Prof. Judith Kellock - Cornell University

Prof. Judith Kellock - Cornell University

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As part of her recital-tour of South Africa, Prof Judith Kellock, presented Masterclasses at S.A. College of Music at the University of Cape Town. It was a tremendous bonus that Peter Louis van Dijk and myself managed to get this to happen at UCT. At the invitation Prof. Virigina Davids – Head of the Voice Department at the SACM, Miss Kellock worked with students with a large range of skills, of both Under- and Post-Gradute level. Miss Kellock’s class drew substantial interest from faculty and students alike and was attended by all voice students and the full teaching faculty as well as UCT Alumni such as Belvedere Competition winner Pretty Yende. Miss Kellock’s informative class was characterised by her ability to go to the heart of what would provide the most beneficial information to each of the students in the limited time.

Miss Kellock focused on technical and expressive detail with each student. The meaning of the text and characterisation was emphasised in Lieder as well as Opera. Students were encouraged to think “outside the box” and experiment with material with which they were very well familiar. Technical themes that recurred throughout the class, were an excess of tension, muscular activity and “effortfulness” and Miss Kellock’s teaching assisted students to find a more direct approach to their performance. Very useful work included exercises to create fluid coloratura, creating meaning out of the text and French and German diction.

The students who performed were:

Sunnyboy Dladla (Tenor) – taught by Prof. Hartman – presented the taxing tenor aria “Vedro” from “La Scala di Seta” by Rossini. Sunnyboy performed the entire role of Dorvil in the Alex Fokkens/Lara Bye production earlier this year, where his comic flair and acting ability was matched by an outstanding vocal performance that won both audience and critical acclaim. Miss Kellock foccused on the coloratura runs in this aria. Her work with Sunnyboy on Rossini’s Bel Canto style contributed to his preparation for his upcoming role as Nemorino in the Cape Town Opera/UCT Production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore”.

Friedl Mitas (Soprano) – taught by Prof. Davids – sang the “Jewel Song” from “Faust” by Gounod. Miss Kellock worked on making the interpretation more relevant to the dramatic context, and found innovative ways of making the aria fresh for the singer who had  performed it many times. Friedl will be making her Debut with the Cape Town Philharmonic on Saturday 22 August in the CPO Youth Concerto Festival conducted by Theodor Kuchar.

Antoinette Blyth (Soprano) – taught by Dr. Liebl – performed “O! Quand je d’or” by Franz Liszt. As director of Cape Town’s Philharmonia Choir, Antoinette has extensive music experience as a choral conductor and voice teacher. Miss Kellock focused on aspects of breathing and tension held in the face. Most revealing was when she made Antoinette lie on her back and perform the song, as an illustration of breathing technique.

Phindiwe Nomyanda sang “Seit ich ihn Gesehen” from Schumann’s “Frauenlieben und -leben”. Work focused primarily on German diction and placing the song in context within the cycle.

Thembinkosi Mgetyengana (Tenor) – taught by Mr. Tikolo – sang Bellini’s “Ma rendi pur”. His clear voice and easily produced high notes impressed, and Miss Kellock worked on Bel Canto line and voice production. In particular, avoiding an over-active physical approach to the sound production was encouraged.

Accompanists for the Masterclass were UCT Vocal Coaches Kurt Haupt and myself Albert Combrink.

After the tremendous interest that our recital of American Song “Paper Wings” generated both in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, students and faculty members were even more keen to benefit from Miss Kellock’s knowledge and experience, and we hope to have the privilege of having her back at the SACM in future.

Libby Larsen

Libby Larsen

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Libby Larsen’s Song Cycle “Try Me, Good King” is a group of songs drawn from the final letters and gallows speeches of the first five wives of Henry VIII. Conceived as much as operatic “scenas” as a song cycle, these songs provide the ideal vehicle for American soprano Judith Kellock, Professor of Singing at Cornell University. Kellock and I will performing this cycle at the Baxther Theatre in Cape Town on Monday 3 August 2009, at 13H00.

