date” was to secure a soprano to premiere his “Songs about Spring.” Just like that, the composer met and went on to marry his muse, Carolyn Bailey, thus foregoing symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas, and instead dedicating himself to a lifetime of works for the voice.
“Argento’s pianistic writing is very orchestral, in fact, most works have both piano and orchestral versions,” reports pianist and co-founding artistic director, Laura Ward, “And his choice of texts, as time went on, skewed toward prose, letters and diary entries.“ “He must have enjoyed the challenges of setting conversational writing and had a great interest in the inner life of the individual,” says Lyric Fest’s co-artistic director, Suzanne DuPlantis, “and he had a great sense of humor.”
A swath of his work will be presented, from excerpts of his fresh and lyrical Six Elizabethan Songs, to the humorous Miss Manners on Music, to the somber songs from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. The program will be filled out with Argento’s Songs of Spring settings of e.e. cummings.
Lyric Fest offers affordable season subscriptions as well as single tickets online www.lyricfest.org/tickets/ and at the box office.
About Lyric Fest
“Compulsively enterprising…” (David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Lyric Fest was founded in January 2003 as a 501 (c)(3) and is currently led by two of its founders, Artistic Directors Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward. Dedicated exclusively to the voice recital, Lyric Fest occupies a singular place in the Philadelphia artscape and expands the definition of the song recital by jointly featuring regional and internationally recognized artists. Together they produce a happening that is more than just a concert of songs. The mission of Lyric Fest is “to bring people together through the shared experience of song by offering to diverse audiences lively, theme-oriented voice recitals designed to edify, educate, stimulate dialogue, and foster community.”
# # #
Dominick Argento and wife, Carolyn Bailey