Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mahler tooting the Youth's Magic Horn

Setting poetry to music is as old as poetry and music. I assume they were initially one and the same, integrated in the bardic or prophetic process. Then, as soon as poetry was isolated from music as pure language, I expect musicians started playing with it right away.

I think our form of the poetry score - a long poem scored as one scores a film - is a new development in this ancient exchange between artistic media. It adds a new approach, with elements of collage and a broad pallete of 20th century musical influences, but it joins a long tradition. One big part of the tradition is the classical song setting, or lied.

I have only started to learn about lied in looking for historical roots and parallels for what we do in Poetry Scores. I must admit I find much of it off-putting, for the classically trained and modulated voice so often strikes me as contrived, just the opposite of the plangent emotion I crave in poetry.

Still, I am trying to learn about this stuff - and learn from it.

Today, my ears perked up while listening to KUSC (Los Angeles), an excellent classical music station that has been our constant companion in the car during a two-week working vacation in L.A. The announcer was talking about Mahler's song settings from a text that I didn't recognize by name and couldn't follow (the title seemed to be in German).

When we got back to the hotel, after an afternoon of driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, I looked up the KUSC website and was delighted to find an updated playlist. KUSC had been spinning five of Mahler's settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poems edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published in the very early 19th century.

The performance was by the San Francisco Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and Thomas Hampson, a baritone, singing the settings. It is part of that symphony's monstrously ambitious Mahler recording project that has sold more than 100,000 CDs and won four Grammy awards, according to an August 2008 press release.

Hampson also has done a duet recording of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the pianist Geoffrey Parsons. The Listening Station on Hampson's website has their recording of "Urlicht" (Primal Light), which was one of songs I heard him do with the San Francisco Symphony on KUSC today.

An impressive database of lieder texts and information of their settings provides an English translation of "Urlicht" by Ahmed E. Ismail:

O little red rose,
Man lies in greatest need,
Man lies in greatest pain.
Ever would I prefer to be in heaven.
Once I came upon a wide road,
There stood an Angel who wanted to turn me away.
But no, I will not be turned away!
I came from God, and will return to God,
The loving God who will give me a little light,
To lighten my way up to eternal, blessed life!
I think I'll have to take a crack at setting that one myself! I think it wants to be a scruffy American folk song too!

The Hyperion Records page about its release of Stephan Genz (baritone) and Roger Vignoles (piano) performing Mahler's settings features a listening section of excerpts, with a link to a beautiful PDF of Vignoles' liner notes with new translations of the texts.

Cover to Des Knaben Wunderhorn from the University of Heidelberg.

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