Myths and Revelations

Tonight’s program in the Concert Hall Online is unique. It is unique not only within the context of this summer’s Music Academy Remote Learning Institute (MARLI), but also within the context of the Academy more generally. It is a large artistic project, a Signature Event, that has been driven at every turn by the fellows themselves; it is the rare event where the process is as fascinating as the product.

The theme of tonight’s program, Myths and Revelations, was dreamed up by Vocal Institute Director of Music John Churchwell and Creative Director James Darrah as a means of guiding the project. Their inspiration was a profound thought: that many things people believe, both now and in the past, might not necessarily equate to reality, that sometimes a revelation comes along and tears back the curtain on things once seen as self-evident. That this theme is so very broad was precisely the point for Churchwell and Darrah. They wanted to leave the fellows lots of room to maneuver within it.

Each fellow was tasked with creating a program of 5 to 8 songs that would tell their version of this story, that explained how the terms “myth” and “revelation” resonated with them in this moment. Besides this overarching theme, the only other restriction placed on their work was that the pieces should be written for voice and piano. According to John Churchwell, “the response was unbelievable.” The voice and vocal piano fellows submitted 23 individual proposals that were thoughtful, interesting, and in-depth. Clearly both theme and project resonated with them.

Churchwell and Darrah combed through the fellows’ proposals and selected the pieces that you’ll hear tonight. Each musical work has been paired with a monologue, part of Darrah’s acting classes with the fellows. Darrah also asked that each fellow take on the role of filmmaker, and tonight’s video will include their footage of their homes and surroundings, of images that inspired the project or relate in some way to the narrative being woven. Once all of this was completed, Darrah and filmmaker Adam Larsen painstakingly assembled everything into a cohesive whole. The result is nothing short of astonishing.

When I spoke with John Churchwell about this project, he excitedly relayed to me that he has never in his 20 years at the Music Academy seen an event quite like this one. The fellows had to think like storytellers, program like artistic directors, listen like recording engineers, and observe like lighting designers and filmmakers. “There’s never been a project where they had so much input and control over the final artistic product.”

There is a certain intimacy to this, deeply connecting with so thoughtful a program within the comforts of your own home. In that way, despite its uniqueness, its Music-Academy-first-of-its-kind-ness, it is also connected to a very old tradition. Art songs like those you’ll hear this evening were performed in domestic settings long before they made their way to concert stages. These small gatherings, very popular in the 1800s, were sometimes called Liederabends (literally song evenings); Schubert and his friends referred to them as a Schubertiade. They were opportunities for friends and family to gather together for the enjoyment of music and companionship. As you take your place this evening in front of your little screens, try to imagine it in this way—not as a moment of great distance, bu a moment of great intimacy. The young artists on tonight’s program, and the faculty that guide them, have worked tirelessly on this project. Welcome them into your homes and let us use this evening as an opportunity to gather “together.”

Keep reading below for notes on this program, several of which come from the fellows themselves.

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West


 

Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a 12th century Benedictine nun who defied categorization: a revered author, theologian and composer, she was deeply entrenched in mysticism and received revelations through mythic visions. Through her revelations, Hildegard saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love and felt that she could see harmony in all God’s creations. She considered music to be an important expressive medium because of its close resemblance to the voices of angels.

Her compositions challenged the traditional Gregorian chant style, enhancing the importance of both melody and text. Her melodies possess an ecstatic spirit which is deeply communicative in its own right. When combined with her thoughtful, eloquent texts the result is powerfully evocative and it is no wonder her compositions have had such staying power.

The two chants included in this project are from Hildegard’s Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum or “Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations”. The first, “Karitas habundat” is a refrain for the Holy Spirit while the second “O frondens virga” is a refrain for the Virgin.