Other works in the programme include South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk’s “Four American Songs“, Jake Heggie’s “Paper Wings”, and a selection of songs by Samuel Barber as recorded by Judith Kellock on the Koch CD label.

Soprano Judith Kellock

Soprano Judith Kellock

“To me, the human voice is the ultimate instrument.  It’s the most reflective, the most personal, the most infinite in its possibilities and the most difficult to write for. (Libby Larsen)” (Duffe)
American composer Libby Larsen (1950) has created a catalogue of over 400 works spanning virtually every genre from songs to 12 operas. Grammy Award winning and widely recorded – including over 50 CD’s of her music, she is one of those rare composers who work by comission only. She seems to be attracted to unusual source material. A quick glance at her list of vocal compositions reveal settings of a fascinating range of texts, with a special interest in women writers: Belle Star (“Cowboy Songs” – 1994), Eleanor Roosevelt (“Eleanor Roosevelt – 1996), Calamity Jane (“Songs from letters” 1989) and evenancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (“I love you through the daytimes” – 2003)
Try Me, Good King
Try Me, Good King is a group of five songs (composwed in 2000) drawn from the final letters and gallows speeches of Katherine Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Larsen chose to focus on the intimate crises of the heart that affected Henry’s first five wives. (His last wife outlived him) In a sense, this group of songs is a monodrama of anguish and power.
“Larsen meets the challenge of musically conveying a sense of these five individual women by utilizing an array of musical devices with which she draws distinct, multileveled representations. Most prominent is Larsen’s weaving of selected Elizabethan lute songs into the musical texture of each song, thus creating a foil between the sung and unsung words, a layer that serves both as musical connective tissue as well as offering thought provoking intertextuality. Each queen is given her own song, a musical embodiment of an individual heroine speaking directly to the audience, with the role of narrator or commentator assumed by the lute songs subsumed in each piece. The entire cycle is further linked with the prominent ringing of bells in each song in addition to recurring motivic and intervallic gestures.” (Eileen Strempel)
“Larsen’s signature characteristic in solo vocal music—a great proportion of which sets writings by American women authors—is a continuous, repetitive, perpetual motion figure in the accompaniment. This ostinato is comprised of a melodic figure, a harmonic sequence, a rhythmic pattern, or combinations of these elements. This is a useful device, especially when setting poetry that speaks of events that are in continuous motion, such as the wind waving grain or grass, river water flowing slowly, and moving railroad cars. She describes her compositional style as “built around tonal areas that are vaguely modal and reinforced through pedal tones in the bass. The key to my music is to hear tones that aren’t articulated and to be able to listen to low tones” (Kelton)
“Unquiet Heart”: a recital of American Artsong that includes “Try Me Good King”.
Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie

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“Dead Man Walking”, Jake Heggie’s first opera, received international acclaim and has been performed in many opera houses internationally, including the New York City Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, and others. It will make its Cape Town debut on October 16, 22 and 24 (PG 16N) in a production by Cape Town Opera. Heggie has written over 150 songs, and American Soprano Judith Kellock and I will be performing some of these in a recital entitled “Paper Wings” at the Baxter Concert Hall, Monday 3 August at 13h00. Other works in the programme include “Four American Songs” by South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk, the song cycle “Try Me, Good King” by Libby Larsen, and a selection by Samuel Barber.

When asked why he leans toward vocal writing, Heggie says: “The voice still takes my breath away. It is the most expressive, most magical instrument ever. The inspiration comes from the voice. It brings tears to my eyes when I hear a great voice. And I love American English, too. It is a very expressive language”. (Meredith Ziegler, Journal of singing, Jan-Feb 2008)

Frederica von Stade: Heggie’s muse?

