skip to Main Content

Welcome to Art Song Canada, an online “magazine” to cover various aspects of the art-song world.

Subscribe to Art Song Canada

Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, Part 2: Novelty in Style and Expression

By François Le Roux, baritone
Author, Le chant intime
Winner, 2004 René Dumesnil Award

The title invented by Berlioz for his cycle may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (published in 1600). Berlioz was a lover of Shakespeare’s theatre, and its general “fantastic” (or fanciful) atmosphere: he composed in 1839 a dramatic symphony with choir and soloists entitled “Roméo et Juliette”, and his last opera “Béatrice et Bénédict” (1862) is deriving from the play Much Ado about Nothing. French romantic movement loved the bizarre, the uncanny; Gautier’s title for the book La Comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death) is already provocative, for death was in his days, and still is generally perceived as tragic.

Gautier in 1839

And that is the reason why a lot of misunderstanding about Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été is common; maybe because of the perception of romantic music, as it appears in German Lieder, that express personal feelings, questioning the place of man on earth, more than anything else. In French romantic songs based on Gautier’s poems, fantasy is very important; Gautier himself claimed that art had to live for itself (L’Art pour l’art – Art for the sake of Art), without sentimentality, or connection with earthy reality. It was in reaction against the generally sentimental poetry used by the former generation, so easy to perceive in many famous romances (see, for instance, the most famous of all “Plaisir d’amour” (1784) by Martini on a poem by Florian, which Berlioz orchestrated in 1859). And, as is generally admitted for a new generation, there was a desire of transgression, to shock, or at least to question the public. Here, all 6 songs comprise elements of derision:

To begin with, at least 3 of the 6 Nuits d’été have strongly erotic (or sexual) connotations: #1 (Villanelle), #2 (Le Spectre de la rose), #6 (L’Île inconnue):
– In #1, the erotic elements (all taken from the nature: blackbirds, nests, rabbit, deer, moss, strawberries, woods, lilies-of-the-valley…) are light and connected with the evocation of spring. A Villanelle is a kind of pastoral poem, very much in favor in 16thcentury France (see what poets Passerat, Desportes, etc. produced); in the 18thcentury it became also a rustic dance (in 4/4), comprising some frivolous elements, emphasized by the music itself. If Gautier’s original title for #1 is “Villanelle rhythmique”, it is certainly to refer to that dance. On his part, Berlioz uses that element very clearly. The tempo should stay alive and joyful.
– In #2, the phantom of the rose (Le Spectre de la rose) is at the same time masculine (phantom) and feminine (rose); in its address to the lady he/she haunts, all the words used are double-meant, for instance: Tu me pris encore emperlée / Des pleurs d’argent de l’arrosoir: “You took me while I was still impearled / With the silver tears from the watering can” (no further explanation needed, I hope…). Or later Et j’arrive du paradis: “And I am coming from Paradise” (j’arrive – “I am coming” – repeated 4 times by Berlioz, in a growing crescendo!). This phantom is, with his/her long breathtaking sung lines, and the shortened breath for the verse Mais ne crains rien, je ne réclame (“But fear not, I am not asking”), very much alive… The use of many octaves (i.e. paupiè-ère close) should be very fluid, accentuating the low note (paup-ère) and going up as with a swing, like a Viennese waltzer would seem almost to fly. Again a dance!
– The “unknown island” of the last song (#6) is mocking the idealized eternally faithful love, unachievable… Berlioz respectfully does a Barcarolle (Gautier’s original title of the poem), but some elements are almost grotesque, like the accents of the accompaniment before Est-ce dans la Baltique… And who is inviting the lady for a trip? If it were a travel agent, the Mephistopheles kind it seems, with his sarcastic tone (La brise va souffler – “The wind is about to blow”…).

© François Le Roux

Part 3 of Berlioz’ Nuits d’été will appear in the Summer issue of Art Song Canada. Part 1 is available in the online Winter issue.


A Brief Atlantic Overview: Fall 2018/Spring 2019

By Caroline Schiller
Professor of Voice and Opera, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Song continues to thrive on the East Coast. Art song, whether performed with piano as sole collaborator or creatively fused with dialogue, media, and theatre is being performed throughout Canada’s Atlantic provinces. In venues, ranging from university and local concert halls, to performances in pubs, galleries, and libraries, we seem to be singing everywhere and about everything. Based on recent performances, musicians in this area are actively working to connect with our colleagues, our audiences, and our world through our programming choices. This year’s concerts explore the old and new, they reflect our culture, our climate, and our lives, present and past.