– Sun-Ly Pierce


There is a bit of a misconception—a myth, if you will—when it comes to the songs of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). In 1889, Wolf published the first of several song collections each devoted to the writings of a single poet. In this case that poet was Eduard Mörike, whose name famously appears above Wolf’s own on the original title page. Wolf’s Mörike Lieder helped heighten the renown of the then-deceased poet, and the composer’s supposed act of modesty contributed to his reputation as “the poet’s composer.” One of the most frequently used music history textbooks describes Wolf as representing a “new ideal of equality between words and music” through his methods of “concentrating on one power…and placing the poet’s name above his own.” Wolf, in this telling, was a composer who cared more deeply than others about expressing the poet’s words. In many of his songs the music does, indeed, seem to carefully express the sentiment of the original poem. “Schlafendes Jesuskind” from the Mörike Lieder is one such example. In it the accompaniment, very frequently dense in Wolf’s songs, is stripped to its barest elements. The result is an intensely beautiful setting of Mörike’s poem, itself inspired by a painting of the Christ Child lying asleep on the cross that would someday be the instrument of his death.

Illumination showing Hildegard

But if Hugo Wolf saw music and words as equals in his songs, it was he who had the final say. It is true that Wolf painstakingly sought to express every nuance of the poems he set, but the understanding of those nuances was entirely his own. The poems with which he worked were mostly from the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth centuries, well before Wolf’s time, so his interpretations of them show the indelible mark of his own subjectivity. Scholars and musicians have sometimes puzzled over instances where Wolf’s musical settings seem at odds with the original poetry. Such is the case with Wolf’s setting of “Prometheus,” based on a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This song has often been compared to an earlier setting of the same text by Schubert, in large part because Wolf himself wrote to a friend that Schubert’s version was not “truly Goethean.” Ironically, scholars say, it is the latter version that isn’t Goethean. According to this argument, Wolf’s stormy musical setting has little in common with Goethe’s version of the Prometheus story, which focuses on his mythical role as the creator of humankind—not the story of his punishment at the hands of Zeus. These scholars argue that Wolf’s setting contradicts the ambivalent tone of Goethe’s poem, and that the composer’s work seems more in line with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1820 play Prometheus Unbound.

But those who argue that Wolf’s setting of the poem makes little sense within a Goethean context have allowed the point to sail right over their heads. It makes sense within Wolf’s context, a time wherein it would be impossible to ignore Shelley’s text and the popularity of the story of Prometheus’s punishment. The myth of Wolf as the “poet’s composer” misses entirely the fact that for Wolf each song was a new entity, and in the creation of that new entity he had as much agency as the original poet. This is not Goethe’s telling of the Prometheus myth; it is Wolf’s.

– Henry Michaels


 

Jean Sibelius

Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature, the Mother of the Seas. She is the key to the creation of the earth, and gave birth to the first human. Her story is at the core of Finnish mythology, and has long been part of an orally transmitted tradition of sung poetry. The Kalevala, Jean Sibelius’ (1865-1957) source text for this piece, is the “Essential Collection” of Finnish mythology; the Finnish parallel to Ovid’s Roman Metamorphoses or the German Nibelunglied. But unlike these two well-aged heavyweights of mythology, the Kalevala is a young work. Published for the first time in 1835, it had no ancient or revered past, it didn’t need to be updated or translated, and didn’t come with an overabundance of commentary from important scholars. Its relative youth could easily be mistaken for relative unimportance; but the Kalevala’s immediate significance for Finnish identity is a reflection of its immense cultural strength. It was hatched in a moment of deep need, when the promoters of a Finnish language-identity sought “real” Finnish art to hold in their clutches, as they attempted to shake off a past of Swedish colonial domination and a present of Russian imperial domination. The Kalevala didn’t have time to grow up – it quickly had to assume the burden of propping up a burgeoning national identity.

The Finnish were far from the only language-community struggling with concepts of independence and identity in the decades leading up to the First World War. Irish poet W.B. Yeats, a colossus of modern English literature, like Sibelius grew up with and worked primarily in the language of a colonizer. Both men also made conscious efforts to promote their traditional languages as a political identity. Yeats described the Irish-language plays in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century as “romantic and poetical because the nationalism we had called up—the nationalism every generation had called up in moments of discouragement—was romantic and poetical.” The Kalevala was for Sibelius the crucial source of this romantic and poetical nationalism. It is a uniquely Finnish source that he would return to for inspiration numerous times, a source that allowed him to state unequivocally that he would not be a composer in a German or Russian tradition, but would do his part to build a new Finnish tradition.

