Song of the Day

Beginning in January 2017, the Song of the Day will highlight art song performances from around the world. We will feature both established and up-and-coming performers and composers. Feel free to contact lfitzgibbon@sparksandwirycries.org if you would like to suggest a song, performer, or composer! 

March 25

Happy birthday, Béla Bartók (1881-1945)! Today, we share Bartók's Op. 16, a collection of five settings of fellow Hungarian Endre Ady's poetry. Bartók believed Ady to be the most important poet of his generation; interestingly, while Bartók took inspiration from the folk music of his homeland, Ady broke against those traditions within the literary community and wrote in a distinctly modernist style.

Boosey & Hawkes describes Bartók's Op. 16 songs somewhat amusingly as follows: "Set to words of despair by iconoclastic Hungarian poet Endre Ady, this set of five songs for medium voice and piano unveils some of Bartók’s most unrelievedly dark and melancholy writing. The songs are suited to a mezzo-soprano and a pianist of virtuoso temperament."

March 24

Today, Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny and Scottish pianist Malcom Martineau extoll the virtues of falling in love in the city with "The Contrast," the fifth song from William Walton's cycle, A Song For the Lord Mayor's Table.

March 23

Happy birthday, Edmund Rubbra! Born on this day in 1901, Rubbra's compositional career encompassed everything from symphonies to song--including a number of works for voice and harp. Below, we feature the third movement of his "The Jade Mountain," settings of translations by Witter Bynner of Tang dynasty (618 - 907) poems (published under the same name).

Bynner was an American poet and translator who became close with the Chinese scholar Kiang Kang-hu (or Jiang Kanghu) when both were teaching at UC Berkeley. He and Kiang Kang-hu collaborated on translations of a famous anthology of Tang dynasty poems, compiled in the late 18th century by Sun Zhu (1722-1778). Their work, completed in 1929, became the first complete translation of Sun Zhu's "Three Hundred Tang Poems" to English.

March 22

Today, Messiaen's "Chants de terre et de ciel" (1938) performed by Messiaen's second wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, and soprano María Orán. The cycle, a setting of texts by the composer himself, was inspired by Messiaen's first wife, violinist Claire Delbos (Mi), and baby son, Pascal (bébé Pilule). In typical fashion, it marries Messiaen's earthly, familial bliss (and fears) with his devout Catholicism.

March 21

Happy 332nd birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach! We often--and rightly--remember Bach for his soul-stirring religious compositions: masterworks such as his Matthew and John Passions and his Mass in B minor. However, Bach wrote a number of other compositions lauding earthly pleasures (the Coffee Cantata especially comes to mind). Today, in his honor, we present a short one from the Anna Magdalena notebook, "So oft ich meine Tobackspfeife," BWV 515. This short, stand-alone aria (or song!) both praises the merits of tobacco and compares our short human existence to its limits.

Our performance--complete with elaborate pipe!--comes from Klaus Mertens, baritone, and Ton Koopman, harpsichord.

March 20

Today, a virtuosic, live performance of Leon Kirchner's "The Twilight Stood" by the composer and soprano Beverly Hoch. Kirchner began the project by reading all of Emily Dickinson's poetry (some 1,775 works) before choosing these six poems. In his program note for the premiere, Kirchner wrote that in in writing this piece, "A small opera emerged, each poem a scene."

March 18

For some reason, Ernest Chausson's "Le colibri" has been stuck in my head for the past few days. Perhaps I'm wishing for spring? Here, we have the inimitable Gérard Souzay and pianist Jaqueline Bonneau in a recording from 1961.

March 17

Today, St. Patrick's Day, we feature Barber's setting of a prayer attributed to St. Brigit of Kildare and adapted and translated by Seán Proinsias Ó Faoláin. "The Heavenly Banquet" (from Barber's Hermit Songs) features perhaps one of the jolliest lines in all of poetry: "I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings."

Performed here, with most delicious diction, by Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber.

March 16

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) also wrote a setting of "Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam"! Hers, called "Fichtenbaum und Palme," was written in 1838 when she was 33 years old. In its structure and in the variety of colors and styles Mendelssohn uses to illustrate the two worlds of the fir tree and the palm, we hear her mature compositional style. Mendelssohn was an avid reader of poetry, sensitive to text in a way that perhaps her more famous brother was not. In this particular setting, listen for the return of the first stanza's text at the end of the song.

