song cycle for high voice & piano (1987)
- I am Loved (Gwen Hagen)
- Little Uneasy Song (Reine Hauser)
- Ah! Sun-Flower (William Blake)
- Lost Love (Ze’ev Dunei)
- Washing Her Hair (Sarah Gorham)
- Requiem (Ze’ev Dunei)
- The Satyr (Gwen Hagen)
- Sonnet After a Story by Oscar Wilde (Gardner McFall)
The cycle Love Songs (1984-87) was premiered on April 29, 1988 by soprano Carol Chickering and pianist Robert Kopelson at CAMI Hall in New York City, on a concert of Perpetuum Mobile, a new music series Hagen ran throughout the 1980's. The texts Hagen chose are all contemporary but for William Blake's Ah! Sun-Flower, but its inclusion sets the tone for the cycle: this is truly a voyage from innocence into experience, with the McFall Sonnet a grand postlude. The set is inscribed as a gift "for Ned Rorem, on his 63rd birthday," but it is as much a declaration of independence as a tribute to an older master. How appropriate that the cycle's opening flourish in I Am Loved should take off from the motif which opens The Dancer, the last song of Rorem's great cycle The Nantucket Songs. Hagen's chordal pattern is a different one, but the debt is clear; Hagen contrasts repetitions and developments of the motif with quieter sections in warm, patient harmony, and brings it back triumphantly at the close. Hagen's text, a diary entry of his mother's, is all optimism, the fervent love of a young marriage; the final, parlando exclamation is a kind of signature appropriate to this confidential message.
The Little Uneasy Song of poet Reine Hauser (its dedicatee) is marked 'Drowsy,' and Hagen sets the scene with an ostinato -- an effective symbol for nature's indifference to the poet's ruminations -- and with a cozy scheme of third-related triads dominating the harmonic fabric. The song opens up in the middle section, the piano moving faster while the voice/protagonist sings in broader, grander gestures; her defense of romantic innocence ("I just want to hear the sun's sweet sound") is genuinely touching. Blake's Ah! Sun-Flower" is deceptively friendly, an accompaniment pattern of freely constructed open fourths and fifths clouding the G major harmony until the close.
A mood of encroaching gloom is heightened in the next three songs. Lost Love and Requiem are highly physical love poems, fashioned in the strangely evocative high-school English of Ze'ev Dunei, an Israeli news cameraman whom Hagen met at Yaddo. The first features a subtle development of C minor and E major tonalities while the second is directly bitonal, with a constant mixture of E and B flat major triads, joined in its opening piano gesture. (This tritonal clash was a major structural element of Hagen's opera Shining Brow, where it symbolized the conflict between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his lover Mamah Cheney.) Both offer generously sensual word setting -- the low plunge on 'big water,' the drawn out rhythms of remembrance still smelling 'the fresh coffee' -- and trace a formal method which Hagen will use not only in the concluding 'Sonnet' but in the Merrill Songs: telling a story in song by way of a miniaturized strophic technique, in which phrase sections have similar beginnings but varied developments. The centerpiece of this group, Sarah Gorham's Washing Her Hair, has a casual, conversational feel, but we are gradually made aware of illness, a family scene loving but tense. The vocal part moves in close intervals and is highly syllabic in word setting, while Hagen's accompaniment is sketched in warm, jazz-inflected extended triads.
The Satyr, to another Gwen Hagen text, is an intermezzo, rough and fast: the young bride's optimism has collapsed into a mood of biting satire. Hagen instructs the pianist to play "atop the keys," in the manner of a prancing debauch, and the harmony is astringent, except for a delicious and deliberate eleventh-chord cliche. With all hope lost, the final Sonnet asks, How are we to live? Fully, Hagen and McFall respond, no matter what. The tempo scheme and the carefully timed double climax suggest a three-part form, but the song is actually through-composed in that Hagen takes his opening piano idea into ever more interesting developments. What starts as sexy seventh-chord Poulenc ends up being infected with the sumptuous Straussian disease of dissonant polytonality -- Germanic shame and French savoir-faire uneasily coexist. In the cycle's final bars major triads descend from above in the manner of Der Rosenkavalier, but the sweetness is mixed with pain, as an A sharp (B flat) poisons the E major close, struggling to the last.
— Russell Platt, 1997
(Banner photo: Gwen Hagen)