Twilight Visions

Poetry in Music Series 3
Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 29 September, 2012 (Saturday)

Twilight Visions: The art songs of the fin-de-siècle

The image of the setting sun – whether literally or metaphorically – seemed to have held the fascination of art song composers at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was depicted in Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage, Debussy’s Beau soir, Schoenberg’s Waldsonne and Respighi’s Il tramonto, to name a few. The sunset was perhaps an especially poignant symbol, as humanity approached the threshold of the twentieth century. It was a time when the old values of society gradually peeled away like wallpapers in the Victorian household, revealing the bare walls and foundations which bore signs of decay and fatigue. War was like a distant thunder, heard but not felt, dreaded but not mentioned.

Some chose to respond to changes by indulging in nostalgia, others faced the future by keeping themselves ahead with the currents. The same duality was identified among composers at the fin-de-siècle. While Duparc and Chausson established their voices within the conventions of French melodies, Debussy was experimenting with a more abstract way of expression, complementing the piano and the voice in a highly succinct yet effective manner. Richard Strauss, on the other hand, was giving the German lied a facelift by adopting a more orchestral approach in composition. Schoenberg pursued the same goal by a completely opposite route. His songs were sparsely textured yet strategically conceived, which reflected the modernist aesthetics of “less is more”.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the faded glory of the art songs could be seen in the mature songs of Rachmaninoff and the solo cantatas of Respighi.

It is worth pointing out that, at the turn of the nineteenth century, music was increasingly subjected to the trends of other arts, especially that of literature and visual arts. The themes of decadence and eroticism, so often seen in the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele also found their place in the art song. Examples of references to lust and desire are seen in Debussy’s Cest l’extase, Strauss’s Heimlich Afforderung, and Schoenberg’s Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm. Death, which had long served the inspiration of composers, was treated with a new sense of morbidity. In Strauss’s Allerseelen, Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle and Respighi’s Il tramonto, death was no threat but a consoling thought.

While most of the songs featured in tonight’s programme are accompanied by the piano, the highly personal style of each composer guarantees plenty of variety for the audience. In addition, Chausson’s Le temps des lilas, Chanson perpétuelle and Respighi’s Il tramonto will be sung with piano quintet and string quartet respectively.


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Nuit d’étoiles
Beau soir
C’est l’extase
Green Spleen
Jasmine Law, soprano
Kam Wing-chong, piano

Debussy began writing songs since he was eighteen. Vocal and choral compositions dominated Debussy’s career from 1880 to 1900. It was not only a drill for the young composer but also a means of earning a living.

The mélodies featured in tonight’s concert showed not only Debussy’s perceptive setting of words to music, but also his transformation from a novice to a mature song composer. The earliest example is Nuit d’étoiles (1882). Debussy adapted the first stanza into a refrain. Together with the breezy piano accompaniment and the catchy melodic line, the song is closer to the chanson heard in salons rather than the more sophisticated mélodie.

Beau soir (1884), marked a change of style in Debussy’s song setting. The gently rocking accompaniment effectively conjures up the image of swaying wheat in the evening breeze. The austere setting of the concluding lines “the waves to the sea, we to the grave” leaves the listener with a lingering impression. The song is also made popular by various transcriptions for instruments.

The song cycle Ariettes oubliées (1885-1888) was a milestone for Debussy and won him the public acclaim as a mature song composer. The cycle consists of six songs, set to the texts of symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine. The set was dedicated to Mary Garden in 1903, who had premiered the role of Melisande of Debussy’s opera.

The third song, Cest l’extase (1887) and the fourth song, Green (1886, also titled Aquarelle No.1) are explicitly erotic. The chromaticism in the vocal line and the descending piano figure in L’extase discreetly hint at the “languorous ecstasy” and “amorous fatigue” experienced by the lovers. In Green, the palpitating excitement at the beginning eventually succumbs to lethargic conclusion: “let it (your breast) calm itself after the wonderful tempest, let me sleep a bit, while you take your rest.” Spleen, the last song of the set (1885-1888, also titled Aquarelle No.2) describes the tormented mind of a lover, who fears that the seemingly perfect world might fall apart should his loved one flee without warning.

Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
Chanson triste
L’invitation au voyage
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Chan Sze-yau, piano

Despite his premature retirement at the age of thirty-five, Duparc’s sixteen extant songs, written between 1868 and 1883, remained staples of the French song literature. A pupil of Cesar Franck and contemporary of Saint-Saens, Duparc studied law in his youth and was a keen Wagnerian.

Sérénade was composed in 1869. Duparc’s choice of strophic setting of the text over a clichéd accompaniment gives the song a deceptively banal appearance, which is dismissed by the poignant confession in the last stanza.

Among his first five songs composed in 1868, only two – Chanson triste and Soupir – were allowed to be published and these were orchestrated by Duparc in 1902.