Jake Heggie composed “Paper Wings” in 1997. This set of four songs was commissioned by internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade as a gift for her daughter, Lisa. The careers of Heggie and von Stade have intertwined for over 25 years and their creative alliance is marked by a series of revelatory songs and roles. He originally conceived the role of Sister Prejean in “Dead Man Walking” for her, she created the role of the convict’s mother, and she takes the lead role in his opera “Three Decembers” based on a play by Terrence McNally. Their recent collaborations include song cycles such as “Statuesque”, “Rise and Fall” and “Friendly Persuasions”. Von Stade has become a staunch Heggie supporter and ally, performing and championing his music wherever possible. He is quick to acknowledge his love and affection for her as a person and an artist. After the huge success of “Dead Man Walking”, Heggie composed “Winter Roses”, a poetic eight-song cycle based on letters written  by von Stade’s father, who died during World War II, just months before she was born. Incidentally, these letters also form the basis of the vocal symphony “Elegies”, by Richard Danielpour in the vein of  “Das Lied von der Erde”.

Paper Wings (Piano Version 1997 – Orchestral Version 2000)

1. Bedtime Story

2. Paper Wings

3. Mitten Smitten

4. A Route to the Sky

A tender portrait of the relationship between von Stade and her daughter, “Paper Wings” is a setting of poetry written by von Stade herself based on episodes from her and her daughter’s own life.

1. Bedtime Story

As a child, Von Stade’s daughter Lisa would fall asleep to her mother’s lullabies, and her favourite was the “Brezairola” from Jospeh Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne”, which her mother had sung and recorded many times. The song cycle opens with a quotation from the song, as if the mother is trying to put her child to sleep. Unsuccessfully, it seems, and she starts to tell her stories about their life. Easy lyricism is underlined by gently rocking chords. The harmonies are warm and there are resonances of Samuel Barber in the gentle melodiousness. The words are absolutely delightful, telling how little Lisa once snuck into the room with a blanket over her head, hoping that, as she couldn’t see the grown-ups, naturally they couldn’t see her. While the song is initially “about” a lullaby, it “is” not a lullaby. Brisk passages and sections titled “Startled” describe the parents’ initial surprised responses to the three year old intruder. “Oh, magic, magic child” writes von Stade. “You stayed, we smiled”.

2. Paper Wings

The second song is a story from von Stade’s own childhood in Greece, in which her nanny – confusingly named Signorina, makes her a set of paper wings with which to fly over the rooftops of Athens. A bubbly Allegretto, the song trots along in a jolly 6/8 time. It displays the same clear sense of form found in many of Heggie’s works. The first section in C minor, introduces the nanny and their life in Greece. In the gentler middle section, staccatos are replaced by flowing white notes, and the occasional colour-chromatic F# is all that disturbs the calm of C Major. New material in B Flat describes the joy and exuberance of the child pretending to fly above the rooftops of Athens (while the singer does the same above the stave!) A neat little coda which recalls the opening material, rounds off this little gem with the lightness implied by the title.

3. Mitten Smitten

Lisa did not quite know what to make of this gift from India. Unaccustomed to wearing mittens, she did not know where to put her fingers. The song uses a raised 4th to create a slightly “oriental” atmosphere and emphasises the young girl’s incomprehension of these strange artefacts. A recurring motif recalls the Hugo Wolf of “Nachtzauber” and helps to draw the listener in to the child’s world. A delightful song, I can not wait to see how its theatricality translates in performance. The composer/director gives directions to the singer to act out looking at the hands, while the piano gives perplexed and unhurried commentary.

4. A Route to the Sky

The final song of the set tells of when von Stade and Lisa were stuck on the rooftop of their house and the firemen came to get them down. A reference to Beethoven’s “Für Elise” opens the song. The influence of jazz and ragtime is felt throughout this song. Syncopation and accent on the off-beats create a playful, jazzy feel. The performer also is given liberties similar to that of jazz performers: eighth notes can be swung and notated rhythms are not intended to be sung straight. Based on a blues scale, the song has an irrepressible sense of humour. Heggie flows comfortably from the voice fo the mother to that of the daughter, and often these shifts are accompanied by clear changes of key. The daughter tells – in a sentimental and rather wistful C minor- of the exciting day that she got stuck on the roof and had to be saved by firemen. The mother’s version of the same events is rather more urgent, and in A-flat minor.

