Songs of Travel and Home
- For his debut song disc, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts honours his heritage with a selection of New Zealand, British, and French song, recorded with pianist James Baillieu.
"I wanted to share where I feel connected to and explore the idea of home and identity through song. Having grown up knowing I was from many places, I feel a strong connection to the protagonist in Vaughan Williams / R. L. Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. I am lucky to call so many beautiful places home, and ultimately, that’s how we settled on the title, Songs of Travel and Home.” — Julien Van Mellaerts
This recording features Gareth Farr’s song cycle Ornithological Anecdotes, commissioned by Van Mellaerts, Baillieu and Chamber Music New Zealand. Ornithological Anecdotes sets works by New Zealand's poet laureate Bill Manhire, and is a window into the imagined lives of New Zealand’s vibrant native birds.
Another highlight is Frank Bridge's Three songs for medium voice, viola and piano with fellow New Zealander Bryony Gibson-Cornish, framed by two more of Van Mellaerts’s favourite English songs: Roger Quilter's Go lovely rose and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Ravel's exquisite Chansons Madécasses and Don Quichotte à Dulcinée complete the album.
- Sleeve Notes
Go, lovely rose, the third of Roger Quilter’s Five English Love Lyrics, composed between 1922 and 1928, sets a much-anthologized poem by the Elizabethan poet, Edmund Waller, and is fraught with biographical significance. ‘Tell her that wastes her time and me’ runs the second line – a clear indication that the poem (taken from Waller’s Poems of 1645) reflects the poet’s unsuccessful wooing of Lady Dorothy Sidney. After the death of his first wife, Waller transferred his affections to the 18-year-old heiress, who rejected his advances and a few years later married Henry Spencer, the future Earl of Sunderland. This is one of the most beautiful songs in the repertoire, and Quilter’s ability to capture the subtle inflections of the words is particularly noticeable in the second verse which, contrary to the cantabile first, has a parlando feel to it.
Frank Bridge’s Three songs for medium voice, viola and piano were composed between November 1906 and January 1907 and not published as a group until 1982. Bridge himself was at the keyboard for the first performance in 1908, although he was also a fine viola player, as can be seen by the way he deploys the instrument in each of the songs: sharing the music with singer and piano in Music, when soft voices die, playing a ritornello in Far, far from each other, and duetting with the singer in Where is it that our soul doth go?. All three songs are flecked with melancholy, and the liveliest tempo is a mere Andante moderato. ‘Far, far from each other’ sets only three verses from Arnold’s ‘Parting’, a long poem of ninety lines from his Switzerland sequence which deals with the breakdown of his relationship with ‘Marguerite’. Shelley’s ‘Music, when soft voices die’, titled ‘To –’ by the poet, is addressed to Emilia Viviani, a nineteen-year-old woman whom her parents had confined to a convent prior to an arranged marriage. Shelley met her in late 1820, his compassion for her predicament was immediate, and his indignation inspired the Epipsychidion (‘Verses addressed to the noble and unfortunate lady, Emilia V – now imprisoned in the convent of –’). ‘Where is it that our soul doth go?’ is a translation of a poem without title by Heinrich Heine that appears in the ‘Clarisse’ section of Verschiedene, first published in 1833 in the Berlin periodical ‘Der Freimütige’. The typically lapidary nature of Heine’s poem is romanticized by Kate Kroeker’s translation and Bridge’s wonderfully overwrought music.
Quilter’s style matured early and two of the three songs from Opus 3, composed and published in 1904–5, remain as popular as any that were to come: ‘Love’s philosophy’ and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Tennyson’s poem comes from The Princess, a work that describes a Victorian country house party at which a succession of stories are told by the aristocratic guests. One story tells of an arranged marriage between a prince and a princess who have never met. She, a believer in women’s rights and the importance of education, founds a university
for women that is infiltrated illegally by the prince and his friends disguised as women. They are discovered, and in the ensuing mock-heroic battle the prince is injured. The princess nurses him back to health, falls in love with her victim – and they eventually marry. ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ is a poem that the princess discovered in ‘a volume of the Poets of her land’, which she reads at the bedside of the injured prince while he sleeps. Quilter omits Tennyson’s three middle couplets and thus interferes with the ghazal form of the original poem, but the lovely melody and the descending lines of the piano accompaniment make this one of his most successful and popular songs. There are also settings by Holst and Rorem.
For a description of Gareth Farr’s Ornithological Anecdotes, see Julien Van Mellaert’s foreword.
