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Diversity is one of Canada’s greatest assets, and we are fortunate to live in one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. A large part of a people’s culture is its music. In this issue, we highlight the art song of Hungary, China, and the Jewish people. I trust that these fascinating articles by Leslie Dala, Jialiang Zhu, and Jaclyn Grossman and Nate Ben-Horin will encourage you to explore further this repertoire which, for many of us, is unknown.

—Brett Polegato
Editor, Art Song Canada

Expanding the Germanic Canon: Songs of the Holocaust

By Jaclyn Grossman, Soprano, Co-Curator
Nate Ben-Horin, Pianist, Composer, Co-Curator

Photo: Ilan Waldman

Our first venture as a duo was a performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. We were paired in a song interpretation class during our graduate studies at McGill, and our mutual attraction to German late-Romanticism as well as Jaclyn’s dramatic Fach made the Wagner an obvious choice.

As we probed these intimate confessions of love and longing, we were captivated by a quality one might call ‘artistic unabashedness’: a willingness to go to extremes of expression which has surely contributed to Wagner’s enduring appeal. Unfortunately, his unabashedness also extended to his contempt for Jewish musicians (like both of us), as per his colourful declaration: “Just as insects eat only dead flesh, the Jews swarm over the corpse of dead Music, destroying it as surely as worms destroy a carcass.” (On Jewishness in Music, 1869). This lingered uncomfortably in the back of our minds as we prepared the songs. What choice words would he have applied to our collaboration? And moreover, by performing his music, were we legitimizing his prejudice? But the pieces themselves are unquestionably beautiful, and, after all, canon… indispensable.

Our work together took on a new dimension in early 2020, when we were introduced to Holocaust music by way of Anne Sofie von Otter’s remarkable CD, Terezín – Theresienstadt. It’s a vast subject; for all the luminous talents extinguished in gas chambers during the war, there are present-day scholars and performers all over the world dedicated to reviving them. As our research and fascination deepened, we formed the Likht Ensemble in order to share the music we were learning about, and released our flagship project — the first of five digital recitals entitled the Shoah Songbook — in April 2021.

Though an in-depth survey of repertoire is beyond the scope of this article, we would like to briefly introduce two artists who feature heavily in our first recital (and on von Otter’s CD): Viktor Ullmann and Ilse Weber. They were held in the Bohemian ghetto Terezín — a kind of ‘show camp’ — a repository of leading artists and intellectuals with marginally better conditions than some of its equivalents, through which Nazi propagandists were able to display ‘happy, productive’ Jews. Like most of its residents, Ullman and Weber were deported to Auschwitz and murdered a few months before the camp was liberated.

A student of Schoenberg and friend of Berg, Viktor Ullman developed a highly original and polished musical language that is at once contrapuntal and drivingly rhythmic, synthesizing elements of serialism, polytonality, late-Romanticism, and jazz. His song Wendla im Garten, an incendiary setting of an excerpt from the original German Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), will blow your hair back. His collected songs are published by Schott, and there is no reason they shouldn’t be programmed alongside his Second Viennese School compatriots, or indeed Strauss and Wagner.

Ilse Weber was a poet, playwright and folk musician whose letters and poems have made her one of the more celebrated and researched personalities to emerge in the field of Holocaust studies. Her songs from Terezín combine stark realism with tender humanism and lucid poetry, set to haunting, unforgettable melodies. Her collected wartime documents are published in an English translation by Michal Schwartz (Dancing on a Powder Keg, Bunim & Bannigan Ltd.). Her Terezín songs are published by Boosey & Hawkes, and, given an idiomatic piano arrangement, there is no reason they shouldn’t be programmed alongside Volkslieder by Brahms or Schubert.

This music is only just slightly off the beaten path – both Weber and Ullmann identified culturally and artistically as German, and their output is every bit equal to that of their non-Jewish contemporaries. More to the point, the problem of anti-Semitism (and other forms of racism) in classical music is not limited to Wagner; he is merely its bombastic poster child. The key is to expand our sense of what can be considered canonical, and to whom. While we don’t regret performing the Wesendonck Lieder (and in fact plan to do so again, soon,) we also wish we had been exposed to Ullmann, Weber, and others of their ilk much earlier. They have given us a point of identification that allows us to confront our precarious position within the classical tradition, and ultimately reembrace it on our own terms. To us, they have become indispensable.

Singing Classical Chinese Poetry

By Jialiang Zhu, Pianist, Co-founder of Bedford Trio, Doctoral of Musical Arts Candidate, University of Toronto

Photo: Yang Sui

As a native Mandarin-Chinese speaker, my encounter with European-language poetry is mainly through studying art song. In Debussy’s Fêtes galantes and Ariettes oubliées, I experience the colour and symbolism of Verlaine; through Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig, I live the heartache and drama in Goethe’s words; and in Florence Price’s Four Songs from the Weary Blues, I revel in Langston Hughes’s depth and spirituality. In a word, my experience with Western poetry is through songs.

In contrast, my relationship with Chinese art song and Chinese poetry is completely the reverse from that above. Growing up in China, I started memorizing classical poetry as early as kindergarten without fully grasping its meaning. Throughout my public school education, my fellow students and I studied the history, the grammar and the aesthetic of classical Chinese poetry in more depth. I have always been fascinated by how such a succinct poetic language can explore so much depth; and I have revelled in how musical the recitation sounds with its tonal inflection and rhythmic pattern. Here is an example of a five-syllable quatrain A Morning in Spring 春曉 by Meng Haoran 孟浩然 from the Tang Dynasty.
(Click here to listen to Jialiang’s recitation of the poem.)




