Friday, March 27, 2009

Music for the Soul: Finding Inspiration in Difficult Times

At the Market Square Concerts blog, I responded to several people who’d heard Lee Hoiby’s Sextet for Winds & Piano which the Dorian Wind Quintet & Stuart Malina played at Whitaker Center last weekend. There are several suggestions about some of his compositions that have been recorded which I highly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with his music or, having heard the Sextet, want to explore his music more.

The focus of this briefer post, no more than toe-wetting the topic, is about my finding some inspiration in music that has helped sustain me over the years. Perhaps these will also be inspiring, in these difficult times, to remind us that Art is not a luxury but a necessity, that as

Life beats down and crushes the soul... Art reminds you that you have one.
(-- Stella Adler)

One of Hoiby’s latest recordings, the Naxos collection of his songs called “A Pocket of Time,” includes a song that I’ve been listening to a lot. So I wanted to include these excerpts from that post.

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Some believe there really are only two types of music, whoever said it first – good and bad. I like all kinds of music but just because I like Elliott Carter’s music doesn’t mean I’m not going to like Lee Hoiby’s music. There are lots of modern “atonal” – gnarly, difficult – composers whose music I don’t care for just as there are a great deal of tonal – tuneful, accessible – composers whose music I also don’t care for. Perhaps a better way of delineating “good or bad” would be to say “sincere or insincere.” It’s not a degree of talent, either: it’s the ability to connect with a listener, an intangible talent that cannot be taught and which few of us learn.

As a musician always looking for reinforcement, two of the most inspiring works I’ve ever heard – the equivalent of artistic anthems crossing all national boundary lines – would be Schubert’s An die Musik (not just because it’s Schubert but anything called “To Music” should be listened to as a Daily Affirmation) – here is tenor Fritz Wunderlich with translation in the foot-notes –

...and the Composer’s Aria from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which got me through many low-points in my career. Here is Tatyana Troyanos singing it from a Metropolitan TV Broadcast in 1988 (an excerpt from the full production, the aria does not stop when it ends but immediately continues, unfortunately lopped off here).

To these, I’ve now added a third musical prayer – Lee Hoiby’s song “Where the Music Comes From,” the sixth song on this Naxos album, which I’ve listened to probably 10-12 times a day this past week. It’s not “about” music – in fact, music is only the first line – but it speaks perhaps to the importance of music as just one aspect of what sustains us. It’s the composer’s own text:
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I want to be where the music comes from
Where the clock stops where it’s now.
I want to be with the friends around me,
Who have found me, who show me how.
I want to sing to the early morning
See the sunlight melt the snow.
And oh, I want to grow.

I want to wake to the living spirit
Here inside me where it lies.
I want to listen till I can hear it.
Let it guide me and realize
That I can go with the flow unending
That is blending, that is real.
And oh, I want to feel.

I want to walk in the earthly garden
Far from cities far from fear.
I want to talk to the growing garden,
To the devas, to the deer.
And to be one with the river flowing
Breezes blowing sky above.
And oh, I want to love.
-- Lee Hoiby
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The song itself is as simple as it could be, three slightly varied strophes that begin with one of those circular accompanimental patterns that Schubert might have used to set the mood just before the voice enters. I could imagine the composer sitting at the piano, noodling around and coming up with this pattern, wondering where it could go and before realizing the clock had not indeed stopped, he had completed this song (if it took him hours of sweat to work out the details, it certainly doesn’t show).

If some of the other songs on this album – especially “The Lamb,” “In the Wand of the Wind,” and “Lady of the Harbor” along with the emotional impact of his “Last Letter Home” – hadn’t reminded me that Lee Hoiby is one of the finest composers of songs in this country, this one showed me why. It may sound no more modern than if Schubert had written it himself – aside from a characteristic modal inflection now and then – but it wasn’t written by somebody out to imitate Schubert’s style: it was written by someone who understands Schubert’s heart.

Jay Nordlinger’s witty liner notes quote Hoiby calling this “my Cat Stevens song” :-) and concludes with the observation
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“I have heard a number of singers sing Hoiby songs. But the best singer of them, I have to tell you, is Hoiby himself – even now, even in his eighties. ...More than once I have heard him sing ‘Where the Music Comes From’ which, from his throat, becomes a personal prayer: a prayer for direction and growth. Once you’ve heard him sing it, the song gets under your skin. Of course, it gets under your skin anyway, as does so much of the music of this remarkable, individual man.”
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One of Hoiby’s great champions was the soprano Leontyne Price, one of America’s greatest opera singers ever and who, early in her career, premiered Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, arguably the finest songs written by an American composer, and for whom Barber created the role of Cleopatra in 1966 for the Met-opening Antony & Cleopatra. For her, Hoiby wrote a set of songs called simply “Songs for Leontyne” which she included in her 1965 Carnegie Hall debut, a recording only recently issued on the RCA label called “Price re-Discovered.”

Two of those songs are included in the Naxos “Pocket” CD – along with the anecdote about Ms. Price and the composer performing the song “Evening” at a party. Afterward, the soprano told the composer “You played that awfully fast,” to which he replied, “That’s the way it goes, Leontyne.”

- Dr. Dick

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