Again Heggie’s theatrical sense of shape is evident. In a presto section – with sounds conjuring up the heightened drama of American Silent Movie Music – in which mother goes after daughter, to rescue her down from the roof. At one point the singer yells “Lisa! -Don’t move!” as the sung line alone can no longer convey the intensity of the moment, and a dramatic pause marked “frozen” is very effective. A rather raunchy version of “Für Elise” describes the commotion caused by the two, and a certain starry-eyed awe at having to be saved off the roof by two trucks full of firemen!

I have only come across Heggie in small bits and pieces on recital discs of American art-song, or in large chunks, such as the very powerful “Dead Man Walking”. Thrilled as I am to be able to see this opera live in Cape Town in October, I am even more excited at the prospect of performing some of his music . And to have an acclaimed performer and expert on American art-song such as Judith Kellock to sing my first exploration of his music, is simply thrilling.

paper_wings[1] smallJudith Kellock: Brief CV

Associate Professor, M.M., Boston University, 342 Lincoln Hall, 255-3424

Soprano Judith Kellock is an active performer in recital, chamber music and concert repertory, with a specialization in contemporary music. She is a founding member of Ensemble X, Cornell’s professional new-music ensemble and performs regularly on campus in recital, oratorio, and chamber music. She has been featured with orchestras throughout the United States, including the St. Louis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Honolulu Symphony, and has performed in Italy, Greece, France and Belgium. Recent festival performances include Stockbridge Chamber Concerts, Windham Chamber Concerts, and SongFest, where she is on the performing faculty. Ms. Kellock has recordings on the Koch International, Albany, Gasparo, and Fleur de Son labels and gives frequent master classes in conjunction with her recitals world-wide.

Heggie’s new opera “Moby Dick”, was commissioned Dallas Opera. Here Music Director Graeme Jenkins lectures to SMU Music Students about the upcoming World Premiere of Jake Heggie’s latest opera and the struggles of commissioning a new production.

Jake Heggie and Frederica von Stade

Jake Heggie and Frederica von Stade

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In our upcoming concerts in Cape Town (Baxter Concert Hall, 3 August, 13h00) and Port Elizabeth on 6 August, American Soprano Judith Kellock and I will be performing a song cycle by South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk. The “Four American Songs”, set to poems by Meggan Moorhead and Sara Teasdale, is a substantial work presenting major challenges to both singer and pianist. In the composer’s list of works are many choral works, but a relatively small body of work for Voice and Piano. “Three Medieval Love Songs”, “Beyond” and “Stardrift: Four Songs” appear to be the only companions of the “Four American Songs”. Other vocal works explore instrumental ensemble or orchestral accompaniments. Van Dijk enjoys using larger performing forces. Some of his choral and orchestral works can be heard HERE. I have encountered his music as performer only in bigger settings. I was rehearsal pianist for his Aficanised realisation of Verdi’s score for Brett Bailey’s “macbEth” with Cape Town Opera – a fascinating rethink of a work. I was struck by way the music conjured up atmosphere and meaning.  I was also orchestral pianist for his “Windy City Songs” – a choral symphony set to magnificent poetry about Chicago by Carl Sandburg – and was struck by the use of core thematic material, memorable and well-constructed. Some of the themes were so haunting they stayed with the listener for a long time. Also I was intrigued by the vocal writing, which seemed to indicate a composer willing to stretch traditional approaches to the voice, without detracting from them. Definitely a work that deserves repeated hearing, some of the themes form “Windy City Songs” – in my mind at least – appear in the “Four American Songs”, either by direct quotation, or in its moving reflections on death and dying.

Peter Louis van Dijk

Peter Louis van Dijk

Here is the Composer’s own Note about the work:

Four American Songs: Péter Louis van Dijk (1953 – )

