The Towson University voice teacher and soprano talks about little-performed 20th-century voice works
Perhaps you grew up listening to classical music. This set of ears didn't. In fact, it wasn't until those ears entered the back door of classical composition through 20th-century composers such as John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and various INA-GRM personalities that they started realizing there were centuries of sounds they not only hadn't heard, but had little to no knowledge about at all. So you're always playing catch up: Music performers in your peer group typically have been paying attention since grade school, and when striking up conversations with people sitting next to you at a symphony or Peabody Institute performance, you realize you're often well out of your league. Heaven forbid your ears have you appreciating music that is rarely performed, or not really part of the traditional repertoire--chances to hear it performed go from infrequent to not at all.
Such is the case with 20th-century vocal works. A vast and varied field--which can encompass everything from Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Charles Griffes to Olivier Messiaen, William Flanagan, Harry Partch, and Anton Webern--they're not always pieces you get a chance to hear that often. Which is what makes the Feb. 5 recital featuring soprano Theresa Bickham and pianist Rachel Roulet so refreshing. Bickham, a Maryland native and professor of voice at Towson University's Department of Music, has put together a concert featuring early-20th-century vocal works, including Alban Berg's Sieben FrA╝he Lieder ("Seven Early Songs"), Francis Poulenc's Airs chantAcs, Benjamin Britten's On This Island, and excerpts from Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. City Paper caught up with Bickham at Towson's Center for the Arts to talk about the recital.
City Paper: I'm not going to try to say I know all that much about 20th-century vocal pieces and song cycles, but I know it's very, very vast and that they don't enter the mainstream repertoire all that often.
Theresa Bickham: Yes--especially the Berg, I would say. The Berg [set] is really interesting because they're his first set of groups of songs. They're from 1907, and he had been a student of Schoenberg by that point, but the set, the Seven Early Songs, are more like Schumann.
CP: They are very early, and you can hear some of the more, for lack of a better word, romantic notions alongside the Schoenberg--which is a very different thing for Berg.
TB: Exactly. There's one song that has more of the 12-tone going on, that's the first piece, but most of them are very romantic, a lot of Strauss in it, even some Debussy impressionism. The texts themselves are very sensuous, so you've got all of that sort of romanticism in it, but unlike Schumann and Schubert, this is actually more of a physical sensuousness. Very thick piano, very dense--very, very dense, both in the voice and the piano. Lots of unique patterns and rhythms, too.
CP: So what attracted you to this group of Berg songs?
TB: I had done two of them as an undergrad and had always just wanted to go back. And in grad school I heard the whole set. They were orchestrated at some point in the 1920s, and I had heard them with orchestra. And I had done the Strauss Four Last Songs at that time, and so I just knew that I wanted to move on to the Berg, which felt like, to me, the next step. The recital is called "My Favorite Things" because they were song cycles I wanted to learn. And Seven Early Songs has always been on my list of, When I get a chance I'm going to do a recital, and I'm going to do these pieces.
The same with the Britten. I always thought, Oh, those would suit me very well. All of these sets are very early for each composer. Britten wrote these in '37--very early, they were, like, his second cycle. Well, they're not actually a song cycle, because a song cycle would imply there's some sort of theme, or musical theme, and these are actually five little vignettes.
CP: And they're all [W.H.] Auden text settings, right?
TB: Yes. And the first two and the last two are from Look, Stranger!, which is also called "On This Island" at times, and the middle one, "Nocturne," is from a play that he wrote with Isherwood--The Dog Beneath the Skin. So that's a little bit different from the other. And the first one has a lot of baroque and Handel feeling in it, but the last one is very jazzy.
CP: That's one of the things I've come to like about Britten. While he was kind of popular--not that an opera like Peter Grimes was a Gilbert and Sullivan airy entertainment, but it was performed and is still performed and people see it--but he had big ears and had broad ears, and a number of those ideas comes into play in this piece particularly. And On This Island is, for him at this time, a rather economical approach to what he's doing.
