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.