If you haven't heard the two previous songs of the day, check out Liszt's and Rimsky-Korsakov's settings of this same poem! 

March 15

More snow in the northeast today! I'm not even sure I can open my front door... So, more of Heine's pine tree poem today.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim perform Franz Liszt's "Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam" No. 1, S 309. Liszt and Heine were friends, of a sort (it was an on-again, off-again relationship), and Heine actually coined the term "Lisztomania" to describe the frenzy surrounding the musician. By the time Liszt wrote this piece, they were "off-again"--but it is still a sensitive reflection of this poem.

For the complete text of the poem and to hear Rimsky-Korsakov's setting, see yesterday's Song of the Day.

March 14

From my window, snow is falling heavily, and I am reminded of the Heine poem below:
   Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im Norden auf kahler Höh’.
Ihn schläfert; mit weißer
Decke Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee.

   Er träumt von einer Palme,
Die, fern im Morgenland,
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.

Luckily for us here at Sparks & Wiry Cries, this poem has been a source of inspiration for many composers, and we will explore many settings of it this week!

Today, we have a Russian translation of this poem in a setting by Rimsky-Korsakov, performed in 1960 by the late Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017) and pianist Werner Singer. This video contains three of Rimsky-Korsakov's songs, "The clouds begin to scatter," "The Pine and the Palm," and "The Lark Sings Louder."

March 13

A fascinatingly still and quiet interpretation of Strauss' "Morgen!" today, performed by Barbara Bonney and Geoffrey Parsons.

March 12

Today, a rare recording of H. T. Burleigh singing (and perhaps playing) one of his own arrangements, "Go Down, Moses," in 1919.

Henry Thacker "Harry" Burleigh (1866-1949) was a singer, composer, instrumentalist (a pianist, but he also played double bass in conservatory, where he was both a student and a teacher of Antonin Dvorak), and an arranger. Today, despite his immense accomplishments in all of these fields, he is known best for his skill in just one of them: his arrangements of spirituals.

If you wish to know more about the man and composer, there will be a musical tribute to Burleigh on March 31, 2017, at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York City.

To read more about Burleigh, start with this short biography from the Library of Congress.

March 11

Today, the radiant Sarah Connolly performing Ivor Gurney's "Sleep" with pianist Eugene Asti. This recording comes from a recital the duo gave at Wigmore Hall in 2010. However, if you'd like to catch her on this side of the pond, Connolly will be giving a recital with pianist Joseph Middleton on March 15 and 17 at the Park Avenue Armory

"Sleep" is one of Gurney's "Five Elizabethan Songs" (1912). For the last 15 years of his life, Gurney (1890-1937) was held in psychiatric hospitals, suffering perhaps from bipolar disorder or even syphilis. Despite his mental illness, Gurney wrote prolifically during this time, including poetry and plays as well as some music. It appears that the majority of Gurney's musical works have yet to be published or recorded.

March 10

Frédéric Chopin is of course famous for his compositions for solo piano--but much less so for his songs. Today, we feature a sensitive recording by soprano Elżbieta Szmytka and pianist Malcolm Martineau of his opus 74. These seventeen songs with Polish texts make up almost all of Chopin's vocal output.

From Robert Cummings' notes on the songs: "Chopin's apparent doubts about the artistic worth of his songs probably had something to do with his conviction that his best piano music was patently superior. The songs are indeed less distinctive works, but they offer much that is of interest, including unusual insights into the epic side of Chopin's thinking and a wealth of beautiful piano writing. It is also interesting to ponder the shortcomings of the songs in view of the fact that Chopin's pianistic language was itself heavily influenced by vocal music, specifically that of Bellini. The composer himself never partook in any concert performance of his songs, which offers further evidence of his doubts about them."

March 9

Today, Lois Marshall and Weldon Kilburn perform the last song from de Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas, "Polo." This is an exhilarating, electric performance, from a 1962 recital in Moscow.

Marshall (1924-1997) was a Canadian soprano (and later mezzo-soprano) known mostly for her concert and recital performances, as well as for her broad discography. She did occasionally perform in operas, but the polio she contracted as a child prevented her from feeling completely comfortable moving on stage. Of note are her operatic appearances in productions designed for her by noted director Sarah Caldwell.

March 8

Happy International Women's Day! Today, in honor of the occasion, we present these five songs by Alma Mahler. Angelika Kirchschlager and Helmut Deutsch made this stunning recording in 1997.

