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Explanation of theme

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Explanation of Theme

The theme of this spring Carnegie Hall program is painful love. Whether unrequited, long distance, untimely ended, or secret, the types of love represented by the songs on this recital are painful to each of the narrators in a profound way.

Program Notes

Henry Purcell, an English Baroque composer, began his studies at a young age as a chorister in Westminster Abbey, later attending the Westminster School and receiving the position of organist at Westminster Abbey in 1676. He began composing at nine years old and in all, composed 65 strophic songs, 148 theatrical songs, and four main operas, including the famous Dido and Aeneas. By 1690 he was considered a full time composer for the theatrical stage. “Not all my torments,” the first song of the program, comes from Purcell’s Gresham Manuscript and is said to have been written around 1693. It is one of the early composer’s most melismatic pieces and only utilizes four lines of text from an anonymous source, describing a lover’s despair at his unrequited love. The second song “What shall I do?” is derived from Purcell’s opera, Dioclesian, a tragicomedy in five acts written in 1622. The opera is based on the play The Prophetess by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. The librettist, Thomas Betterton, an English actor born around 1635, had an extensive acting career and collaborated efficiently with Purcell on Dioclesian. “What shall I do?” appears in Act III of the opera, at which point the character asks what he can to do show Aurelia, his love, the way he feels about her without pushing her away. The final Purcell song is “Draw near, you lovers,” poetry by Thomas Stanley. Stanley, English author and translator, wrote “The Exquies” in 1647, from which the text of the song is derived. The narrator describes the pure sadness he feels about his experiences with love and that even in death he feels the turmoil of his misery.

The next set of songs is by Italian bel canto composer Vincenzo Bellini. He was a child prodigy and began composing at six years old, later continuing his studies at the conservatory in Naples under Nicolo Zingarelli. Considered the “quintessential composer of bel canto opera,” he wrote 12 operas, of which La Sonnambula and Norma are considered his greatest. The four songs on this program are all considered composizioni/romanze da camera, which are songs written for the amateur singer and comparable to miniature arias, with little thought to the fusion of poetry and music. Dedicated to Countess Sofia Voina, “Il fervido desiderio” describes the narrator’s longing to see his lover. “Il fervido desiderio” is no. 1 of Bellini’s Tre Ariette. “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” number 2 of Sei Ariette, tells the story of someone who envies a rose because, unlike him, it can rest on the bosom of Nice, his true love. In “Vaga luna,” an arietta also from Bellini’s Tre Ariette – number 3 – the speaker sings to the moon of the longing he feels for his far away lover and asks it to relay those feelings to her. The final song of the set is “Per pieta, bell’idol mio,” number 5 from Sei Ariette, in which the speaker begs for his lover to not say he is ungrateful and acknowledges the pain he feels because of his love.

The piece that begins the second half of the recital, “Ah! Mio cor” from Handel’s Alcina, is sung by the character Alcina. Although the character is a soprano role, the aria can be sung by mezzo sopranos as well. Alcina is a sorceress who seduces every knight that arrives on her island and casts a spell on the knight Ruggiero, who then falls in love with her. The aria appears in Act II, Scene 1, at which point Alcina finds out that Ruggiero has escaped from her and describes her pain and unhappiness. Alcina is based on Ludovic Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, an epic poem set around the time of Charlemagne’s rule and is an opera seria consisting of a prologue and four acts. The composer, G.F. Handel, was German-born and at a young age, was already proficient on the pipe organ and harpsichord; he studied composition and the keyboard with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. Later moving to Italy and working for the Medici family in Florence, the prolific composer is best known for his numerous operas, oratorios, and concerti.

The “La Maja dolorosa” songs are derived from Enrique Granados’ Coleccion de tonadillas, written in 1910, poetry by Periquet. Granados was a Catalan born Spanish composer influenced strongly by the painter Francesco Goya and is well known for his tonadillas, which are short songs and scenes about everyday life that are written in the vernacular and not danced. These three “La Maja dolorosa” songs trace the terrible feelings a woman experiences after her lover has passed away.


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