We are fortunate in Atlantic Canada to have a strong art song tradition and many communities still maintain a thriving concert series. While impossible to single out every performance, recent recitals have included Pascale Beaudin and collaborative pianist Simon Docking as part of Halifax’s The Music Room Chamber Players Series, whose program featured Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées; Cecilia Concerts included Julie Nesrallah in recital with collaborator, Robert Kortgaard in a varied program including Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana; and MusicUNB hosted a programme inspired by folk songs with Sally Dibblee, joined by UNB Musician-in-Residence Nadia Francavilla, and collaborative pianist Stephen Runge featuring John Greer’s, My Fancy Early and Late. Paula Rockwell with collaborative pianist Jennifer King performed Nocturnes, Serenades and Lullabies for a Winter’s Evening with Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies as its centrepiece for Dartmouth’s Community Concert Series; and The Music Room features Dalhousie University faculty members Marcia Swanston, Michael Donovan, with collaborative pianists Lynette Wahlstrom and Greg Myra in a program that includes Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Interpretations of a Life, written by David Warrack for Maureen Forrester.

Atlantic Canada’s universities continue to be a source for art song creation, performance, and training. Concert programming at universities throughout the region has included visiting artist recitals, faculty performances, and varied themed recitals. Concerts highlighting the works of Claude Debussy and Leonard Bernstein have been performed by faculty and students at a number of schools during the 2018 centennial, including Mount Allison University and Dalhousie University Fountain School of Performing Arts. While a concert of art songs with the ocean and water as its theme, was presented by soprano Jane Leibel and collaborative pianist Laura Loewen to the Royal Society of Canada as part of the “Future of the Oceans Symposium” at Memorial University. We are fortunate to have university voice programs dedicated to the training of 21st-century musicians. Through these programs, university students actively and creatively explore art song repertoire in study and performance and then, connect to their communities through a variety of outreach and concert initiatives.

Contemporary repertoire, new art song works for voice, and first performances have been the focus of a number of concerts this year. Newfoundland composer, Andrew Staniland’s  Execution Songs with Erika Switzer, piano and Martha Guth, soprano are one example of the east coast’s vibrant composition scene. Performances focused on “demystifying” contemporary vocal repertoire were presented as part of Newfangled Music and a recital of contemporary vocal works presented at Halifax’s The Music Room. The latter program of Canadian repertoire with Janice Isabel Jackson and Barbara Pritchard has as its title, Canadian composer David Scott’s Disordered Songs. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Newfound Music Festival and Gala concerts typically include a number of firsts. This year’s concerts included a new comedic art song entitled “I Really Don’t Understand Why Everyone Looks at Me Like I’m Crazy” by composer Clark Ross written for soprano Jane Leibel and pianist Ian Sutherland. Reflecting on contemporary song repertoire, performers and composers are exploring ever more creative options in concert presentation from the use of multimedia, spoken dialogue, to staging. One such example is Suzie Leblanc and composer Jérôme Blais’ work,  Mouvance, which was presented as part of the Open Waters Festival in Halifax. This multimedia, poetry, theatre, song experience based on contemporary Acadian poems, and other concerts of this kind, are suggesting new boundaries for art song-related performance and presentation.


Programming the Art Song Recital

By Brett Polegato, baritone
Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada

Many years ago – when I was one and twenty (or thereabouts) – I had the temerity to put together a programme of solely English art song and mélodies for a prestigious recital series in a major Canadian city. I was exceedingly proud of the programme and was excited for its debut. Ah, the folly of youth! Although the recital was well received by the audience – I believe we got a standing ovation for our efforts – we were roundly taken to task by the critic. While he thought it was a valiant attempt on our part to present a programme in both official languages, he made the point that the English and French repertoire wasn’t “strong enough” to support an entire evening of song.

Thankfully, times have changed.

