History’s worst fifty years in song

tumblr_m3nd5oo7XK1qjsaf0o1_400I guess it’s a good thing when one’s emotional and intellectual reactions to a program threaten to overwhelm one’s ability to listen analytically and evaluate.  That’s what art is for isn’t it?  Anyway that’s pretty much what happened to me today listening to a program called Songs of Love and War in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.  The songs were all pieces more or less inspired by the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century; the wars, the rise of Nazi power, the occupation of France.  These are all events that have many layers of meaning for me.  I have studied them and the music and literature they generated for decades.  I have known, often well, people who played roles in these events.  I have deeply held views.  You have been warned!

The program started off with five songs by Korngold.  In some ways that seems a curious choice as, of all the musicians caught up in the events of the 1930s, Korngold seems in so amny ways the least affected.  Sure, his European career was derailed but he moved to America and got on with a different one and never seems to have looked back.  The songs in today’s program just seem very Korngold; technically proficient but curiously soulless.  They were followed by three songs by Charles Ives; the first two to texts by John McRae.  It’s the Daily Mail version of WW1 in which the freedom loving Allies (Europe’s three largest empires and the US, fresh from annexing the Philippines) are pitted against the “warlords”. Ives’ entirely unironic settings probably reflect pretty well the superficial and hagiographic reading McRae’s texts are afforded in the Canadian education system.

In a thoroughly ironic twist the next set was largely Eisler settings of short fragments from Brecht.  Both men of course were refugees from the Nazis but both were subsequently deported from the USA for cleaving to a different vision of “freedom” from that celebrated by Ives.  Then it was on to Poulenc’s settings of two poems from the Occupation by Louis Aragon (another person who the US would happily have deported) poking fun at the germans in a typically cheeky French way plus a much darker setting of Apollinaire.  Irony doesn’t have to be unintentional.

We finished up with Britten’s setting of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth from the War Requiem.  If any combination of words and musics says what needs to be said about the events inspiring this program the War Requiem is probably it.  Had I wanted a summary in one short piece of everything covered in the preceding works I might have chosen the great closing; the setting of Owen’s real masterpiece Strange Meeting.  Still, what we got was apt.

I can’t say nothing at all about the performances can I?  In brief, fine if rather straightforward readings of the first half of the program by baritones Clarence Frazer and Ian MacNeil.  Really good work on the Poulenc, especially the wickedly playful Fêtes Galantes by Jean-Phillippe Fortier-Lazure and a fine performance of the Britten by Andrew Haji.  I wasn’t sure how he would handle the elegiac second half but it was actually rather lovely.  Fine accompaniment throughout by Jennifer Szeto.  Want me to be more analytical about the singing?  Don’t make me think so hard about the texts and music!

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