Age of Sensitivity

Poetry in Music Series 2
Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 1 July, 2012 (Sunday) 8PM

At the turn of the eighteenth century, changes in social and political order over Europe led to a series of aftershocks which gave way to the new ideology of Romanticism. The new spirit which championed individual creativity and expression over exiting form and order were reflected in the arts. In music, the Romantic sensibility was resonated in both extant genres (such as operas, symphonies and chamber music) and new ones (namely, the

programme symphony and art songs). With the large numbers of lieder of Schubert and Schumann, the two proved that the expressive powers of the miniature art song were no less than that of an extended symphony. In fact, out of all the Romantic genres of nineteenth century, it was the art song which managed to transcend geographic and cultural boundaries and became a universal vehicle for expression.

In Paris, while Hector Berlioz remained unchallenged in his imaginative powers and boldness as the iconic Romantic composer, his vocal music exhibited a sense of nuances and subtlety, which were the essential qualities of the Romantic art song. The French melodies continued to thrive in the hands of Gabriel Faure, whose refined and understated style served as a model for upcoming composers such Debussy and Hahn.

The Viennese tradition was inherited by Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf, although each embarked on a different path of his own. Brahms’s vocal music conveyed a sense of lyricism and constraint which was reminiscent of Schubert and Schumann. On the other hand, Wolf was more daring in form and harmony, and hence giving the German lied a refreshing new dimension.

Composers from Central and Eastern Europe also adapted and customized the German Lied to serve their expressive purposes. Dvořak’s setting of Czech poetry and the infusion elements of Czech folk music gave his songs a distinctive signature style. While the influence of Russian music was limited in Tchaikovsky’s songs, the coherence was found in the craftsmanship and fine balance between the voice and the piano, as well as between the sung text and the unsung utterances.


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Nocturne à deux voix, H.31
Canon libre à la quinte, H.14
Pleure, pauvre Colette, H.11
Hélène, H.38
Prière du matin, H.112
Lam Wing-wing, soprano
Louise Kwong, soprano
Castor Fu, piano

“>Although Berlioz was best remembered for his symphonic poems and genius in orchestration, the composer earned his living by singing in a theatre chorus and by giving guitar lessons when he first arrived in Paris. He also frequented the Opéra and spent long hours copying the score of Gluck and Spontini. These early efforts were channeled into the five duets for soprano and mezzo-soprano, composed between the years of 1822 and 1829.

Both “Nocturne à deux voix” and “Canon libre à la quinte” suggest the enchanting power of the night. The former was first conceived for two female voices accompanied by guitar, and the latter treats the two voices in canonic imitation.

“Pleure, pauvre Colette” is consoling song for a jilted maiden and “Hélène” is a ballad about a village girl who is taken away from her hometown and made queen by her foreign lover. “Prière du matin” was an adaptation of Lamartine’s “Hymn of the Child”. The text is narrated through the innocent voice of the child and Berlioz music aptly matches the sense of naïveté of the words.

Antonin Dvořak (1841-1904)
Ah, our love does not blossom (Op.83, no.1)
By the sweet power of your eyes (Op.83, no.7)
My song (Op.55, no.1)
Song my mother taught me (Op.55, no.4)
Offer the hawk a cage (Op.55, no.7)
Lam Wing-wing, soprano
Sheng-zhong Wu, piano

The set of eight love songs in Dvořak’s Opp.83 originated from his unpublished song cycle Cypřiše (Cypresses), set to the poetry of Czech writer Pfleger-Moravsky from 1865. Despite the time lapse of more than two decades, Dvořak kept returning to these songs from his youth – for they symbolized his unrequited love for Josefina Cermakova, the woman who eventually became his sister-in-law. “Ah, our love does not blossom” speaks of a love affair that is destined to doom. “By the sweet powers of your eyes” expresses the desperation to be noticed by the subject of one’s desire.

The three excerpts from the Gypsy songs of Op.55 dated from 1880. The texts consist of motifs common to most literature depicting the lives of the gypsies – the carefree attitude to life, the constant wandering and the bold expression of pride. “Song my mother taught me” is perhaps the most popular among the selection owing to transcription on various instruments. “My song” paints a vivid picture of the lone roaming gypsy, whose singing accompanies his/her path. “Offer the hawk a cage” is the Gypsy’s ode to freedom – a true Gypsy prefers to sleep on a nest of thorns than to be locked up in a gilded cage.

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)
Fusserie (Journey on Foot)
Verbogenheit (Seclusion)
Der Knabe und das Immlein (The Boy and the Little Bee)
Der Rattenfänger (The Rat-catcher)
Chen Yong, tenor
Xiaojing Zhao, piano

Austrian-Slovene composer Hugo Wolf produced over three hundred songs in his relatively short career. By coupling the lieder legacy of Schubert and Schumann with the colourful harmonic nuances of the late nineteenth century, Wolf earned himself a lasting place among the German art song composers.

Within February to April 1888, Wolf set thirty-seven songs to the text of his favorite poet Eduard Mörike. The collection, which numbered up to fifty-three songs in total, is commonly known as the Morike-Lieder. These songs exemplified Wolf’s creative power at its peak.

