Program Notes

November 17th, 2015
American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Allison Voth, director


Aaron Copland: Zion's Walls
Aaron Copland: Emily Dickinson Songs
Aaron Copland: Simple gifts
Irving Fine: Mutability
Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs
Aaron Copland: Shall We Gather at the River

Notes by Allison Voth

This Cantata Singers Chamber Series concert features music of two esteemed American Academy members, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, and music of one, Irving Fine, who could easily have been invited to join their ranks, had he lived beyond his forty-seven years.

Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Barber's Hermit Songs, and Fine's Mutability revolve around themes of solitude, aloneness, nature, family, life, and death. These weighty subjects, however, are often viewed with humor. There are songs full of grief, and an equal number that view their weighty subject with quiet wit. Some are relentlessly hard-hitting, some are whimsical and ephemeral, some gnarly, and some caressing. Throughout, their unending musical integrity reveals deep understanding of the human condition.

Aaron Copland: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
Aaron Copland is not as well known for his song writing as for his orchestral works, nor are his songs as familiar as Samuel Barber's or Irving Fine's. But his Dickinson settings remain one of the most revered songs cycles in the American song repertoire. Each of the songs stands on its own, but Copland preferred that the twelve be performed as a group. Together, they create a satisfying whole, a journey of the human condition in all its guises.

It was the text of the last song, "The Chariot," that, in the late 1940s, first drew Copland's attention to Emily Dickinson's then relatively unknown poetry. About words that are today very familiar, he wrote, "The first lines absolutely threw me: Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality." Each of the songs is dedicated to a composer friend of Copland, some are now unfamiliar, but others remain exemplars of mid-century American music: David Diamond, Elliott Carter, Ingolf Dahl, Alexei Haieff, Marcelle de Manziarly, Juan Orrego-Salas, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, Camargo Guernieri, Alberto Ginastera, Lukas Foss, and Arthur Berger.

Irving Fine: Mutability
Irving Fine composed Mutability in 1952, at the MacDowell Colony, in fulfillment of a commission from the Creative Concerts Guild of Lexington, Massachusetts. He wrote the cycle for the soprano Eunice Alberts, with whom he performed it many times. While at the artists' colony in Peterborough, NH, he had met and had an affair with Irene Orgel, a British poet, who was working on a set of poems called Mutability. Although little is known about her and her work, Irene Orgel is known for Odd Tales, a book written in 1966, as well as her contributions to a British journal on Judaism.

Fine's cycle consists of six songs. The open chords and tight, energetic rhythms show Copland's influence—little American music from those years didn't—and the dancing triplets seem straight out of "Going to Heaven." But Fine's musical voice was always his own, with a personal and engaging sense of harmony and counterpoint, and with a clarity that keenly reflects the mood of each poem.

While composing Mutability, Fine wrote, "I have been noticing that whenever I write something romantic and lyrical in a major key I get tense and rather depressed, but that when I discover material of a powerful, yet rather impersonal nature [serial writing?], I feel quite elated. Don't know which comes first—the music or the mood. In the end I usually prefer the impersonal music." Composers are not always the most accurate observers of their own music, and that which seemed impersonal to Fine can read to the listener as pithy, deeply moving, and very personal.

Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs
Samuel Barber felt a strong connection to his Irish roots and, in 1952, visited Ireland. There he came across a collection of translated poems by monks or scholars written in the marginalia of 8th and 13th century manuscripts, often referred to as "Hermit poetry." About them, Barber wrote to his uncle, "I find them very direct, unspoiled and often curiously contemporaneous in feeling." When he returned from Ireland, he was offered a commission by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation for the Annual Founder's Day Concert. For that occasion, Barber chose to set ten poems from the Irish collection, and called the cycle Hermit Songs. In 1953, the songs were premiered at the Library of Congress, with the composer accompanying a young student, Leontyne Price. A year later, she programmed them on her New York recital debut at Town Hall, again with Barber accompanying.

Aaron Copland: Zion's Walls; Shall We Gather at the River; Simple Gifts
Copland wrote two sets of American song arrangements: the first set was written in 1950 at the request of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to be performed at their Alderburgh Festival, and the second set was written in 1952 and was premiered at Castle Hill Concerts of that same year. All ten of the song arrangements and subsequent choral arrangements have become staples of the American song repertoire.