Today the Kalevala is seen as “the national epic of Finland,” the centrepiece of the Finnish Language Strife (“Suomen kielitaistelu”), and is tied to Finland’s independence from Russia that came almost 100 years after its first publication.

– Alexander Soloway


 

A program note from the first week of MARLI on Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) deals with the issue of how reductive approaches to history can ignore the rich context of a person’s lived experience. There is an element of the mythological in this, in the ways in which we mythologize figures from the past and in what we miss when we do so. To read that note, click here.

Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932) was a Norwegian composer, conductor, and organist who was known for his songs and choral works. In programming “Gyngevise,” fellow Eirin Rognerud hoped to expose the Music Academy’s audience around the world to one of her country’s lesser known musical figures. In Eirin’s original proposal this song, which depicts a mother rocking her child, was part of a narrative related to the mythical “Huldra,” a type of Norwegian forest spirit who sometimes kidnapped human children.

– Henry Michaels


When we were assigned the task of crafting recitals based around the theme of Myths & Revelations, I struggled for a while to find a story to tell. The stories of every culture, mythological or otherwise, have long been told by men, and many times do not speak to me or my personal experiences as a female-identifying person. For that reason, my initial fantasy of building a recital around womxn-driven mythology using only female-identifying composers and/or poets quickly became just that – a fantasy for normal circumstances where recitals take months of preparation and a global pandemic doesn’t severely limit access to non-standard repertoire.

Because I spent my childhood and adolescence in Catholic school, a particular mythology that weighs on me is the biblical story of Eve. My recital submission featured her very pointedly – her freedom and independence in Eden, her curiosity and her womanhood, and eventually her punishment for daring to explore those things. Eve inspires and intrigues me now because for most of my life I was taught to see her as a villain, whose selfish curiosity created original sin, painful childbirth, and separated humankind from its creator. But as a symbolic figure, she is actually responsible for humankind as we know it: our life and our death, all our beauty, wonder, and complicated flaws spring forth from her decision to value her own autonomy over the promise of paradise. She gave us free will.

When beginning the search for repertoire, I thought immediately of Libby Larsen (b. 1950). I have long admired her as one of the most prolific living composers of art song, and I knew she told stories that empowered womxn as both actors and singers. This song spoke to me because it featured a poet I love, and also because it painted a womxn trapped in transition, surrounded by her own amorphous emotional landscape. It evokes Eve, but it also evokes a multitude of other mythological (and real-life) womxn who faced a similar fate where they were banished or silenced for expressing the fullness of their own humanity in a woman’s body. Larsen designs a perfect musical mirror of Dickinson’s vague text; thoughts emerge in fragments, punctuated heavily by the enigma of wordless music and emotion. The words express resolve but the music remains unresolved. That juxtaposition illustrates everything I feel Eve’s myth excludes: womxn deserve for our stories to be complicated, because we are human, and humans are complex. Doubt, then certainty, doubt, then certainty, doubt – our choices perpetuate our evolution as individuals and as a species, and gives us meaning when we face the impermanence of life.

“Bind me” isn’t about Eve specifically, nor were many of the other songs I considered for this project. Instead, it uses a first-person narrative to invite the audience to witness a very human thought process play out in real time. I love imagining Dickinson’s ambiguous text and Larsen’s nebulous music through the lens of Eve because so little of Eve’s perspective exists in her own mythology. I imagine her singing this as soon as God banishes her from the Eden, feeling defiant and strong and convicted, while also terrified and determined to find Paradise again. She faces her own mortality while embracing her power. She blends the black and white edges of the world together and decides to paint herself gray. She becomes human.

– Anna Schubert


 

Painting of Eve by Louis Cranach the Elder (1528)

About the Annotators

These Music Academy fellow program note contributions are the result of new opportunities in publicly-engaged writing, a key part of our Project Resonance initiative. To learn more about Project Resonance, read the Resonance Blog’s introductory post here.