“Fusserie” (No.10) paints the picture of a refreshing morning walk in the countryside. “Verbogenheit” (No.12), however, stands in sharp contrast with its sense of world-weariness and resignation. “Der Knabe und das Immlein” (No.2) is the naive dialogue between a young boy and a little bee. While the young boy pines for the attention of his sweetheart, the bee replies that the girl is too innocent and prefers the sweetness of honey to love.

“Der Rattenfänger” was extracted from the Goethe-Lieder (No.11) of 1890. The three stanzas are proclamations of the rat-catcher, who is actually the Pied Piper figure in Saxon folklore. Instead of capturing mice alone, the rat-catcher also steals children and young maiden away.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Clair de lune(Op.46, no.2)
Les berceaux (Op.23, no.1)
Mandoline(Op.58, no.1)
Prison (Op. 83, no.1)
Après un rêve(Op.7, no.1)
Alan Tsang, baritone
Peter Yue, piano

The five selected melodies represent Faure’s contribution to French song repertoire from 1870s to 1890s. “Clair de lune”, “Mandoline” and “Prison” are all set to the poetry of Paul Verlaine. The first two poems were also set by Debussy and the last one by Reynaldo Hahn. What distinguishes Faure from the later composers lies perhaps in the simplicity and economy of his materials. “Clair de lune” depicts the moon-washed landscape with the austere use of the minor mode (which is literally found the lyrics). In “Mandolin”, the piano accompaniment conjures up the sounds and images of serenaders strumming their instruments in a gentle summer breeze. “Prison” is a dramatic soliloquy of someone who is held captive and saddened by Nature’s serenity as he looks out of the window.

The other two songs, “Après un rêve” and “Les berceaux” both reveal the distinctive tinge of melancholy found in Fauré’s songs. “Après un rêve” conveys the agony and grief of dreaming one’s loss love. “Les berceaux”, on the other hand, is a departure from the comforting lullaby. It foretells the fate of sons who will eventually leave their cradles for the world, and mothers who will be saddened by their farewells.

Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Was I not a blade of grass? (Op.47, no.7)
Lullaby (Op.16, no.1)
Why? (Op.6,no.6)
Again, as before, alone (Op.73, no.6)
None but the lonely heart (Op.6, no.6)
Louise Kwong, soprano
Sheng-zhong Wu, piano

Throughout Tchaikovsky’s career, he wrote over a hundred songs spanning over more than decades (1869-1893). Most of his songs were published in groups of six or more.

“Was I not a blade of grass” was one of many songs written in 1888. The music tells the story of a young girl married off by her parents to an elderly husband. The maiden mourns bitterly of her lost youth like a trampled blade of grass and a rose crushed in its prime.

The “Lullaby” from Op.16 was among the set of Six Romances Tchaikovsky wrote in 1872. Despite its title, the song is in fact an elegy for a lost child, who is guarded in his eternal slumber by the sun, the wind and the eagle.

The two songs from Op.6 dated from 1869. “Why” was set to the Russian translation of Heine’s poem. The song paints a paled and desolate world seen through the eyes of a jilted lover. “None but the lonely heart” was perhaps among Tchaikovsky’s best-known songs. It is set to the text of Goethe and it expresses the torments of isolation and loneliness suffered by one separated from his beloved.

“Again, as before, alone” was written in 1893, the same year of Tchaikovsky’s death. The solitude, restlessness and despair expressed in the poetry clearly mirrored Tchaikovsky’s sense of impending doom.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Der Gang zum Liebchen (Op.31, no.3)
Fragen (Op.64, no.3)
Sehnsucht(Op.112, no.1)
Nächtens(Op.112, no.2)
Liebe Schwalbe, kleine Schwalbe(Op.112, no.6)
Lam Wing-wing, soprano
Chen Yong, tenor
Castor Fu, piano
Louise Kwong, soprano
Alan Tsang, baritone

Between 1859 and 1891, Brahms composed over sixty vocal quartets with piano accompaniment, which paralleled his creative years in the genre of Lieder. He spent his formative years working with choral societies. He conducted male and female choirs in Hamburg and its vicinities. He was also the musical director of the Singakademie in Vienna in 1860 and continued to conduct choirs and wrote choral music well into his last years.

“Der Gang zu Liechen” was written in 1864, as part of three quartets. The music depicts the anxious lover making haste to visit his beloved at night. “Fragen” was completed in 1874. The song is set in an exchange of dialogue, pitting the three voices against the tenor, whose answers reveal him to be the lovestruck victim. The next three songs are excerpts from Brahms’s final set of vocal quartets. Both “Sehnsucht” and “Nächtens”, completed in around 1888, are melancholic in tone: the former speaks of the yearning for a loved one separated by the distance, whereas, the latter depicts the insomnia caused by grief and worry. “Liebe Schwalbe, kleine Schwalbe” is one of of four Gypsy songs included in Opp.112 and these later additions dated back to 1891. It concludes the selection in a slightly brighter note. The swallow becomes the messenger between lovers who suffer from the pain of separation.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.