Muldoon Songs

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paul-muldoon.jpg

Muldoon Songs

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song cycle on poetry of Paul Muldoon (1992)

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  • Premiere: 12 February 1992  / Friends & Enemies of Music Concert Series / Greenwich Music House, New York City  / Paul Sperry, tenor / Daron Hagen, piano
  • Instrumentation: voice and piano
  • Duration: 15'
  • Text: Paul Muldoon (E)

1. The Waking Father
2. Thrush
3. Blemish
4. Mink
5. Bran
6. Vico
7. Holy Thursday

Program note

The first song, The Waking Father is marked 'big, exuberant.' Robust four-octave-wide rolled chords and two-handed trills in the piano part signal the character's effusive nature; generous octave leaps in the vocal part testify to his conspicuous virility; rapid shifts in mood and dynamics mirror his mercurial temperament. His exterior pronouncements are in D major and occur at a tempo twice as fast as his interior thoughts, which are in F major, resulting overall in a rondo form.

Thrush is about fecklessness, mental stagnancy and impotence. A two bar accompaniment pattern in the piano skulks around e minor (the song's alleged key) but never properly settles on it before repeating ineffectually. The poem's one forceful image is that of a fist, and the song climaxes downwards on that word, marked agnosciato and sforzando. The onanistic melancholy following the climax is marked 'suddenly remote' and is given a little augmented 13 chord sting before collapsing into the whimpering two bar pattern again to close. The strophic form that results mirrors the singer's obsessive return to the same emotional starting point; the slippery harmonies highlight his emotional evasiveness and lack of character.

Next come a pair of very short songs. Blemish is a skit about a girl with one brown and one blue eye. My synesthetic reaction to B major is to 'hear' blue, and when I hear E flat major I 'see' brown. Hence, the song is bi-tonal, with these two keys alternating hands every bar. The voice part is marked 'in a single breath.' The next song, Mink is about Captain Robert Nairac, who was abducted and murdered by the Irish Republican Army in 1977 and whose body was never found. While 'Blemish' disarms the listener, this song either slaps him -- in Muldoon fashion, so long as the listener knows whom Nairac was -- or passes by harmlessly if he doesn't.

Bran is the first poem of Muldoon's that I set to music. It is a 'through composed' song. The piano begins with a rising octave and the fall of a minor third in A-flat major, as though it were a mother calling her child in for dinner as he cradles his beloved Labrador; it repeats the figure in the background as the singer contrasts his very adult impression of rapture in a lover's arms. The singer signals his empathetic adult union with his mother in measure 34 by singing the words 'who knows' to the same figure that his mother called him in to dinner with as a child. Memory and the present then join at the end when the song climaxes (with a flowering melisma) on the word 'rapture.' There's a pungent post-coital pang in measure 44 before the song ends -- not nostalgically but at peace with its intimate epiphany -- in F major.

The squirrel running on a treadmill in Vico becomes a clattering, circular, staccato ostinato in the piano (and a legato one in the voice part) that underpins the singer as he rattles off the names of life's various components. Since the vocal part, trapped as it is by its melody, cannot climax in range, the sudden forte on the words 'hand wringing' serve as the climax -- the singer's one true attempt to break out, psychologically, from the melodic and rhythmic ostinato of his 'wheel.' This song continues without pause into the final song.

Holy Thursday, along with the weight that it carries as part of the Church calendar, is a firsthand description of a couple's after-hours breakup in a closed restaurant. The two-measure chord progression that is varied throughout is an allusion to the two-bar bridge of Gershwin's 'The Man I Love,'which I imagine to be playing quietly in the background '- perhaps on a radio in the kitchen. There are two climaxes: the first is on the word 'over' and the second is a counterbalancing melismatic 'release' on the word 'smiles' as the progression (after moving through a number of keys with the singer as he describes the situation) returns to the opening key of E-flat major. The cycle ends with a murmur as the character sings the poignant word 'absence' on a low B flat.

Commissioned by Paul Sperry, the Muldoon Songs were composed in 1989 at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and at the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was first performed 12 February 1993 on a Friends and Enemies of Contemporary Music concert at the Greenwich Music House in New York City by tenor Paul Sperry, accompanied by the composer.

Reviews

Composed in 1989 for tenor Paul Sperry, these settings of six poems by Irish poet Paul Muldoon form a cycle that centers on the experience of loss. The various kinds of loss -- of relationships, of perfection, of life, of youth -- are seen and experienced in unusual imagery that hints at the reality behind the scene. The vocal lines are quite lyrical in spite of featuring many octave leaps. The melodies are patterned and frequently repetitive, containing numerous different rhythmic diversions for word stress. The setting is mostly syllabic with a few slow melismas, and there are many dynamic and expressive markings. The tenor who sings this cycle will need a solid and warm low B, as it is frequently used, and the cycle ends softly on a low B-flat. The piano parts are mostly chordal in structure and supportive in nature with frequent counter-melodic interplay with the vocal line. Frequent key signature changes in Holy Thursday will require attention. This would be good recital material for a senior or graduate tenor with a solid command of his range from B-flat(3) to A-flat(5) and an understanding of the poetry.

--- Judith Carman, NATS Journal of Singing, January/February 2001, Volume 57, No. 3, pp. 75-76.

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 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

(Banner photo: Paul Muldoon)

Gilda Lyons and Daron Hagen perform Hagen's setting of "Holy Thursday" on the Phoenix Concerts in NYC. 

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon

Premiere recording on the Arsis label.

Premiere recording on the Arsis label.

Anthologized in the Hagen Songbook

Anthologized in the Hagen Songbook