ten songs for voice and piano (1983)
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17 January 1983
Curtis Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Karen Hale, soprano / Daron Hagen, piano
voice and piano
William Blake, e.e. cummings, Sara Teasdale, Edgar Allen Poe, Ben Johnson, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg, Shu Chi'siang [Kenneth Rexroth], Walt Whitman, Anon. 16th c. (E)
1. Never Pain To Tell Thy Love (William Blake)
Listen to an interview with Daron Hagen and a performance of Look Down, Fair Moon at Thomas Hampson's Song of America website by clicking here.
There is tragedy in Echo's Songs, as in the final two songs, but the temporal distance of the texts (all the poets are long since deceased) gives it an idealized tone. The Whitman and Sandburg texts have probably been used by hundreds of young composers for student songs -- the difference being that Daron's actually hold the stage, and have retained their charm. Some of them must have been assignments from Ned Rorem while Hagen was a student at the Curtis Institute -- though with Rorem you were always expected to assign yourself, as Daron certainly did.
The first song, Blake's 'Never Pain to Tell Thy Love,' has a warmly elegant but anguished mood not too distant from that of another Curtis master, Samuel Barber, whose operatic vocal style is evoked in the final phrase; as the text intensifies, there is a limited use of bitonal sonorities. Another English setting, that of the Ben Jonson poem which gives the suite its title, is bluesy yet chaste, in a blurry E flat major, while the spare, bright textures of 'I Am Not Yours' have an oblique charm that gives tactful distance from Sara Teasdale's slightly overheated text. The two Edgar Allen Poe settings are among the earliest in the set -- indeed, Hagen has acknowledged that 'Thou Wouldst Be Loved' of 1979 as his first art song, written as a junior in high school. This song is nothing if not the product of a typical Midwestern boyhood of Lutheran hymns and afterschool music theatre productions, but already the details hold up: the way a simple parallel chord progression (suggested by Blitzstein) will repeatedly close a phrase, and in the ironic parlando setting of the last few words -- questioning whether love is as simple a 'duty' as the poet says it is. A touch of cocktail piano remains in the 1981 setting of 'A Dream Within A Dream,' but it is a more sophisticated song in every way, a deft and poignant development of a single idea in which the voice and piano converse with one another.
The fifth and sixth songs also form a pair, being charmingly cool deployments of technique. Hagen of course knows Rorem's famous setting of Gertrude Stein's 'I Am Rose,' so he went about making his own version in a completely different way. Rorem's little girl, with her sensual knowledge melodically expressed, is on the verge of womanhood, but Daron's hasn't gotten braces yet. The vocal part is fixated on D, like a toddler still learning words, and the piano part, officially in four-four time, actually splits its notes into dancing groups of three -- it could be a Bach invention, a game of hopscotch, or a Scots jig. As 'I Am Rose' is in pure G major, so 'Lost' is set in a white-note A minor just this side of Les Six. A chain of desolate falling fifths begins in the high right hand of the piano and continues into the depths; the pathetic main image of the poem ('like some lost child') is made memorable in a repeated four-note motif.
The tiny settings of e.e. cummings and Shu Ch'i-siang couldn't be more spare, and are Asian in spirit or in fact, being intense examinations of cherished little objects. (Yes, Daron is a cat lover.) The setting of 'Look Down, Fair Moon' has the stridency of Kabuki incantation, with a highly disciplined vocal line dominated by reverse dotted rhythms. The framing device of the piano arpeggio is reminiscent of certain passages in Rorem's 1969 War Scenes, but the song takes on an added interest when we compare it to Rorem's 1957 setting of the same poem. That setting, in its purple lushness, mourns for the beautiful young dead, while Daron's, in its numbing ritual, ironically infers that the same scene will be repeated again and again. It segues into the final song, on the anonymous medieval poem 'The Mild Mother,' one of the suite's most impressive numbers. Its use of quartal harmony, unique to the piece, as well as the short-long rhythms of the piano part allude to Messiaen, though his rigid Catholic spirit is filtered through the smoky ease of American jazz. The soprano's line is slung low, as if carrying a heavy load, though her anguish is tellingly expressed in the octave glissando and the strongly marked notes of her final words.
The songs were first performed on 17 January 1983 in Curtis Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Karen Noteboom was the soprano soloist, accompanied by the composer.
— Russell Platt, 1997
There is great craft to writing art song and Hagen possess all the necessary skills. He chooses texts judiciously, respectfully. He aims to enhance, not obliterate. Most of these songs were haunting, fleeting quivers of moments and sensations -- the resignation of two lovers to the end of their affair, the oppressive emptiness remaining after the death of a son. Hagen freeze-framed them all with the lightest of compositional brush strokes. A composer who can crystallize a moment in musical magic is a rarity. Expect to hear more of Hagen."
--- Mark Carrington, The Washington Post, 3/7/94
Hagen is emerging as one of the most significant vocal composers of his generation. His songs ... show a composer [who possesses] economy, mastery of form, deep respect for his texts and awareness of the strengths and limits of the soprano voice.
--- Joseph McLellan, The Washington Post, August, 1997
Hagen's sophisticated songs remind me somewhat of The AIDS Quilt Songbook and deserve to be heard just as often.
--- Lovelace, American Record Review, Nov-Dec 97
Hagen's songs are somewhat less conservative and more adventurous than those of [Ned Rorem's]. This does not mean that they are by any means inaccessible; just the opposite is true. They merely present more interesting vocal and musical challenges at times. Throughout, listeners can pick up traces of jazz idioms and occasional hints of Broadway, leaving a distinct impression of Americana on the ear. Hagen's pianistic writing is inventive and reminiscent of the great Romanticist composers, ranging from Schubert to Strauss. His piano parts also are often technically challenging, lavish and exuberant. Never, however, does the composer let them overwhelm the singer. Like the compositions of all major song writers, the expression of the text is preeminent, and the vocal line is always clearly defined.
--- NATS Journal of Singing, January 98
[Hagen] is a confirmed Romantic, writing in a lush tonal idiom with the emphasis centered firmly on the often demanding vocal line. In addition to calling for considerable range, the vocal lines are often lightly melismatic and have a distant relation to hymns, at least to my ears. His prosidy is good, and he is often an inspired melodist.
— John Story, Fanfare Magazine, November / December, 1999