Chanson triste was set to the text of Henri Cazalis, who was also the author of SaintSaens’s Danse macabre. The song describes a person’s wish of finding solace in the moonlight. Soupir was dedicated to Duparc’s mother, and the text expresses a jilted lover who yearns for the return of his beloved with unwavering resolution.

L’invitation au voyage, set to the text of Baudelaire, is perhaps Duparc’s best known mélodie. The text projects the lovers’ wish to journey to a place where “the world falls asleep bathed in warm and delight” and “all is harmony and beauty, luxury, calm and delight”. It was also orchestrated by Duparc in the 1890s.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Die Nacht
Heimliche Aufforderung
Frankie Liu, tenor
Kam Wing-chong, piano

The two hundred some songs written by Richard Strauss were significant for two reasons: these works traced not only the composer’s mastery of the genre of the German Lied, but also the transformation of the intimate nineteenth century art song into the more substantial orchestral songs at the turn of the century.

The turning point came in 1885, with his first published set of eight songs under Op.10. These songs, dedicated to Heinrich Vogl (tenor), were set to the anthology titled Letzte Blatter (Last Pages) by Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg. No.1 Zueignung (Dedication) is the only strophic song among tonight’s selection. It consists of three stanzas, each concluding with the refraining phrase “Habe Dank!” (Have thanks!), which creates the impression of a devotional ode. No.3 Die Nacht (The Night) evokes a Schubertian simplicity, yet the strong harmony appropriately conveys a sense of apprehension of the lover, who fears that the night might steal away his beloved.

It is perhaps one of Strauss’s signature style to begin a lied with the voice finishing off the musical idea introduced by the piano, and eventually negotiate for the union of the two as the song unfolds. Such is the case with No. 8 Allerseelen and the popularly received Morgen, Op.27, no.4. While Allerseelen longs for the reunion with the deceased loved one, Morgen anticipates the union of one’s love as day breaks at the seashore. The latter was also Strauss’s wedding gift for his wife Pauline in 1894.

Like its sister works from the same set, Heimliche Aufforderung, Op.27, no.3 is conceived in an orchestral manner. The sweeping accompaniment at the beginning alludes to the Brindisi (drinking song), which fittingly portrays the party scene in the text. The sudden change of mood in the middle stanzas – as the lovers leave the intoxicated crowd for the rendezvous in the garden – proved that Strauss was equally apt in creating sumptuous music with reduced forces.

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Le temps des lilas
Chanson perpértuelle
Jasmine Law,soprano
Piano Quintet:
Kam Wing-chong, piano
Selena Choi, violin
Yang Zheng, violin
Chris Choi, viola
Juanita Wong, cello

Chausson was a student of Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire. Like Duparc, Chausson was also strongly influenced by Franck and Wagner; he spent his honeymoon visiting the Bayreuth Theatre in 1883.

Chausson’s mélodies were often conceived as narratives, presented in a rather dramatic manner. Le temps des lilas and Chanson perpértuelle (also titled as Nocturne) are cases in point.

The former belonged to a song cycle Poeme de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of love and of the sea), written between 1882 and 1890. It consists of three songs: Le fleur des eaux (The flower of the waters); followed by La mort de l’amour (The death of love) and an interlude; concluding with Le temps des lilas, which is now often sung on its own. The text is the soliloquy of a lover mourning for her deceased beloved. The piano begins with a haunting melody, which was deliberately unsynchronized with the voice at first. As the lover gradually comes to terms with the painful reality, the piano and voice become synchronized in the last stanza.

The manuscript of Chanson perpértuelle, Op. 37 bears the date of 10th Decmeber 1898. It was premiered with voice and piano quintet in January 1899 by its dedicatee Jeanne Raunay. It is a suicidal note of a woman abandoned by her lover. The original text consists of sixteen stanzas, and Chausson reorganized the stanzas in four groups: stanzas 1-2 (statement of the woman’s wish for death); stanzas 3-5 and 7-8 (a flashback of the encounter and the subsequent betrayal by her lover); stanzas 9, 11-14 (oscillation between the bitter reality and the welcomed relief of drowning herself). Chausson indicated that the song be sung “dans le sentiment d’une chanson populaire” (with the feeling of a popular song). It is also worth nothing how Chausson used the modal ritornello to underscore the narrative of the woman, whose voice breaks off at the word “absent” at the climatic G-sharp.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm
Caleb Woo, baritone
Chan Sze-yau, piano

Despite his intention to break new grounds with twelve-tone compositions, Schoenberg’s early efforts revealed his consciousness and commitment to the Viennese heritage especially in the genres of chamber music and lied. Between the years of 1893 and 1900, Schoenberg wrote over thirty songs.