Ravel’s Chansons madécasses were commissioned by Mrs Elizabeth Coolidge, the American patron of the arts, in 1925. Ravel had already bought a set of the complete works of Evariste Parny, the eighteenth-century poet born on the Ile de la Réunion in the Indian Ocean. His talent for exotic description attracted Ravel, who immediately set about composing three of the twelve prose poems (nos, 12, 5 and 8) which Parny claimed were translations from original Madagascan verse that would give his readers an idea of Madagascan life and customs. Ravel set his three poems to an accompaniment of ‘if possible’ flute, cello and piano. The three instruments surround the voice which becomes, in effect, the fourth instrument of the quartet. Ravel later admitted his debt to Schoenberg, and in a biographical sketch (dictated in 1928 to Roland-Manuel and printed in a special Ravel number of
‘La revue musicale’ of 1938), saw in the work ‘[. . .] a new dramatic element – the erotic voice, which was introduced by the very subject of Parny’s poems. The work is a sort of quartet with the voice in the role of principal instrument. Simplicity is the keynote.’ The threatening cry of ‘aoua’ in the second song was added by Ravel himself, as his own copy of Parny’s poems in the Bibliothèque Nationale reveals. Ravel considered his cycle to be among his most important vocal works, and was particularly proud of how a maximum of expression was achieved by such economy of means.
Ravel’s final three songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, were composed in 1932–3, in response to a commission to write a score for a film that Georg W. Pabst was making for Chaliapin. Ravel failed to deliver in time, which meant that Jacques Ibert was eventually the fortunate composer. Ravel was never paid for his pains, but the songs are a delight, and have held the recital stage ever since Martial Singher premiered them on 1 December 1934 in the composer’s presence. Ravel was a great admirer of the Cervantes story, but it is unlikely that the great Russian bass would have taken to the simplicity of these songs, which never attempt to demonstrate any virtuoso vocal qualities. Ravel, with his Basque blood, used the
Clockwise from top left:
Little Spotted Kiwi by Kimberley Collins Banded Dotterel by Craig McKenzie Takahe– by Judi Lapsley Miller
Spanish idiom liberally throughout. In Chanson romanesque we hear the alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythm over a guitar-like accompaniment, which conjures up the quajira of Spanish folklore, and gives the song a deliciously lilting quality; Chanson épique, with its serious 5/4 metre, is reminiscent of the zortzico and, with its organ-like harmonies, has a whiff of Catholic incense about it; while Chanson à boire is in the spirit of the jota, its strong cross-rhythms conveying the tipsiness of Morand’s text.
The opening song of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel, ‘The vagabond’, bears the subtitle ‘To an air of Schubert’, and perhaps it was this mention of the greatest song composer of them all that drew Vaughan Williams to Stevenson’s collection that had been published posthumously in 1896. He selected nine of Stevenson’s poems (written ‘principally in the South Seas’, as the first edition tells us), and fashioned from them a loosely knit cycle that tells the story of a love affair.
The hero sets out in The vagabond with some glee, prepared to accept what fate might have in store and forgo wealth, health and love. Let Beauty awake tells us of the wanderer’s hopes of experiencing love on his journey (‘Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend’), and the buoyant, cantabile accompaniment captures perfectly the optimistic mood. In The roadside fire his love has actually become real in his imagination, as he shares with her his affection for the road, and showers her with gifts. The next song, Youth and love, however, abandons this shared imagined bliss, as the young man leaves her and sets out once more to discover what fate might have in store. The accompaniment, which alternates triplets with duplets, seems to speed him on his way, and we hear once more the ‘vagabond’ motif, as he travels on with a wave and ‘a wayside word to her at the garden gate’. Despite his decision to leave the girl, we learn from the next song, In dreams, that she ‘wept awhile and then forgot’, while ‘he that left you with a smile forgets you not’. The chromaticism of the accompaniment is tinged with self- pity, and there is a most apt morendo at ‘forgets you not’, as the song limps to a close.
Having left the warmth of the roadside fire, he now continues his journey in The infinite shining heavens, with the stars glittering brightly in each of the arpeggiated chords. He suffers cold and hunger, and is only comforted when an imagined star comes down to his side. Stevenson’s Whither must I wander? sails close to sentimentality as the poet continues to suffer starvation and cold and finds solace in the eternal promise of spring, but Vaughan Williams’s accompaniment with its bare thirds treats the verse in an austere, folksong idiom reminiscent of ‘Linden Lea’, and there is no postlude that lingers on his loneliness. Bright is the ring of words, marked significantly moderato risoluto, tells of the wanderer’s death without any mawkishness: though he is dead, his name will live on through his own poetry and the memories of others. I have trod the upward and the downward slope, though published half a century after the other songs, makes a fitting, epigrammatic close to the cycle. The accompaniment quotes themes from the ‘The vagabond’, ‘Whither must I wander?’ and ‘Bright is the ring of words’, thus bringing the cycle to a poignant close, as the hero looks back over his journey to a quasi-recitative vocal line. His acceptance of fate (‘I have lived and loved, and closed the door’) reminds us of the quotation from Captain Scott’s letter that Vaughan Williams appended to the Epilogue of his Sinfonia Antarctica: ‘I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint’.
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