In the three decades I have been giving recitals, I have enjoyed watching the art form adapt and evolve. Many say the recital is dead. And in some ways they are correct: fewer are the formal and “serious” concerts – those evenings of Art in which a singer and pianist performed songs by mostly dead composers, in chronological order, to a roomful of respectful listeners who quietly followed both texts and translations in a printed programme. Lieder dominated the proceedings.  In those days singers, by and large, did not talk to the audience and applause was reserved for the ends of groups.

We recitalists are a tenacious lot and we quickly understood that this model could not last and so…we changed the model. Today’s recitalists have become extremely inventive in their programming choices – rarely do recitals begin in the Baroque and end with Strauss. “Modern” music no longer stops at Benjamin Britten or Francis Poulenc, and we are lucky to have many marvellous contemporary composers whose contribution to the repertoire ensures that the breadth and scope of a programme is limited only by the imagination of the performers. Musical theatre and popular song have also found a place in the repertoire, and I have sung Sondheim, Porter, Novello, and even Billy Joel alongside the likes of Vaughan Williams and Charles Ives.

But it is the form of the recital itself that has undergone the greatest transformation. The old rules that defined what constituted a recital no longer apply and performers are finding new ways of making the art form their own. Like our musical theatre counterparts, we have begun interacting with audiences; often poems are read, personal anecdotes are recounted and visual imagery such as slides are incorporated in an effort to make the experience more personal and inviting. It is not uncommon to share recitals – recently, I have performed with instrumentalists, cabaret singers and actors – in an attempt to appeal to our “multi-tasking” audiences. Pianists also step out from behind the keys to talk about programme elements, and our recitals regularly include piano solos. Groups of songs are more loosely structured and spontaneous applause is welcomed. More than ever, we strive to be storytellers and are willing to bend the form to achieve our goal.

In July of this year, I am proud to be making my Wigmore Hall recital debut with pianist, Iain Burnside, in a programme of English song entitled, A Transatlantic Voyage: English Songs from Here to There. The programme includes the usual suspects – Britten, Vaughan Williams, Barber and Ives – but joining them are Rebecca Clarke, Marc Blitzstein, Craig Urquhart, and Canadians, Healey Willan and Harry Somers. I have many wonderful stories to tell, and the immediacy and power of the English language to tell them all.

Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, Part 1:The Birth of French Mélodie
By François Le Roux, baritone
Author, Le chant intime
Winner, 2004 René Dumesnil Award

To commemorate Hector Berlioz’s death 150 years ago, recitalists in 2019 will certainly not miss his quintessential song cycle Nuits d’été (Summer nights) H.81. Often seen as an orchestral suite for big voices, it is less known and less performed in its earlier piano version, and many people among both the public and performers miss almost completely the poetic elements that both poet and composer elaborated, and cherished, as new. Let us have a look!

The birth of French mélodie is considered to date from the composition of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (completed in 1840-41), even if this opinion is a bit arbitrary. It is true that Berlioz deplored the artistic level of the romance, which was, at that time in France, the contemporary song style that wedded text (often poetic) and music. It seems that the use of the term mélodie was inspired by the book title Irish Melodies by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Several excerpts from this book were set to music[1]. To make a long story short, things evolved when the 19th century composers of romances wanted to give more independence to the melodic line in relationship to the poetic text. Their goal was to “stick” to the poetic suggestions as much as possible and not to be too constrained by a form that was completely closed, cyclic, or “blocked,” as a succession of couplets interspersed by a refrain could be. Calling Les Nuits d’été the first cycle of mélodies is not completely accurate, since the first song of the cycle, “Villanelle,” is still a strophic romance, as is the fourth song, “Absence.” On the other hand, in “Sur les lagunes” (“On the Lagoons”), we notice a change, even if there is a sort of refrain: Que mon sort est amer! / Ah! Sans amour s’en aller sur la mer! (“How bitter is my fate! / Ah! Without love, to go to sea!”).

