Three Early Cycles

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Three Early Cycles

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Echo's Songs, Love Songs, Dear Youth

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“This anthology contains three vocal works: two song cycles for soprano and piano and a petite chamber work for soprano, flute, and piano. Although these are early works in Hagen’s musical output, Echo’s Songs (1982), Love Songs (1988), and Dear Youth (1991) already contain the musical fingerprints of Hagen’s writing for the voice—characteristics that continued to develop and flower in his later song cycles and operas. They represent a revealing early retrospective of one of America’s distinguished composers. Composers of art song are very literate people, and are usually voracious readers. They love words, for those are their stock in trade. Art songs are fueled by poetry and it is a composer’s duty to discover the inner life of the poem he is setting to music. Daron Hagen possesses an uncanny talent along these lines. His poetic choices are diverse but always fascinating, and he sets them to music carefully and with an unerring sense of prosody.” -- Carol Kimball, from the foreword

COMPLETE CONTENTS INCLUDE:

Echo’s Songs, song cycle for voice & piano (1983)   

  • Never Pain To Tell Thy Love (William Blake)
  • I Am Not Yours (Sara Teasdale)
  • A Dream Within a Dream (Edgar Allen Poe)
  • Echo’s Song (Ben Johnson)
  • I am Rose (Gertrude Stein)
  • Lost (Carl Sandburg)
  • why did you go? (e.e. cummings)
  • Since You Went Away 9 Shu Chi’siang, trans. Kenneth Rexroth)
  • Thou Wouldst Be Loved (Edgar Allen Poe)
  • Look Down, Fair Moon (Walt Whitman)
  • The Mild Mother (Anon, 16th c.)

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.

"Never Pain to Tell Thy Love," from Echo's Songs

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


Love Songs, song cycle for high voice & soprano (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)

"Washing Her Hair," from Love Songs

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


Dear Youth, song cycle for soprano, flute, & piano (1990)

  • The Bonnie Blue Flag (Annie Chambers Ketchum)
  • I stop Again (Hannah Ropes)
  • The Picture Graved Into My Heart (Hannah Ropes)
  • The Trouble Was Tom… (Anonymous)
  • The Lord Knows (Ann Smith)
  • O, For Such a Dream (Ann Smith)
  • Christmas Night (Martha Ingram)
  • Silently Dispersing (Mary Boykin Chestnut)

Hagen is a confirmed Civil War buff, and after considering and rejecting the prospect of a cycle on a war poet like Whitman, decided to set excerpts of letters by American women of the era who were directly or tangentially involved. (Significantly, Hagen composed the piece at the Virginia Center for the Arts, a short distance from some of the largest battles of the Civil War.) In some ways it is an idealized family parlor piece of the time -- Cousin Ann joins in on the flute -- simple and polite. But the expert musical treatments of the texts give them a layered richness they could never have had originally, and the result is a work of generous humanity, comforting and wise.

The second and third and fifth and sixth songs are two deliberate pairs, each of a prelude and concert scena, linked by common authors; the fourth song is an intermezzo, the seventh a nocturne; and the eighth, a scene from the last days of the war, is an understated but powerful finale which redevelops the first song's material. That song is 'The Bonnie Blue Flag': it uses a patriotic text by the lyricist Annie Chambers Ketchum, who presumably roots for the Confederate side. Hagen himself has called its text a 'rabble-rousing recruitment song,' but his setting gives it a hazy Ivesian distance, not only in the stacked fourths and fifths of the piano's harmony but in the way Hagen makes a collection of discrete compositional elements sing with a single voice. The vocal part is straightforward enough to almost be a popular song of the time -- something true of most of the tunes in the cycle -- but contradicts the stated seven-four time signature by being clearly heard in four-four. The song's second half has a softer, gentler tone, but still lets the singer 'rally' up to a high B flat, the vocal apogee of the cycle. The result is a song which lays the groundwork for the whole set by undercutting the optimism of the text and preparing us for a more realistic treatment of the war.

'I Stop Again' and 'The Picture Graved Into My Heart' are both on texts from letters of Hannah Ropes, a famous wartime nurse. The first is a calm and intimate duet for the soprano and flute, taken up entirely with scalar transformations of a four-note motif heard at the outset; the composer gives the last three words an optimum of harmonic tension. The motif's shape persists into the opening of 'The Picture's' accompaniment, which turns out to be a quote from 'Oh, I'm a Good Old Rebel' to the tune of 'Joe Bowers,' a popular ballad from the 1860's: its strands in the flute and piano start out in strict canon but free up once the melodic shapes become established. The scene is that of a nurse's bedside record, and the decorous modesty of the song aptly reflects the speaker's tone. The tempo quickens and the harmonies take warmth in the central section, as the speaker's heart moves, almost imperceptive, from pure sympathy to an admixture of sensual response: it is a measure of Hagen's humane musical reaction, as is the quick recovery to a more correct mood of mourning at the end. 'The Trouble With Tom' provides some needed comic relief, using a Bernsteinian mixed-meter scherzo mood to tell a queer tale of three people inconveniently in love with one an other. The piccolo makes chirpy gossip, dovetailing in and out with the voice.

The fifth song is an introduction for the sixth, both on fragments of a letter from one Ann Smith to her husband David, 'Aug. 16, 1864'; they form a more dramatically intense counterweight to the pair of Ropes settings heard earlier. 'The Lord Knows' is marked 'Freely effusive,' but as Paul Kreider has pointed out, 'strict adherence to the rhythm is vital' for effective performance. It quickens on 'restless,' gets kittenish with a naughty B flat blue note on 'I wouldn't care,' jumbles its rhythms confusedly on the next sentence, then waits out a bar before having the singer responsibly recover her social voice ('At least I hope...'): Hagen has truly caught the life of the words. It continues directly into 'O, for Such a Dream,' perhaps the most moving song of the cycle. The lonely wife seems to accompany herself at the keyboard, with the flute playing the role of her absent husband -- it has a folk-opera mood. The harmonic idiom at the start couldn't be more basic, but becomes enriched as the singer's thoughts grow more intimate, with the flute quickening its pulse to a state of rapture, an imagined consummation. We then pull back from the brink to 'the reality of absence,' and to a tragic reinterpretation of the opening music.

In 'Christmas Night' poor Martha Ingram writes to her husband George. The vocal part's tendency to sound out of tune by constantly changing key is most effective, as it communicates not only the lonely desolation of the speaker but her poverty as well (the text is full of pathetic but evocative misspellings.) The slithery, quasi-serial flute part, always finding its way back to the pitch D, sounds like a strange animal circling the house. In the last song, we come full-circle: the orgiastic promise of the first song has turned to bitter gall. The flute motif from 'Christmas Night' has transformed itself into a melodic expression of the piano arpeggios of the first song, and the piano's right-hand thirds come back, too. They try to ascend into a weary, chromatically inflected C minor, as the voice part quits its sorry task. Daron has never spoken of Schubert as an influence, but surely the static form and ghostly tread of 'Der Leiermann,' the finale of Winterreise, haunts this little scene.

Dear Youth was commissioned by the trio Sonus (soprano Robin Bourguignon, flutist Billie Witte, and pianist Randall K. Sheets) and premiered by them on 10 March 1991 at the Dumbarton Methodist Church in Baltimore.

— Russell Platt, 1997

 


Echo's Songs


Love Songs


Dear Youth


All three cycles received their premeire recordings on Arsis in 1997.

All three cycles received their premeire recordings on Arsis in 1997.