Spring dreams unconscious of dawning,

Not woke up till I hear birds singing;

O night long wind and showers –

Know you how many petals falling?
(Translation by composer Chen Yi)

Compared to my immersion in classical Chinese poetry, I only began studying Chinese art song five years ago, and it has been a journey of revelation. Through the imagination of the composers, I get to rediscover classical Chinese poetry from a fresh angle; I also dive deeper into the meaning of the poetry as an interpreter of the songs. Chinese art song just celebrated its centennial. Around the turn of the twentieth century, China (called the Qing Dynasty 清朝 then) was forced to open its doors to foreign states and increased interactions with Western culture. Some affluent families embraced Western ideology and sent their children abroad to study. Some of the earliest Chinese art songs were composed by these early Chinese international students, such as Xiao Youmei 蕭友梅, Chao Yuen Re 趙元任, Huang Zi (also known as Huang Tzu) 黃自, and Qing Zhu 青主. Freshly exposed to Western classical music, these composers began writing art songs in the fashion of Lieder and in the harmonic language of the late-Romantic period. Many of them turned to classical Chinese poetry as a source of inspiration. Let us now hear one of the early Chinese art songs, A Flower in the Haze 花非花 (1933) by composer Huang Zi 黃自 on the text of Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易.

In bloom, she’s not a flower; Hazy, she’s not a haze.

She comes at midnight hour; She goes with starry rays.

She comes like vernal dreams that cannot stay;

She goes like morning clouds that melt away.
(Translation by Chinese literature translation professor Xu Yuanchong)

Throughout the following century, Chinese composers start to incorporate a bigger variety of harmonic language and form in their song writing and infuse elements from both Western and Chinese culture and arts. For comparison, I’d like to share with you a much more recent art song Know You How Many Petals Falling? (1999), a setting by Chinese-American Chen Yi on the same five-syllable quatrain quoted in the beginning. Chen employs aleatoric writing for the piano in the opening, while borrowing the chanting practice 说唱 from Peking Opera for the voice, where the sung pitch roughly imitates the spoken pitch.

A century ago, Chinese art song began by imitating Western art Song; over time, the art form integrated more aspects of Chinese culture and evolved into a unique genre of its own. I’ve presented only two points on the Chinese art song timeline—the beginning and the modern day, and there is much to discover along the path connecting those two points. A few recommendations to help your next steps of exploration include the comprehensive guide book, Singing Mandarin: A Guide to Chinese Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire, by pianist Katherine Chu and soprano Juliet Petrus; bass-baritone Shen Yang’s Chinese art song recital with pianist Yang Liqing, beautifully captured in the music documentary Stories of the Forgotten Chinese Melodies; and Jialiang’s recent lecture recital with both native and non-native Mandarin speaking vocalists Singing Classical Chinese Poetry: 100 Years of Chinese Art Song.

Magyar Melodies: A Brief Survey of Hungarian Art Song

By Leslie Dala, Associate Conductor, Vancouver Opera, Music Director, Vancouver Bach Choir

Photo: Michael O’Shae

When one thinks of the most celebrated Hungarian composers of the past 200 years, the names of Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág come to mind. All of these composers have contributed to the genre of art song, some more so than others. All of them except for Liszt have composed songs based on Hungarian texts. In Liszt’s case, he composed some 80 songs and many of them have found their way into the standard repertoire and for good reason: among the songs set to French, German, and Italian texts there are many gems that are wonderful settings which use the voice and piano to full effect and capture the romantic ethos of the time.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Béla Bartók and Zóltan Kodály did extensive research by travelling throughout Hungary to study and preserve authentic Hungarian folk music by recording it and notating it. This led to extensive collections of folk songs with original piano accompaniments from both composers which also influenced their wholly original compositions. Bartók himself wrote:
“We had no traditions whatsoever in the Hungarian art music to serve as a basis on which we could have advanced further. The declamatory attempts in vocal works of our predecessors were nothing else but imitations of Western European patterns which were inconsistent with the rhythm of the Hungarian language. […] We Hungarians have nothing but our parlando peasant melodies as the means of enabling us to solve this question.”

As a footnote, in Hungarian the main stress is ALWAYS on the first syllable which sets it apart from all the Romance and Anglo Saxon-based languages. Finnish and Czech also share this unusual characteristic which gives their languages a distinct flavour.

While Bartók published only two sets of original art songs, his Opus 15 and 16 respectively, Kodály contributed hundreds of vocal compositions for solo voice, and choral works. One can hear in them a kind of ‘folkiness’ clothed in various forms of tonality, some with a modal flavour evoking long-standing traditions and others with a spikier and more modern polytonality or atonality.

Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century and composers György Ligeti and György Kurtág are among the most celebrated and respected composers worldwide whom I was fortunate to meet at the Bartók Festival in Szombathely, Hungary when I was still a student. Each of these giants has contributed to the art song medium. Most of Ligeti’s contributions were written in the 1940’s and 1950’s when he was still very much in the early stages of his musical idiom which continued to go in a more avant garde direction in the 1960’s with his vocal/instrumental works Aventures/Nouvelles Aventures and his opera Le Grand Macabre completed in 1977 and revised in 1996. Meanwhile, Kurtag has written extraordinary song cycles like the Kafka Fragments for soprano and solo violin, and the Three Old Inscriptions for Voice and Piano both from the mid 1980’s.

Of course, these are but a handful of Hungarian composers who have contributed to the genre of art song, but I believe their contributions to be among the most significant and influential. For a sampling of some contributions of Liszt and Kodály, (as well as Berg and Léhár) here is a link to a recital I was fortunate to perform with my amazing fellow Canadian/Hungarian friend and colleague, Krisztina Szabó:

Leslie Dala:

For more in depth of analysis I would recommend the following theses on Kurtág and Kodály:

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