Another element makes Les Nuits d’été an important marker: the cycle is the fruit of a direct collaboration between two artists: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), who knew each other personally.[2] It is even possible that Gautier gave his poems to Berlioz before their publication[3]. One can also imagine that Gautier wrote his poems with the idea that music could accompany them as some of the titles of his poems are clearly oriented towards music: “Villanelle rhythmique” (“Villanelle” for Berlioz), “Lamento-La Chanson du pêcheur” (“Sur les lagunes” for Berlioz), “Lamento” (“Au Cimetière” for Berlioz), “Barcarolle” (“L’île inconnue” for Berlioz). It is also interesting to note that La Comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death), the collection of poems that Les Nuits d’été comes from, include many more pieces than just the six in the cycle. Gautier probably gave more texts to Berlioz, who only chose six.I would like to advocate the original piano version of the score (not the usual reduction from the orchestral one) published by Catelin in Paris in 1841 (the complete orchestral version dates from 1856). It is easy to download from the website Gallica of the French National Library: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3119544?rk=364808;4.

What better way of being faithful to the composer’s intentions? If the original piano version exists only in one key (with the indication “for tenor or mezzo-soprano”), at least it will be the basis for a true pianistic interpretation, instead of a mere reduction. Some differences are really striking if one compares the orchestral versions and the piano one (e.g., no prelude to “Le Spectre de la rose”). Let Berlioz ask us the true question: Où voulez-vous aller?

Part 2 of Berlioz Nuits d’été will appear in the April issue of Art Song Canada.

© François Le Roux

[1] Berlioz composed in 1830 “Irlande, neuf mélodies imitées de l’anglais” (“Ireland, nine melodies imitating the English”), published only in 1863. All songs are in French. Moore’s poems were published in Paris by Chassériau in 1823 in a French translation by Louise Swanton Belloc (1796-1881) under the title: “Les Amours des Anges et les Mélodies Irlandaises”, where Berlioz found some of the translations he used.

[2] However, a precedent exists in the romance: the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, (1786-1869) and the guitarist and composer Pauline Duchambge (1778-1858) wrote together more than thirty published romances.

[3] All 6 belong to the chapter “Poésies diverses” in the book La Comédie de la mort, published by Desessart in Paris in 1838. 2 were first published in a magazine: “Le Spectre de la rose” in Don Quichotte (May 7, 1837), and “L’Île inconnue” in Le Rameau d’or, a keepsake published at the end of 1835.


Rediscovering Healey Willan’s Art Song Legacy
By Steven Philcox and Lawrence Wiliford
Founders, Canadian Art Song Project

Since its founding in 2011, Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) has been recognised largely for its commissioning activity and numerous concert presentations dedicated to Canadian song, both old and new. Many readers will also be familiar with our recording library housing five titles, with another scheduled for release this summer. While our mandate is strongly tied to breathing life into the present and future of the art form, our audience may not be aware of CASP’s efforts to revitalize and reconnect to the song traditions of our past. One such initiative has been our Healey Willan project.

Willan was born in the south of London, England, in 1880 and from a young age would be rooted in a musical education very much tied to his rigorous Anglo-Catholic upbringing. As such, the name of Willan generally invokes a deep response to his liturgical compositions: masses, motets, and choral works—the music for which he remains best remembered. His devotion to the musical traditions of both church and country would follow him as he settled in Toronto in 1913. At this time, when the musical world was seeing a tremendous shift towards the serial and atonal experimentation espoused by the composers of the Second Viennese School, Willan would be steadfast in his own ideals of beauty: “I’m a lover of beauty. I love beautiful things, I love beautiful poems, beautiful pictures, beautiful music, and of course beauty is one’s own conception of beauty . . . but I find so much music written today is unbeautiful and it sounds to me uncouth.”

When CASP started to research Willan’s song output, we were aware of his nearly 100 published songs and arrangements. Drake’s Drum, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and Ae Fond Kiss, still regarded as some of his best in the genre, were frequent recital offerings of artists including Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall, and George Lambert. Unfortunately, performances of Willan’s solo songs have waned, almost to the point of obscurity. Imagine our surprise and thrill when, at the recommendation of one our supporters that we look through Giles Bryant’s record of the Willan archive (now held in Ottawa as part of the collection at Library and Archives Canada), we discovered nearly 100 additional song manuscripts that had never been published. Dated throughout Willan’s lifetime, the collection includes mostly original compositions along with his hallmark arrangements of ballads and folk-songs.

