song cycle for voice and piano on poetry of James Merrill (1995)
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31 October 1995
Danny Kaye Playhouse, New York City
Charles Maxwell, countertenor / Daron Hagen, piano
voice and piano
James Merrill (E)
1. A Downward Look
3. The Instilling
4. On the Block: Mantel Clock
5. Vol. XLIV, No. 3
7. An Upward Look
In the Merrill Songs of 1995 Hagen returned to art song full force, but by this time both the composer and the mission had changed. (The songs were commissioned by William Weaver, specifically for Hagen and the countertenor Charles Maxwell, who premiered them on a Clarion Music Society concert at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse in Manhattan on October 31, 1995.) By this time Hagen (with the collaboration of the noted poet Paul Muldoon) had not only written Brow but also the Muldoon Songs and The Waking Father -- a masterpiece of choral music, commissioned by the King's Singers -- and was beginning the scabrous chamber opera Vera of Las Vegas. Consequently, the Merrill Songs are the work of a composer who has little to prove professionally, and who can simply be himself. The James Merrill texts, taken from the great poet's final, posthumously published collection A Scattering of Salts, are amazing for what they leave UN-said about the most painful of subjects: death, old age, divorce, the deterioration of the body. Hagen responds with music of extremely economy that is nonetheless full of feeling, which seeks, above all, to create a world of the poet and to let him speak. (Appropriately Hagen makes frequent use of the classicizing strophic technique discussed earlier.) Traces of Rorem's influence can still be found, but Hagen seems on a different path from that of the earlier cycles, closer to the private spirit (though not the sound) of Othmar Schoeck and late Faure. The result is a poignant landscape of life's ebbing in which we notice the slightest change: what we lose in variety we make up for in refinement.
In 'A Downward Look' the old poet seems to gaze down from heaven -- though it must be a cruising airliner, since his 'wrinkled baby hand' still controls his fate. But the image is unsettling and strong, and to match its strange serenity Hagen has written a nearly monorhythmic song whose dragging motif sounds like the tolling of a distant bell. It could almost be thought of as a mon-harmonic song as well, since each bar's sonority is based on sevenths and ninths. Next is a courtly little moonplay in an imagined theatre, the 'body' being both celestial and human and which 'shines no longer.' The piano right hand suggests a Bach invention, but the doleful thirds in the left drag it down: little Rose has grown up. Though officially in B minor and then B major, the song's tone is wistful and resigned, with only a touch of levity. Like the first song, 'The Instilling' uses an ostinato element -- a fixed rhythmic pattern with seven pitches meant to suggest an EKG on a screen -- but the word setting has a more conversational feel, allowing us to hear in a more familiar tone the sad exploration of Merrill's bodily 'Pantheon.'
'On the Block: 1' is a song about youth and age. Hagen deliberately quotes himself here. The vocal part's semi-strophic verses each begin with a quote or slight variation of the tune of Mamah Cheney's big aria from the close of Act I of Shining Brow, and uses a diminution of it in canon for the little piano interludes. Meanwhile Hagen accompanies the voice with a quote from Ned Rorem's 'Go Lovely Rose,' from The Nantucket Songs, which uses Edmund Waller's poem about the brevity and fulfillment of human beauty. Songs five and six are a pair, both being essentially accompanied recitative. 'Vol. XLIV, No. 3' supposedly concerns a magazine called 'Microcosmics Illustrated,' but really seems to depict the 'sack' of Merrill's 'Patrician cells' by innumerable viruses; adventurous vocal cadenzas are separated by grim cascades of major sevenths. In 'On the Block: 2' the piano flourish has been unleashed, and the animal breaks out of its cage, pounding away in tritones whose pitch groups have been carefully selected. Here the strophic idea has been given an interesting twist, since each of the song's three sections is shorter than the last.
'Pledge' is the beginning of the end. Hagen recalls music from his opening song to frame at both ends this story of a prim Wasp divorce set at blazing sundown. Hagen sets that scene with music appropriate to the cocktail hour but as spare as possible, permitting no enjoyment. 'An Upward Look' -- from the grave? -- makes an unequivocal conclusion to the cycle and to the disc, but tends toward the complex irony of Britten and Shostakovich. (In tribute to Merrill and Weaver Hagen has marked it 'Nobile, con dignita'.) Merrill's poem is simultaneously about resignation to death and the crucial regeneration of life, and Hagen slams out a dizzying pattern of major triads kept nailed down by the voice's firm determination. As the first song suggested bells, so does this one, with the pounding fifths of the left hand marking a funereal tread. But the song ends in triumph, and in a grand coda Hagen sets his proclamatory vocal part against a chain of twelve triads whose roots descend in altered thirds down towards the final G major. It is a last gift of order from this weighty little cycle, and leaves us wondering where Hagen will next take his proud journey of music and words.
— 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