Blue, Black, and White Abstraction no.12 - G. O'Keeffe
If I tell you that our week’s guest composed about five hundred songs, plus three symphonies, ten operas, ballets, incidental and chamber music, you might think of a Romantic composer. Nevertheless this composer wrote most of those works during the second half of the 20th century and his last opera was premiered in 2005. Today, then, we are talking about Ned Rorem, born in the USA on October 23, 1923 who is about to be 90 this year.
Rorem is passionate about Art Song to such a degree that he says he has written other genres just due to his own sense of duty and he was supposed to do so. His most important cycle is the one I present to you a work composed and premiered in 1998 to celebrate his 75th anniversary. For a long time, Rorem had been dreaming of writing a great cycle of songs for four voices and piano, and this commitment was his opportunity to make his dream come true; that's how Evidence of Things not Seen was born. If you are curious about this name, it comes from a verse of the Letter to the Hebrews (New Testament): "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
As I said before, the cycle is for four voices: soprano, mezzo, tenor and countertenor, but not every song is for the quartet. Out of thirty six songs, eighteen are solos, six are duos, three are trios and eight, quartets. As for the texts (poems and prose), they are from twenty four different writers; the oldest is written at the middle of the 18th century, the newest at mid of the 20th century. We can find texts by Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, A.E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling or Colette, in fact, the authoress of the text of the song we are listening to in this post. About the disparity in authors and ages, Ned Rorem says:
"A composer always has musical ideas or he wouldn’t be a composer, but when he proposes to link these abstract ideas to concrete words—words by authors who never asked to be musicalized—he must find words which (at least for him) need to be sung. If these words are intended for a cycle rather than for a single song, then there must be a sense (at least for him) of inevitability in their sequence, because the same song in a different context takes on new meaning. If the chosen words are by different authors, then these authors must seem to share a certain parenting (at least for him) even though they may be separated by centuries."
As you can see, the cycle is pretty complex. Rorem divided it in three parts: Beginnings, songs about new ways in live, optimism, love; Middles, songs about the horror of war, disappointment, aging, and Endings, songs about death. To Rorem's amazement, the premiere in New York was a success. The premiere in Europe was in Oxford eleven years later, in 2009 and was performed by The Prince Consort.
The song I've chosen is On an echoing road, belonging to the last part of the cycle, Endings. The English text is a version of the last words from L'étoile vesper, by Colette:
Sur une route sonore s’accorde, puis se désaccorde pour s’accorder encore, le trot de deux chevaux attelés en paire, guidés par la même main. Plume et aiguille, habitude de travail et sage envie d’y mettre fin lient amitié, se séparent, se réconcilient....Mes lents corsaires, tachez à aller de compagnie: je vois d’ici le bout de la route.
We are listening to the soprano Anna Leese and the countertenor Tim Mead, accompanied by Alisdair Hogarth (the three of them members of The Prince Consort). Don't be put off by the recent date of this composition, we have already listened to a song premiered one year later, Das Paradies
by Henze (1999), and many told me that you liked it. On the echoing road
is a song not only easy to listen (and I wouldn't say the same for all Rorem's songs) but also it brings about a beautiful effect with the two voices joining and separating just like the path of the two horses the text describes.
On a echoing road
On an echoing road, trotting in unison, now out of step, now as one again, are two horses saddled together, guided by a single hand. The needle and the pen, the habit of work and the sly urge to quit the habit, make friends with each other, then separate, then reconcile again.... O my slow steeds, pull now together; from here I can see the end of the road.