CASP has slowly chipped away at transcribing these handwritten manuscripts into digital, edited scores, an enormous task when you consider that many of the songs had two and sometimes three versions, all in Willan’s hand and often with the same date! After numerous play-throughs, analysis, and much friendly editorial debate, CASP, in collaboration with the Estate of Healey Willan and the Canadian Music Centre, has recently published Songs from the Healey Willan Archive in two volumes. These feature twenty-two previously unpublished songs that set poetry by Herrick, Browning, Tennyson, and Hood, among others.

On November 18, 2016, CASP presented a concert celebrating the songs of Willan including many of those recently discovered. In attendance was Willan’s ninety-year-old daughter Mary Willan Mason, who told us that it was the first time she had heard O Littlest Hands and Dearest, a song her father had written when she was just three weeks old. It was a profoundly touching moment, a testament to why such work is important and a reminder of the power of song to transcend time and connect us all.

For more information on Canadian Art Song Project, please visit our website canadianartsongproject.ca.


When a person knows and can’t make the others understand, what does he do?[1] 
By Lara Dodds-Eden
Doctoral student in Collaborative Piano, University of Toronto

I performed Winterreise for the first time in 2008, in a church close to London’s Sloane Square. As my colleague and I rehearsed beforehand in the nave, a man sat resting in the pews. The church had been his home for a few hours, but he left as he sensed the imminent arrival of a paying crowd. I had been moved by his presence, but did not know how to invite him to stay. Though I felt this music was for him, maybe even about him, I didn’t know how to share that with him.

After all, we were performing 180-year-old German songs, in affluent Chelsea, at the beginning of a millennium straining with anxiety around national borders, social media fame, increasing disparity, and acceleration in the pace of living. Art song’s interiorised subjectivity seems vulnerable in this context and complicated further when its language is different from the vernacular. Of course, the archive is richer for its diversity of language, and yet Simon Keenlyside describes the tendency to ‘mum and mug meaning’[2] when singing in a language you don’t speak — an admission that highlights the compensatory burden on many of our current linguistic strategies.

So we experiment with printed programmes, surtitles, spoken summaries, digital materials. Of course, the obvious ‘solution’ is to sing in translation — to transmute the archive in order to extend its reach. In literature, preliminary debates about gain, loss, and authenticity have expanded to embrace radical approaches[3] and an increasing affirmation of the role of the translator[4]. But in art song, the fundamental question of whether it is conceptually reconcilable at all has largely stalled its use in performance practice. When words and music are in symbiotic relationship, any addition is assumed superfluous, while any change is deemed destructive. Our community’s fidelity to that tenet makes any attempt to translate for singing a fraught undertaking.

Song scholar Eric Sams proscribed against translating Lieder, but his son Jeremy has found himself unable to resist doing so. He has reworded all three Schubert cycles, alongside Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer and Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch: the latter will have its premiere at London’s Barbican Hall in February 2019. Of course, Sams is just the latest in a long line of would-be translators for art song — I have collected thirteen singing translations of Der Leiermann alone — but his efforts, supported by his interdisciplinary aptitudes, have found an exceptional niche of acceptance and advocacy in comparison to his predecessors’[5]. Some view his ingenious solutions as one-offs. But what would happen if we were to encourage more translators to explore this repertoire[6]?

In advance of the first airing of Winterreise, Schubert reassured a friend who was concerned about his state of mind, saying, ‘Soon you will hear and understand.’[7] Müller, too, famously expressed a desire that his poetry might be received by eine gleichgestimmte Seele — a like-minded soul. Though these men dared hope for one or two empathetic listeners, I suspect we all believe they deserve more — and that more of us deserve to hear what they had to say. Neither man could have imagined their work perforemed on stages in London, New York, or Tokyo nearly two centuries later, let alone know to make provisions for that outcome. What would have happened that night in Chelsea had the man heard my colleague sing ‘I came here as a stranger, a stranger I depart’? And what might have been the effect on that audience, had they been asked to acknowledge their complicity in the final encounter of the cycle, in which ‘no one seems to notice, no one seems to care’?[8]

 

[1] Quoted in https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/3602564/The-singers-dance-of-death.html

[2] Such as those by Anne Carson and Alain Badiou

[3] The Booker International Prize for literary fiction is a significant example, honouring both translator and author since its institution in 2016.