The title, Four American Songs is in no way meant to imply a Whitman- or Coplandesque-type of place-bound cycle. Instead it reflects the origins of the two poets, Sara Teasdale and Meggan Moorhead and particularly the American “feel” of many of Teasdale’s poems. American poet and psychologist, Meggan Moorhead, lives in North Carolina. In mid-2000, during a brief meeting, she gave me a hand-written copy of the two poems, There is where our breathing and Feast. Originally from a group of three poems called Requiem Exercise, I connected readily with these poems. In a letter, Ms. Moorhead explains that “…my aim is to be evocative. The context [in which these poems were conceived] was singing the Pierre de la Rue Requiem in Boston (1991) under the direction of Sarah Cunningham … I loved the sound and the process but my question to myself was – in what words would we – in this day and time – with what words would we sing a requiem… make sacred the transition – what words would we use? And that is where I started from during the week between rehearsal and performance…” The poems are used by kind permission of the author. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she attended a school that was founded by the grandfather of another great poet from St. Louis, T. S. Eliot. She later associated herself more with New York City. Teasdale – regarded as an important lyric poet, committed suicide in 1933. The poems, There will come soft rains and There is no place (original title, Bells) are used by kind permission of the University of Michigan.

Postscript: These songs were composed for my first wife, Susi van Dijk’s final Masters recital at the University of Cape Town; sadly she died before she was able to perform them and they were premiered by Hannah van Niekerk (soprano)  and Albie van Schalkwyk (piano) at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein in 2003

…with what words would we sing a requiem… make sacred the transition…

Meggan Moorhead

Meggan Moorhead

Those words of Moorhead seem to sum up the cycle for me. Dr. Meggan Moorhead is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Much of her work as psychologist has been in the area of suicide, and in particular, providing support for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide. Her accomplishments as a therapist speak for themselves, but unfortunately I could not find out much more about her poetry.

sara_teasdale small

Sara Teasdale

Sarah Teasdale, born in 1884, seems at first to be far removed from the modern pre-occupations of Moorhead. But I find it significant that Teasdale was frail and sickly all her life. Sheltered, homeschooled and over-protected, her marriage failed and she had difficulty maintaining relationships with friends. Pneumonia weakened her body and mind, and she lost the sense of the beauty of things that had inspired her early poetry. She committed suicide at 48. Her poetry reflects thoughts on the frailty of human existence and she herself writes: “Life is a frail moth flying Caught in the web of the years that pass.”

Her complete poems are available HERE and make powerful reading.

Brief discussions of the songs themselves:

The first song “There is where our breathing comes from” (Moorhead) opens with widely spaced chords that remind me of the “Windy City Songs”. The texture is thin and tension is created through obsessively repeated “heart-beat” patterns, creating, to my mind, an observer’s experience of a hospital death-bed. The transparent writing reminds at times of Schoenberg, with thematic material and figures superseding harmony.

The second song “There will come soft rains” (Teasdale) is comparatively light-hearted, musing that awareness of life and living is a particularly human preoccupation. Nature herself is “Life” that continues, and will do so even after human beings disappear physically or metaphorically from the planet. The opening figuration is so beautiful, and it’s irregular meter so catchy and memorable, that I hope this song will be performed often. The two hands have very different articulation and musical “tasks”, combining various textures – as in a proto-orchestration – giving insight perhaps into van Dijk’s compositional thinking. As I am learning the song, different sections suggest different instrumentation: Twittering woodwinds represent the soft raindrops or nature-sounds while drums and tom-toms dance defiantly at the mention of war and man’s disappearance from the planet. A final chord – “brutale”-  shuts the door decisively on mankind. A more detailed analysis of the poem can be found HERE

The third song “There is no place” (Teasdale) strongly recalls the “Windy City Songs”. Widely spaced chords with meditative repetitions usher in a reflection on the inevitability of the passing of life. Richard Strauss’ Marchallin went through the house at night stopping the clocks in attempt to halt the passing of time, or at the very least, to avoid being reminded of the ticking. Yet the subject of the poem can find nowhere in this crowded life where there are not bells that remind of the coming of the end. While the middle section of the song seems to be more defiant, using more deliberately “pianistic” figuration than in the outer sections to suggest the elation of bells, the return to sparse textures at the end reflect resignation and sadness.