Mahler was born Alma Schindler in Vienna. She was raised in an artistic family and began composing at the age of 9, later studying with Zemlinsky. She married Gustav Mahler, 19 years her senior, when she was 23. One condition of their marriage was that she stop composing, so she did--abruptly--in 1901. However, after the death of her first child, Maria Anna, Alma fell into a depression and later started an affair with architect Walter Gropius. Gustav solicited advice from Sigmund Freud, who counseled that forcing Alma to give up her own artistic expression was perhaps detrimental to her sense of self and ability to have a self-actualized life... With some remorse, it is said, Gustav took a greater interest in his wife's work, eventually helping her to prepare the five songs below for publication in 1910.

It is unclear if Alma continued composing after 1910.

5 Lieder
I. Die stille Stadt
II. In meines Vaters Garten
III. Laue Sommernacht
IV. Bei dir ist es traut
V. Ich wandle unter Blumen

March 5

We've been keeping this beautiful rendition of Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh," performed by Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, to ourselves for some time now. Perhaps this evening is the perfect time to share it:

March 4

March 1 would have been Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's 63rd birthday. We honor her, though a few days late, with Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen." This recording dates from a 1997 performance in Wigmore Hall with pianist Roger Vignoles. The entire recital was released on CD by Arkiv Music, and everything is just as ravishing as the simple, heartfelt, unfettered, utterly human beauty found here.

March 3

Today, a beautiful interpretation of Schumann's "Du Ring an meinem Finger" by Felicty Lott and Graham Johnson. Lott and Johnson have been duo partners since their university days, which one can surely hear in the way their voices intermingle in this performance. To me, the tempo and the interpretation create the same unending circle that the titular ring represents.

March 2

Today, continuing on with members of the Das Lied competition jury, we have the multi-talented Brigitte Fassbaender. Not only are her recordings of Lieder and operas peerless, but she has also appeared in films and is a renowned teacher and director. The recording below, made between 1989 and 1991, features Fassbaender with pianist Aribert Reimann performing works by Schubert.

March 1

Another day, another remarkable song, another remarkable singer. In honor of the Das Lied competition, headed by Thomas Quasthoff, which also begins today--March 1--we share one of his breathtaking performances, here with Daniel Barenboim.

Quasthoff, who many know was born with disabilities due to the anti-nausea drug Thalidomide, has written beautifully about his own life in numerous interviews and in the three books he co-authored with his brother. For an introduction to his life and his life and musical philosophy, we urge you to start with the interview at this link, and then go on to read his books. (And what a wonderful quote! "Schubert's songs fly through the air like angels"...)  

February 28

Today, a beautiful recording of Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh" by tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Reginald Boardman.

Hayes (1887-1977) was a remarkable artist whose career not only paved the way for others, but whose artistic decisions continue to shape our aesthetics and expectations today. At the height of his fame, Hayes could sell out Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. He commanded $2,500 per recital in the 1920s--some $33,000 today. He was the first African-American to sing as a soloist with a major symphony orchestra and the first to program spirituals alongside the western cannon. He was the first to have a recording contract for classical music as well, though he did not make any until late in his career, for fear that it would compromise him artistically.

There is a short anecdote about Hayes, which describes but one incident of the racism he had to overcome: he was scheduled to perform in Berlin in 1923, but the event was ridiculed in the newspapers. Protesters attended his concert, and he had to wait on stage some ten minutes for the hecklers to stop shouting before he could begin. He chose to counter their anger and disgusting behavior with the calm, still assuredness of "Du bist die Ruh." Needless to say, Hayes won them over with his first note.

The recording below was made in 1953, when Hayes was already in his mid-60s, so we do miss some of the ease that he had in his youth. Still, it is an achingly beautiful rendition of this extraordinary Lied.

For more on Hayes' life, we point you to the biography "Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor" by Christopher Brooks and Robert Sims.

February 27

Happy birthday, Marian Anderson! Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was a ground-breaking contralto, perhaps most famous today for being the first African-American singer to be offered a contract at the Met and for her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This latter performance was where her heart lay: she preferred to sing recitals and concert performances with orchestra to opera, and in fact, her performance at the Met was the only time she sang a full role onstage. Accordingly, today we will focus on her life until her important 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert. 