TB: Very much so. I think they're really unique. The texts are really interesting. For Auden, they're a little less accessible--to me, at least, when I read Auden. Some of these are a bit harder to see. Some of them are really satirical. Some of them are about different forms of love.
CP: I have to admit I'm not familiar with the Poulenc piece you're doing at all, because, well, there's so much Poulenc out there I've really barely scratched the surface.
TB: Yes, he is so vast. The Poulenc is really funny. They're poetry by [Jean] Morea, and [Poulenc] was commissioned for these pieces, and he hated the poetry. So he wrote these four pieces very quickly and very against his will. And you can hear that in the music. You can tell by word settings.
CP: Well, he was very witty and prone to be a little subversive at times.
TB: Yes, he was. They're actually very beautiful pieces of music. And they're done a lot by students, because they're quite accessible. They're short--the whole set is about eight minutes long. They're high--they're all pretty high, so really suited for high soprano. Most are energetic--they're three fast ones and one slow one. And his settings, for instance, he'll set the music "de la . . . . ," putting the emphatic high note on the "the" and less important note on the important word. And he does this throughout the setting. He'll make the piano have a forte and really dense texture while the voice is in middle voice and singing quarter notes or something really light.
CP: Is that difficult? Not so much technically, but just because it's so irregular to how a text might be set, where you have to get used to what he's doing?
TB: Yes, you have to really look at what he's doing, but he makes it easy for the voice. He's such a good writer for the voice, so they're very easy in that respect. But between myself and Rachel, we have to play with different parts to make it work. But that's all that's really known about these particular pieces because he just didn't like them. So there wasn't a lot of research done about them, they were very quickly written, but they're done a lot--especially at recitals. They're quite tonal, they have standard forms, and they're fun--they feel good to sing. And the texts are--they're not bad.
CP : You don't dislike them as much as he did?
TB: Exactly, but maybe his tastes were much more discerning than mine [laughs].
And then, I'm going to finish the recital with the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, that's a set of 14 songs, but I'm just doing one because it's six minutes long. And it's just an amazing piece, also very early-20th-century. And then I'm going to do the aria from [Stravinsky's] The Rake's Progress, the Anne Trulove aria, which the libretto is Auden and [Chester] Kallman, so I thought that was a nice sort of tie-in. And also, the Berg and the Britten also have a touch of Stravinsky in them.
CP : Are these pieces that you might not have had the opportunity to prepare if you didn't do this for yourself? I mean, are 20th-century vocal pieces not performed that often because they don't really fit into a symphonic repertoire?
TB: Some of that is true, but, like with the Berg, people, I think, are scared of it. I think if you're going to pick a song cycle that's big and full like that, you're going to pick a Strauss.
CP: Something a little more accessible?
TB: Yes. Like, [Berg's] Vier Lieder, which is the next set he wrote, is done a lot more often than the Seven Early Songs. And the song recital itself is kind of a dying form, so if I hadn't chosen to do it myself, then probably I wouldn't have had the chance to perform them.
CP: The song recital, though, is kind of a refreshing way to hear pieces by a composer whose symphonic or operatic works you like, but in this setting you can kind of hear the ideas they're working with. Like in the same way you can read novelists' early works to see where they're coming from, sometimes you can hear where a composer is coming from.
TB: And I think, like with Britten--who we hear nowadays, but all we hear are operas. And our students here do a lot of Britten songs, but you don't always hear a whole group together. Berg, his operas are what's done now and his instrumental music was--he was always just really a vocal composer. And they're hard. But I'm looking forward to it. I'm really excited to finally get a chance to do these. It's been in my brain for awhile.
The source poems for the Poulenc songs soprano Theresa Bickham referred to in this interview were written by Jean Moreas, not Francois Mauriac, as was originally reported. City Paper regrets the error.
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