[4] Including Leslie Minchin, Frederic Kirchberger and Arthur Fox-Strangways

[5] See Katy Hamilton’s blog discussing her experience tackling Die Erlkönig https://katyhamilton.co.uk/2016/07/31/and-in-english/

[6] Susan Youens quotes Spaun’s account of that time https://hampsongfoundation.org/resource/horrifying-songs-schuberts-winterreise/

[7] These quotes are taken from Jeremy Sam’s Winter Journey translations (songs I and XXIV), which can be found in full in the booklet that accompanies Christopher Glynn and Roderick Williams’ Signum Classics release: https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_SIGCD531

LET’S TALK ART SONG
By Catherine Robbin
President, Art Song Foundation of Canada

The Art Song Foundation of Canada thinks it would be good for art song to have a more public voice.

Our friends in opera have a fine magazine, Opera Canada, which keeps opera- lovers well informed.

With this first issue of Art Song Canada, the Foundation is starting an online “magazine” that will cover various aspects of the art-song world. There will be articles by important people in the field of art song, reports from the various regions of our country, and more.

The material can be accessed directly on the Art Song Foundation of Canada web site and by e-mail via our mailing list, and will be advertised on social media.

If you wish to be on the mailing list for Art Song Canada, please click here.

We hope you will enjoy the following articles by Michael McMahon, Gerald Finley, and Olivier Godin.

Please feel free to be in touch with us. We would be happy to hear your comments and any suggestions for future articles.


In Memoriam — Dr. Max Deen Larsen
March 6, 1943 ~ January 12, 2018
By Michael McMahon
Associate Professor, Piano and Voice, Faculty of Music, McGill University
Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada

With the passing of Dr. Max Deen Larsen on January 12, 2018, the world of art song lost one of its greatest mentors.

Forty years ago, Deen Larsen and his future wife, German cellist Verena Göthel, founded the Franz Schubert Institute in Baden bei Wien, Austria. After attending various masterclasses in German lieder, Deen realised that there was an important element missing in the training of singers and pianists in the performance of the lied and that element was the attention to the poem itself. In creating “Poetry and the German Lied” at the Franz Schubert Institute, Deen brought together not only some of the world’s greatest singers and pianists, but also actors and diction specialists.

Since 1978, singers and pianists from all over the world have spent at least 12 hours a day every day for five to six weeks learning about poetry and lieder in the classroom, sharing wine and food in the local Heurigen, and hiking in the Vienna Woods. Each day would begin with a poetry class given by Deen Larsen in which he would share his passion for German language, its poets, and its composers. He would encourage everyone to search for honesty in his/her interpretation and to remember that what we do is not about us. It is about communicating in a truthful way what the poet and the composer have given us.

It was not only in the classroom that learning took place. Deen would take the participants on hikes in the same woods that many of the poets and composers had visited. He would have everyone stop, be silent, and listen to the sounds of nature. This was followed by a reminder that we are all a part of nature and that the sounds we were hearing were the same sounds that Beethoven and Schubert had heard.

Deen lived and breathed poetry, and generously shared his vast knowledge with all who would listen. He was always so pleased when a former participant would write asking for help in understanding the meaning of a poem, and he would write back with well-considered responses that would undoubtedly shed light on what had otherwise been elusive.

Thinking back to 1978, when I first saw a poster advertising the Franz Schubert Institute, I can still visualise exactly where it was on the wall at McGill University’s Faculty of Music and remember the excitement I felt when I saw the list of artists who would be teaching there. On it were the names of legends in the world of German Lieder, including Elly Ameling ( who has taught at every course since the beginning), Hans Hotter, Kim Borg, Jörg Demus, and Erik Werba. I applied with a singer, was thrilled to be accepted, and  found my voice as an artist during that summer in Baden. What I learned has stayed with me and nourished me throughout my career.

Distinguished alumni include Cheryl Studer, Delores Ziegler, Donna Brown, Tyler Duncan, Erika Switzer, Philippe Sly, Jordan de Souza, Gordon Bintner, Rihab Chaieb, Colin Balzer, John Brancy, Ammiel Bushakevitz, Jonathan Ware, Che Anne Loewen, Rena Sharon, and Kathleen Lohrenz Gable.

The Franz Schubert Institute is making plans to continue and will find new ways to pass on the great tradition that Deen so loved. I will be forever grateful to my dear friend and mentor, who helped connect me and so many others to the essence of German Romanticism.


