PROGRAM NOTES & TRANSLATIONS (for Sept. 15, 1999)
Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp
note by Roy Howat (1988)
In 1914 the outbreak of war reduced Claude Debussy - and several other
artists - to almost complete silence, until, in Debussy's own words, he
managed to "rediscover music" in the summer of 1915, reaping a rich harvest
of twelve piano Etudes, the two-piano suite En blanc et noir, the Cello
Sonata, and the trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. It was to be almost
Debussy's last work; the onset of his last illness left him with only enough
strength to complete his Violin Sonata before his death in 1918. In a letter
Debussy described the trio Sonata as "in the ancient, flexible mould with
none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas." Despite the war clouds
filling Europe, it evokes inner worlds, sometimes through the masks of the
Commedia dell'arte, sometimes through a feeling of dances of ancient times.
For all its conciseness, its emotions are intense, and Debussy, on first
hearing it performed, did not know whether to laugh or cry.
Schoenberg: Fifteen Poems from "The Book of the Hanging Gardens"
The first performance of the Fifteen Poems from "The Book of the Hanging
Gardens" took place in Vienna on 14 January 1910. In the original program
notes, Schoenberg made the following statement:
With the "George-Lieder," I have succeeded for the first time in approaching
an expressive and formal ideal which has haunted me for years. Up until now,
I lacked the strength and the self-assurance to realize it. But now that I
have started definitely upon this road, I am aware that I have burst the
bonds of a bygone aesthetic; and, foresee the opposition which I shall have
to overcome; I feel the heat of the animosity which even the least
temperaments will generate, and I fear that some who have believe in me up
till now will not admit the necessity of this evolution.
Schoenberg was stimulated by the writings of Stefan George, the visionary
symbolist poet. He turned in an entirely new direction, producing music that
was characterized by greater refinement, economy of means, and
understatement. Gradually abandoning traditional tonality, Schoenberg
uncovered a whole new world of sound in his settings of George's poetry - in
succession, the last two movements of the Second String Quartet, Op. 10, the
Op. 14 song, "Ich darf nicht dankend," and most decisively, Fifteen Songs
from "The Book of the Hanging Gardens," Op. 15, where he loosened the
restrictions of tonality altogether.
Schoenberg may have been attracted to George's ideal of an aristocratic art,
so much like his own, and his opposition to the slovenliness and
sentimentality of the poetry of the time, or he may have been searching for
a new mode of expression in a period of personal and spiritual crisis which
led him into trying his hand at painting.
In each of the 15 poems of the cycle, Schoenberg finds the appropriate means
- a figure, a chord succession, a melodic fragment - to express the
underlying meaning of the text. As he states in his article "The
Relationship to the Text": "I had completely understood the poems of Stefan
George from their sound alone." To a certain extent he follows the formal
patterns of the poetry by recurrent musical forms (aba), though partially in
most cases, and by constant variations of a principal musical idea. The
vocal line covers a whole range of lyrical and recitative-like utterances,
sometimes within the same song, and although a larger vocal compass than
usual is covered, Schoenberg generally accommodates the singer by treating
the highest pitches 'forte' and the lowest pitches 'piano' or 'pianissimo.'
The voice and the piano partake of an intimate relation throughout, often
intertwining in close imitation or by overlapping one another. The
subtleties of expression follow those of the poetry in every regard,
demanding the highest degree of artistic sensitivity from the performers.
Although there is no explicit story within the cycle, the poems suggest in a
very mysterious and removed way a tale of a love affair against a luxuriant
background ("the hanging gardens"). The paradise of a strange land is
depicted in the first two poems, followed by the path pursued by the
apprentice to reach his beloved in the next three poems. His intense
yearnings (poems 6-9) find their fulfillment in the following four poems,
before disillusionment sets in, as the garden fades along with love in the
last two poems of the cycle. In the short fourteenth song, one line of
melody depicts with the utmost economy of means the flickering light of
winter's storm, and serves as a prologue to the dramatic final song, the
fading away of love in the ruins of Eden. In this song, the longest in the
cycle, the piano provides both a lengthy introduction and conclusion to the
ultimate act of rejection and despair.
Song Translations (by Linda Trotter)
Under the protection of dense leafy depths
where from stars fine flakes snow,
soft voices proclaim their sufferings,
fabled animals from brown gorges
spew streams into marble basins,
from them little brooks rush lamenting;
candles came to ignite the bushes
white forms divide the waters.
Groves in these paradises
alternate with meadows of flowers,
halls, gaily-painted tiles,
beaks of slender storks ruffle
ponds scintillate with fish,
rows of birds faintly gleaming
trill on slanting roofs,
and the golden rushes murmur -
yet my dream pursues only one thing.
Tell me on which path
she may pass by today -
that from the richest chest
I may fetch delicate woven silks,
pluck roses and violets;
that I may spread my cheek
as a stool under her sole.
To all labors I am henceforth dead.
To call you close with my senses,
to spin new tales with you,
service and reward, concession and prohibition,
of all things only this is needed;
and to weep that images always flee,
which flourished in beautiful darkness -
when the cold, clear morning threatens.
You lean against a silver willow
by the river bank; with the fan's still lace
you shield your head as if with lightning
and roll your jewels as if playing.
I am in the boat, which leafy arches watch over,
into which I vainly bade you step...
the willows I see bending lower
and flowers scattered in the water, drifting.
Speak not always of the leaves, the wind's prey,
of the dashing of ripe quinces,
of the tread of the destroyers late in the year.
Of the trembling of dragonflies in thunder storms
and of lights whose glimmer is inconstant.
We peopled the evening-gloomy
arbors, bright temples, paths and flowerbeds
joyfully - she with smiles, I with whispers
Now it is true that she is going forever.
Tall flowers pale or break,
the glass of ponds pales and breaks
and I flounder in decomposing grass,
palms with pointed fingers prick,
the hissing throng of brittle leaves
are driven fitfully away by invisible hands
outside, around the ashen walls of Eden.
The night is overcast and sultry.