The fourth and largest song “Feast” (Moorhead) makes extreme technical demands on both performers. Rhythmic complexity and virtuosic writing create a delirious affirmation of life. In figurations marked “fantastico” I hear snippets of Shostakovich dancing in the wings – perhaps the “Fantastic Dances”? Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel” occasionally makes an appearance as well. I do not yet make the connections in this poem between the literal images such as dragonflies in the garden, one’s morning cup of coffee, and the concept of Moorhead’s “Requiem Exercise”. The last rush of arpeggios certainly reflects an ecstatic abandonment, perhaps to death? Is the feast possibly an afterlife vision? Perhaps my awareness of Moorhead’s work in the field of death and dying, and my acquaintance with, and affection for Susi van Dijk, who died before she could perform these songs which were written for her, might be contributing to an over-interpretation.

I have found myself profoundly affected by the poems and the strength of the music. Learning the piano parts has been a big task, but I hope to encourage other singers to tackle this work. Juduth Kellock has an impressive discography of contemporary music. I am sure her performance will take the fear out of the “contemporary art-song recital”.

I have grown very deeply attached to these songs, and I hope they will be taken up and performed by more singers.

Albert Combrink, Judith Kellock and Peter Louis van Dijk

Albert Combrink, Judith Kellock and Peter Louis van Dijk

paper_wings[1] large

American Composer Samuel Barber

American Composer Samuel Barber

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I am preparing a group of recitals of American Art-songs with American soprano Judith Kellock, which will include a selection of songs by Samuel Barber (1910-1982). The challenge for the pianist is, of course, the difficult piano writing. As Judith Kellock and I have not yet rehearsed our recital programme, I can not comment on the symbiosis between singer and accompanist in these songs. But it is a recital for which I can’t wait. Judith Kellock’s recording of Barber Songs has been highly acclaimed and I am looking forward to performing these songs with her in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth in August 2009.

Barber is known for the famous “Adagio for Strings”, in its original form for String quartet, arranged by Barber for String Orchestra or re-shaped as a choral “Agnus Dei”. This work sums up many aspects of Barber’s compositional style: the quintessential “American Elegy”, going directly to the heart of the matter, a powerful and soaring melody and a lush texture with which to support its emotional charge. These elements are found in most of Barber’s works, including his impressive body of vocal works.  Barber’s songs have become synoymous with the American Art song, attaining the status of American classics. He wrote songs throughout his life, starting in his teens. At 14, he was enrolled into the newly formed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and a year later, his first known song, “A Slumber song to the Madonna” appeared. At 17 “The Daisies” became his first published song. His last song for solo voice and piano, “O Boundless, Boundless Evening” was written in 1972.

He wrote less prolifically in his last twenty years, but he was busy with vocal music throughout his career. Over 50 songs appear between other vocal works.

His affinity for the voice is clear. Consider operas “Vanessa” and “Anthony and Cleopatra”, along with many other vocal works  many scenas, cantatas and works such as “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (set to a text by James Agee). He also maintained close relationships with singers thoughout his life. His aunt, the opera singer Louise Homer, gave many of the first performances of his songs. Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc were friends and supporters as well as performers of his works. And at a time when large parts of the American music world was still segregated, he supported careers of young black singers such as Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo.

Barber’s music has been described as “Neo-Romantic”. He uses a contemporary harmonic and rhythmic language, but there is always a warm melodic content. His music is perhaps less “American” than, say, Copland, but then it is also less forbidding. There is always a deep passion in his writing. His seriousness as a person was overlaid with a witty mien, which his good friend and publisher Paul Wittke describes as “a defence against a deep-rooted melancholia.”  Pianist John Browning – a great interpreter of Barber – writes most beautifully: “Barber’s language is that of the poet – swift changes of mood and a pervading melancholy and loneliness conveyed on a sumptuous harmonic tapestry. There is a passionate sensuality which never lapses into cheap sentimentality or vulgarity” (Barber: The Songs, DGG CD Booklet, p10)

“Barberisms” include: • Rich orchestration and harmonies reminiscent of late romantic composers such as Rachmaninov or Strauss. • A solid grasp of polyphony. • Easy chromaticism that remains within a tonal framework. • A lush lyrical gift.

