Thursday, August 29, 2013

Six Elizabethan Songs by Dominck Argento

In the spring, I was introduced to the first song in this cycle ("Spring") and fell in love with the music. With a recital coming up later this semester, there is a possibility that we will program the entire cycle. I thought it would be a good idea to learn a little more about the work and put some initial thoughts on paper before I get music in hand.

Dominick Argento was born in 1927 and is considered one of the leading American composers of our day. Argento studied at both the Peabody Conservatory and Eastman School of Music, earning a PhD at Eastman in 1957. The composer has given us 13 operas and was one of the founders of Minnesota Opera.  In 1958, Argento was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent the year in Florence.  It was in this year that Six Elizabethan Songs was first published for high voice and piano; the work was revised in 1962 for soprano and Baroque ensemble.

The text of the cycle is somewhat unusual for Argento since it is taken from traditional poetry. Other works use diary entries and letters written by various composers. In this celebratory year of the English composer, Benjamin Britten, I found it especially interesting that two of the texts Argento uses in this work appear in Britten's oeuvre as well:  "Spring" shows up in Britten's Spring Symphony while the poem by Ben Johnson featured in "Hymn" is used in Britten's Serenade.

In order to acquaint myself with the entire cycle, I found a recording on YouTube and made a few notes. I'll be interested to examine a score and compare my initial perceptions with the reality of the printed music.

The first of the six pieces is "Spring." The song features an active accompaniment that is punctuated by crisp, detached octaves in the bass. With a charming middle section, this opening piece is exciting and pure fun for the singer and pianist.

"Sleep" follows with beautiful harmonies centered in the lower register. An aggressive middle section arrives unexpectedly, marked with sharp and chilling passages in the right hand against a legato vocal line.  "Winter," the third piece of the cycle, sounds as though it may be the most virtuosic of the set. The song's opening with an unaccompanied vocal line sets it apart from the others of the cycle.

Although "Dirge" is one of the simpler songs of the cycle, I was strangely drawn to its mystery. The chords are simple, reminiscent of church bells. The chords reinforce the dissonance between the piano and the voice and seem to make use of tritone relationships throughout.  "Diaphenia" returns to the joyful sounds of the opening song; its fast sequential passages are similar to "Spring" and were not that interesting on first hearing. One of the challenges the cycle will present is establishing clear differences of mood between "Spring", "Winter", and "Diaphenia."

The closing "Hymn" presents another challenge. With its chordal accompaniment that is often constructed in two-note phrases, it will require some careful planning to insure that the piano's melodic line remains in tact despite the interruptions that occur due to rests and/or sound decay.

Perhaps the most challenging ensemble issue for Six Elizabethan Songs will be found in the attempt to maintain the desirable balance between voice and piano. Whether because of the rapid passages, low piano registers, or thickly textured chords, constant attention will need to be given to the piano's dynamics in relation to the singer.