Anderson was the eldest of three girls, and was raised in Philadelphia. Thanks to her aunt, Mary, Anderson attended many concerts and began singing in church or other local events. Anderson's father died following an accident at work when she was only 12, and her family was unable to pay for music lessons or even high school with the money they had left. Eventually, thanks to Anderson's determination and the generosity of her community, she was able to attend high school, from which she graduated in 1921. Anderson was rejected from the Philadelphia music school to which she applied ("We don't take colored."), so she instead studied privately.  

Her first break came when she won a competition to perform with the New York Philharmonic in 1925. She moved to the city and began studying there, even finding management through her critically and popularly successful NY Phil performance, but Anderson found it too difficult to make a career in America as an African-American, and moved to Europe. There, she found great success: not only did she perform recitals throughout Europe, and form a lasting partnership with the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, but she became close friends with Jean Sibelius. 

Anderson began returning to America to sing in the mid-1930s, making her New York City Town Hall debut in 1935. Still, despite her fame and critical acclaim, she faced much prejudice when touring for her American recitals. She was not allowed to eat in many restaurants or stay in many hotels. On one such occasion, before a recital in Princeton, New Jersey, Albert Einstein took her in when the hotel refused her, beginning a long friendship.  

In 1939, Anderson was supposed to perform at Washington's Constitution Hall. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution prevented her from giving the concert because they would not allow her to sing for an integrated audience, and they lacked two sets of bathroom facilities (Washington, D.C., was segregated at the time). When an alternative venue in a local high school was suggested, the D.C. Board of Education prevented Anderson from singing there too. After the NAACP helped to educate others about the injustice, thousands of people--including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt--resigned from the DAR. Instead, Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of 75,000 and millions more on the radio. 

If you are curious about Anderson's life, as well you should be, you should take the time to read more about her other accomplishments: her awards, her concerts, her bestselling autobiographies. In closing, we will just mention that not only did she pave the way for many future singers with her concerts, she also established an award in 1943, funding which proved essential for many singers to begin their careers (including many singers already profiled on this page). The Finnish songs below were arranged, and are performed, by Anderson's musical partner, Kosti Vehanen:


Anderson was also not so serious that she was unable to use her talents and artistry to reach out to children. She made an amazing record about her cat, Snoopy, which you can find here.

February 26

Despite her important contributions, soprano Camilla Williams (1919-2012) has been largely written out of the history books. Williams was the first African-American to have a contract with a major US opera company, with her 1946 performance as Cio-Cio-San in New York City Opera's first production of Madama Butterfly.

Williams was born in Danville, Virginia, as the youngest of four siblings. Her parents didn't have a lot of money to spare from their jobs as a chauffeur (father) and laundress (mother), but they had a love of music, which they passed on to their daughter. She began to take private voice lessons at age 12 with Raymond Aubrey, who taught her from home (during the era of Jim Crow, she was not allowed to work with him at the all-white colleges where he taught).

Williams graduated from what is now Virginia State University with a degree in music education, taught third grade for a year, and then was awarded a scholarship to further her voice studies in Philadelphia. After a few more years of study, Williams was giving a recital in Stamford, Connecticut, attended by the soprano Geraldine Farrar. Farrar became Williams' champion, securing her a recording contract with RCA, putting her in touch with a manager, and contacting City Opera's founder and artistic director, Laszlo Halasz. Her performance as Cio-Cio-San began an eight year relationship with City Opera, but despite her successes with fans and critics, she was largely cast in non-white roles. In 1995, Williams recalled, "I would have loved to sing the Countess and Susanna in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Mozart was so right for my voice. But they were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup."

Williams also had the distinction of being the first African-American to sing a principal role with the Vienna State Opera; of singing "The Star Spangled Banner" before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech; of appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Royal Philharmonic, to name a few; and of appearing as Bess in the first complete recording of "Porgy and Bess." She was the first African-American Professor of Voice at Indiana University as well as at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Williams was aware of being overshadowed by artists including Marian Anderson (who will be featured tomorrow, on her birthday). From the same 1995 interview, she noted that "The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things. There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right."

Though Williams is best remembered for her operatic performances, she was by all accounts a wonderful concertizer, as evidenced by the 1952 recording below, with pianist Borislav Bazala. Let us help bring everything right by enjoying this stunning performance of French and Italian repertoire.

For past Songs of the Day, see the Sparks & Wiry Cries Facebook page.

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