All his works contain memorable melodies. These elements fuse in his vocal works. Barber himself had many skills to contribute as an art-song composer. He was an excellent singer himself, having studied singing with Emilio de Gogorza and later in Vienna. He even flirted with a professional singing career, performing and recording as a singer, including the first recording in 1935 of “Dover Beach” for Baritone and String Quartet, a sophisticated work composed when Barber was just 21– and a beautiful performance it is. An excellent pianist, Barber studied with Russian pedagogue Isabelle Vengerova. Barber’s writing for the instrument is some of the most complex and virtuosic of the 20th Century. His Piano Concerto (premiered 1962) remains an Everest of piano technique and the Piano Sonata is considered one of the most challenging ever written. The Sonata was first performed by one of the great virtuosos Vladimir Horowitz. Here you can follow the score as you listen to the recording. The Fugue is famous for it’s demands. His songs make few concessions. Richly contrapuntal writing and filigree passages make his accompaniments a challenge and a feast for pianists.

Comfortable in various languages, Barber’s song-texts are of the highest quality. He read poetry in its original language (he was fluent in Italian, German and French) and almost never went anywhere without a volume of poetry within reach. Yet he claims to have had difficulty chosing poems, finding some to wordy or too introverted, and he always appeared to be reading poetry with an eye to it’s potential as compositional material.

Some thoughts on songs in the recital:

A Nun takes the Veil – Op.13, No.1 (Gerald Manley Hopkins) 1937

Schubertian in its purity, this song conjures up a young woman’s vision of the sanctity of a monastery. Harp-like broken chords alternate with hymnal solemnity to create a vision of spiritual ecstasy. Judith Kellock’s interpretation captures a wonderful intimate atmosphere .

The Secrets of the Old – Op.13, No.2 (W.B. Yeats) 1938

A Celtic folk-tale is conjured up in a quirky rhythm in odd-metres. It is a lovely combination of old-fashioned story-telling, the irony of which is made more poignant by the trademark harmonic bite. The bittersweet melody and contrapuntal textures reflect the new direction Barber’s music was taking after he spent two years living and travelling in Europe.

Sure on this shining night – Op.13, No.1 (James Agee) 1938

One of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, this song reminds of Robert Schumann in that the melody is echoed in a piano melody and supported by repeated chords. It has been recorded often, arranged as a choral work, and orchestrated by Barber. I enjoyed hearing Julia Metzler’s performance And of course Cheryl Studer in the now famous DGG recording of the complete songs.

Nocturne – Op.13, No.4 (Frederic Prokosch) 1940

This is another song with rich and luminous textures which lent itself to orchestration. Conjuring up the magic of night, the melody encompasses broad leaps, and some surprisingly angular intervals that become achingly tender when supported on waves of rich harmony. Despite many chromatic excursions, tonality is never abandoned and the piano filigree ripples through the water-imagery with Debussian delicacy. This song is hauntingly beautiful,  and exemplary of Barberian melancholy.

The Queen’s face on the summery coin Op.18, No.1 (Robert Horan) 1942

A much more complex Barber is encountered here. Written in the year of his “Second Essay for Orchestra” which the composer said himself reflected “that it was written in wartime”, the work uses canon and modal elements to create a work which does sit as uneasily on the heart as it does on the ear, stuck between a minor and diminished chord resolution.

Monks and Raisins Op.18, No.2 (Jose Garcia Villa) 1943

The quirky 7/8 rhythm is a perfect vehicle for this comic tale of pink monks eating blue raisins and blue monks eating pink raisins. By the time the storyteller eats both colours together one’s head is spinning with “the blue and the pink counterpointing”!

Nuvoletta Op. 25 (James Joyce) 1947

Joyce’s method of stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in some of his works such as “Finnegan’s Wake”. Barber seems to follow the text in the same manner of free association and with a tongue-in-cheek- flutter of Nuvoletta’s light dress, the music disappears, and one is left trying to make sense of the recollections. Barber claimed in a radio interview that he included a few ironic quotes from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. I am still learning this piece, and therefore I am still on the look-out for said quotation!

The recitals with Judith Kellock will include “Try me Good King”, a cycle by Libby Larsen, as well as “Four American Songs” by South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk.

Judith Kellock's CD of Barber Songs

Judith Kellock's CD of Barber Songs