His first important set of song Op.2 was completed in 1899, the same year that he finished the sextet Verklärte Nacht. Both the song cycle (with the exception of Waldsonne) and the sextet were inspired by German poet Richard Dehmel, whose works deals with overtly erotic subjects. The theme of fin-de-siècle decadence was concurrent with the painting style of Gustav Klimt, in which the crudity of the nude body was juxtaposed with gilded panels.

The abundant reference to bright jewel-toned colours and suppressed sexuality in literature and visual arts were skillfully translated in Schoenberg’s music. Like his predecessors, Schoenberg relied heavily on the piano to highlight meaning of words. Nevertheless, it was always done with the greatest economy of materials within the minimal structural frame.

The first song of the set Erwartung (Anticipation) opens with a melody which hints at the opening phrase of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The text is infused with colour words, such as “sea green pond” and “red villa”. Schoenberg permeated the brief song with a quintuplet piano figuration, which punctuates each reference to colour and underscores the voice at the climatic third stanza.

The second song Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm (Present me with your golden comb) was also titled Jesus bettelt (Jesus begs). Despite its reference to biblical figures, the concealed sexual entendres (intimate objects such as comb and silken sponge) are hard to miss. Schoenberg made use of the chromatically inflected vocal line and the wide leaps to accentuate the tormented state of mind.

Erhebung (Elevation) is the shortest song of the set. The sense of the euphoria and transcendence are embodied in the escalating tessitura of the voice and the augmented final note of D-sharp (within the context of A major).

The final song Waldsonne (Sun in the forest) was closest to the Romantic lied in content and form. The tonality was firmly rooted in D major and Schoenberg used a four-note figure to invoke the shimmering rays of the sun at twilight.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
The harvest of sorrow
Here is well
Do not sing, beauty!
Spring tides
Su-kyoung Lee, soprano
Sheng-zhong Wu, piano

Within the three decades from 1890 to 1917, Rachmaninoff produced over eighty songs. His songs bore the unmistakable influence of Tchaikovsky, with its finecontoured melodic lines and opulent piano parts.

Much like his predecessor, Rachmaninoff’s songs were published in sets of six or twelve. The first groups of six songs were presented as Op.4 (1893). No.4 Do not sing, beauty! has won the hearts of singers and audience alike with its voluptuous Oriental melody and finely crafted piano part. No.5 The harvest of sorrow evokes the atmosphere of Russian folksong.

From the twelve songs of Op.21 (1901-1902), Rachmaninoff experimented with a more subtle approach his song setting. No.7 Here is well (composed while Rachmaninoff was on honeymoon with his wife Natalya) was set to the text by poetess Glafira Galina. The rippling piano accompaniment sets the backdrop of a pastoral scene, in which two lovers find refuge and contentment in nature.

Dream, Op.38, no.5 (1916) showed Rachmaninoff’s genesis of a unique personal style in songs. The supple vocal line soars effortlessly while the hypnotic piano accompaniment gradually increases in intensity. This collection, however, was the curtain call of Rachmaninoff’s career as a song composer.

Among the set of twelve songs from Op.14 (1894-1896), the highly virtuosic and at times almost orchestral sounding piano accompaniment in No.11 Spring tides exemplified Rachmaninoff’s virtuosity at the keyboard. The illustrative piano part vividly portrays the many phases of the surging river in spring.

Ottorino Resphighi (1879-1936)
Il tramonto
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Belcanto Quartet
Selena Choi, violin
Yang Zheng, violin
Chris Choi, viola
Juanita Wong, cello

Respighi studied composition and the violin (and viola) at the Liceo Musicale of Bologna from 1891-1901. He was an accomplished string performer and became a member of Mugellini quartet from 1903 to 1908.

Respighi also took lessons with Rimsky-Kosakov in Russia and Max Bruch in Berlin. He had established his reputation as the leading Italian composer with his Fontane di Roma prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

At about the same time, Respighi embarked on a rather ambitious vocal project: a trilogy of three solo cantatas, namely Aretusa (1910-1), La sensitiva (1914-1915) and Il tramonto (1914), set to the extended poems of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The finale of the set, Il tramonto (The Sunset), was set to the Italian translation by Roberto Ascoli. It was dedicated to mezzo-soprano Chiarina Fino Savio, who sang the premiere of Aretusa and this work.

The text tells the Liebestod (love death) of a pair of lovers: while the man died prematurely after a nocturnal assignation with his lover, the woman was worn out by solitude and weariness of the world. Respighi divided this extended poem into two parallel halves, each accounting for the two deaths, with a short interlude separating the two. While the highly dramatic vocal part alternates between declamation, arioso and lyrical singing, the ensemble is responsible for signaling the changes in the narrative.

Il tramonto was originally scored with string quartet. It is sometimes performed with the arrangement for voice and string orchestra.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.