Neue lied, part 1: Eingang (Entrance)

Of course I choose the song with the title “Entrance” to jumpstart the blog about neue lieder. So here we ‘enter’….(;

One of my favorite things about performing new vocal music by living composers is learning what drew them to the text. The words are the seed from which the music blooms, and as a singer, we often have to pay equal (if not more) attention to verbal nuances–their meaning, their rhythms, their resonances, their subtext– as we channel the composer’s intentions. The saying ‘prima la musica, poi le parole’ in vocal music is usually the anomaly, not the norm.

Of course, when I had the opportunity to meet with the incredible David Conte to work on his ‘Eingang’ (‘Entrance’) from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the questions I posed was ‘what drew you to this text?’. It must be said, unlike the other neue lieder in the program, this song was originally set in English translation: the original German was   incorporated specifically for this concert, with only subtle musical adaptations. For Conte, the choice was simple: it was a poem translated by his friend, poet and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. Gioia is known of course for volumes of his own poetry in addition to his affinity for classical music (in addition to his collaborations with composers, he had an interest in composing himself). So the marriage of a poetic translation of Rilke by Gioia with the music of Conte under the umbrella of friendship is a lovely one. Sometimes it is the people that guide us to a text, and that becomes the impetus for a composer to write.

Conte’s setting (in both German and English) is truly guided by the rhythm and meaning of the words.  The subtle shape and tempi changes are critical to its success and flow perfectly with the poem’s intentions:

“Wer du auch seist: am Abend tritt hinaus
aus deiner Stube, drin du alles weißt;
als letztes vor der Ferne liegt dein Haus:
wer du auch seist.
Mit deinen Augen, welche müde kaum
von der verbrauchten Schwelle sich befrein,
hebst du ganz langsam einen schwarzen Baum
und stellst ihn vor den Himmel: schlank, allein.
Und hast die Welt gemacht. Und sie ist groß
und wie ein Wort, das noch im Schweigen reift.
Und wie dein Wille ihren Sinn begreift,
lassen sie deine Augen zärtllich los…”

“Whoever you are: step out of the doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure,
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
From viewing things already to unknown,
Lift up into the dark a huge black tree
And put in the heavn’s.
Tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripeness like the words stolen your mouth, your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
Then close your eyes and gently set it free…”

The text drives the music, not the other way around. Elements of Conte’s pedigree abound (he was one of Nadia Boulanger’s students) with impressionistic textures and harmonies that feel organic yet interesting. It has a simple elegance that draws the listener to both the words and the music in way that all art song should (and is a reason why many singers love to perform Conte’s pieces. He is singer friendly and audience friendly). I feel honored he allowed me to include his piece in this program and I look forward to bringing it to a new (German) life!

In pairing Conte’s piece with an alte lied, I had many choices ahead of me, since the theme of release and freedom, entrance into a new world in love or death is ubiquitous in lieder…I took the pairing very seriously since I wanted to truly honor both text and music, and offer the audience a window into the evolution of the genre and how it remains accessible. Alas, that is in fact the entire purpose of the concert! To this end, this particular pairing is perhaps the most rebellious. (;

In choosing Webern’s ‘Eingang’ I was not simply going for parallels in title (Webern’s setting is a poem by Stefan George, not Rilke). The essence of message is similar (albeit darker), as is the direction of text in the piece, like Conte’s. However, the harmonic language of Webern, tonally and rhythmically complex, offers a stark contrast to the melodic beauty of many composers in this program. It is beauty in its own way, one to which I am drawn, but I wanted to show the audience (not all of whom may have an affinity to 12-tone music) that ‘alte lied’ in this context can be, in fact, more ‘neue’ to their ears. It’s a stark example of the freedom today’s composers have to RETURN to melody if they so choose…their palette is wider than ever, and the harmonic landscape equally diverse.  That is what makes this an exciting time for composers. The possibilities are endless. I am honored that they have allowed me to showcase their talents in this genre. We need their voices. Enter…

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