“Art songs” — musical settings of poetry for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment – are a musical form which blossomed from the late 18th Century onwards. German lieder are widely considered to be the quintessential expression of this genre, so much so that the term lieder is sometimes used, misleadingly, to refer to similar works in other languages. In reality, the art song is a variegated form encompassing various national traditions and stylistic traits of individual composers. The choice of pieces in this program is a testament to the genre’s diversity.
The early songs of Claude Debussy (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1862 – Paris, 1918) are written in the mould of French mélodies – elegant pieces in which texts, generally love poems, were set to attractive tunes with relatively simple piano accompaniment. Beau Soir , one of his teenage compositions, is an evocation of the day’s end. Paul Bourget’s poem compares the coming night to the approach of death and the music suitably rises to a climax before subsiding to a hushed close.
Debussy held that “clarity of expression, precision and concentration of form are qualities peculiar to the French genius.” These traits can be discerned in the mélodies which follow. Chanson Triste , a setting of a poem by Jean Lahor, is one of 17 songs by Henri Duparc (Paris, 1848 – Mont-de-Marsan, 1933). An early work (subsequently heavily revised), it shows the influence of another French master – Charles Gounod. Gabriel Fauré (Pamiers, 1845 – Paris, 1894) set Armand Silvestre’s Notre Amour  in 1879. In around two minutes, the composer condenses five verses of playful text, subtly underlining the progressive deepening of the poet’s love from légère in the first verse to éternelle in the last. Élégie  by Jules Massenet (Montaud, 1842 – Paris, 1912) is an arrangement of the “Invocation” from the composer’s incidental music for the play Les Érinnyes.
A native of Abruzzo, Francesco Tosti (Ortona, 1846 - Rome, 1916) soaked up the rich lyrical traditions of his country. Musical studies in Naples gave Tosti a good technical preparation, but he also drew inspiration from the vernacular styles he encountered while collecting, editing, and arranging Italian folksongs. Tosti remains best known for his “salon pieces”: melodious ballads which became all the rage in Europe and were subsequently recorded by operatic stars such as Jüssi Bjorling and Nellie Melba and, intriguingly, by the world’s last “castrato” Alessandro Moreschi.
Tosti is represented here by four songs which span his career. Pour un Baiser!  is a 1904 setting of a poem by George Doncieux. An expression of the poet’s yearning for his lover, it is typical of the texts set by Tosti, with their fin-de-siècle mix of passion, melancholy, and, occasionally, sentimental religiosity. La Serenata , composed in 1888 to words by Giovanni Alfredo Cesareo, is a moonlit vignette portraying the narrator’s sleeping lover caressed by song. Sogno  sets a poem by Lorenzo Stecchetti describing a passionate dream in which the narrator fervently prays to overcome the pangs of desire. Tristezza , dating from 1908, is a relatively late work. The valedictory text by Riccardo Mazzoli expresses a lover’s distress at the thought of losing the idyll he is living. Cello and harp provide a haunting instrumental coda to this Tosti selection – the Elegia  by Luigi Maurizio Tedeschi (Turin, 1867 – Cairate, 1944), one of the leading concert harpists of his time.
It is tempting to consider Richard Strauss (Munich, Germany 1864 – Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany 1949) as primarily a composer of opera and large-scale orchestral works. However, he also wrote more intimate works. In particular, Strauss was a prolific lieder composer. He wrote his first songs at just 6 years of age and his last completed composition was a lied for voice and piano, Malven.
Kling!  represents the joyful outpouring of a heart full of hope. It is the third of the 5 Lieder Op. 58, which Strauss published in 1900, setting poems by Karl Henckell. Das Geheimnis  is taken from a set of six lieder to texts by Adolf von Schack. The pastoral imagery of the poem is gently conveyed in playful music. All Mein Gedanken  is a love song which opens Schlichte Weisen Op. 21, a set of five songs dating from 1890. The song’s light-hearted tone contrasts with the darker atmosphere of Die Nacht  and Allerseelen . Both songs are taken from Strauss’s Opus 10, the first collection of songs which the composer ever published, based on poems by Hermann von Gilm. Strauss met John Henry McKay in Berlin and subsequently used his poems for some of his songs, including Morgen! . It closes the composer’s four Lieder Opus 27 and was conceived as a wedding present to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna.
Like the Romantics, contemporary composers continue to be inspired by the literature of their time. Tluq by Alex Vella Gregory (b. 1984) is a short song cycle based on recent poetry by John Aquilina who, like the composer, hails from Malta. It speaks of loss of love, regret, loneliness, and eventual reconciliation. The anguished music of Vistu (“Mourning”)  is dramatic, almost half-way between aria and recitative, reflecting the protagonist’s physical and emotional loss. The same atmosphere permeates Ma Ħallejt Xejn Warajk (“You Left Nothing Behind”) . This song is a passacaglia built on a mournful ground bass whose repetitions convey a sense of hopelessness. The cycle ends with Meta Titgħallem Titlaq (When You Learn to Depart) , a poem which expresses themes of hope and reconciliation. The music mirrors the words through gently oscillating chords and a more lyrical melodic line, ending the cycle on a more positive note.
The nine suites of Bachianas Brasileiras by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Rio de Janeiro, 1887 – Rio de Janeiro, 1959) present a heady fusion of styles, combining Brazilian folk and popular music and Baroque idioms, hence the tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach in their title. Cantilena  is the first movement of the fifth suite, here performed in an arrangement for soprano, harp, and cello.
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