The Voice is the Song
By Gerald Finley, Baritone
Honorary Director, Art Song Foundation of Canada

While learning my latest program of Schubert and Brahms for concerts and a recording, I came across an Italian version of Schubert’s Staendchen sung by Giuseppe di Stefano on YouTube. We live in an age where the great singers of the past can entertain and bring us great pleasure. How is it that a great Italian singer can bring such depth of feeling through his beautiful voice to a German song?

Knowing that a full program of German song is a rarity, I need to come to a peace with myself that fewer and fewer people will be giving up their precious time to come and hear it. Thankfully, in Hamburg there was a full house, 550 in the small Hall of the Elbphilharmonie, certainly all completely familiar with the repertoire that I was performing.

In the early 1980’s in London when I was a student, song recitals would fill the Royal Festival Hall, some 2,100 places, and then standing room for young ones like me to take up, wanting to hear the great masters like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Just a few years earlier, the Albert Hall would fill for similar artists, some 5,000. It is reported that John MacCormack and John Charles Thomas sang for audiences in the many thousands.

Now, the Wigmore Hall (545 seats) does quite well with song recitals, but even the ’stars’ have their programs vetted by the director to ensure that there are not too many similar programs. When I plan a tour to North America, the word from promoters is, “Please sing something in English.” Should I not sing the repertoire that brings the greatest pleasure?

Note the difference between these paragraphs. One is about the singers; the other is about the programs. We are in an age where the simple art of singing without a microphone is under threat. The “X factor” generation wants to be discovered at 18 and then be promoted by the wheels of industry. This discussion is more suited to a great treatise than a reflective article, but it is the crux of the problem, for both singers and promoters.

Singing is a craft that takes devotion and diligence. The great Eva Turner said to me, “You cannot have a career without application and dedication.” And I believe it to be so today: that there are few great artistic lives of leisure and general conviviality. Fischer Dieskau was notorious for his lack of socializing after a concert, even though his home was a haven for chamber music and musical get-togethers. The use of artists in general promotion is a burden that no previous generation has had to endure, and the fatigue and distraction that encircles the singer is taking its toll on those who are amenable.

Singers need to perform and also to husband their resources for the perfection of their art. In their early years, they need extended opportunities to work just with their teachers, the actual masters of the voice. There are legendary stories of the hard taskmasters of Beniamino Gigli, Edita Gruberova, Monserrat Caballe, and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The ability to sing a song with the most intimate sound is a long-sought and difficult task, when opera houses are demanding louder and more pushed voices to get over those rich orchestral sounds in those enormous auditoriums.

“Opera is where the money is.” Is this the threat for the song recital? Singers need to survive, and expenses in travelling and accommodation are not insignificant. Famous halls in great cities pay an artist and accompanist less than 40% of the ticket sales of a recital. However, a fairly priced recital with a few hundred people can also make economic sense for the artist, and any artistic opportunity should be seized. But agents don’t make so much money, and the burden of logistics can make agents decline engagements. They do not necessarily nurture the “artist” on their roster. Promoters also need to have a keen ear and a loyal audience to present the up-and-coming voices that both need to be heard and need experience in recital. They are rare, but they do us a service.

Song is the vehicle through which the audience can have a direct communication with and from the performer. The performer can offer their own voice in all its wonder, not that of a character. Most importantly, the richness of the composers’ treasury can be explored, and the satisfaction of music lovers and artists can be nurtured.

Singing can be the most satisfying of endeavours, and the challenge faced by young ones who grasp the long, thorny road is great. It is not about loud. It is about discovering the best of one’s own resources, of the liberation of sound and of honest communication, of the composer’s deepest reaction to poetry. Then we might start again to connect with the music lovers in an intimate setting and begin to fill the big halls once again.


Art Song in Quebec
By Olivier Godin
Collaborative pianist and vocal coach at McGill University

As an art song pianist and vocal coach in “la belle province”, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several projects and the privilege of discovering great events and artists over the years, both as a teacher and a performer. In Quebec, we are very fortunate to have festivals, concert series, and venues that are presenting high-quality art song recitals featuring local and international artists, as well as quite a few schools and summer workshops to pass on this refined and unique tradition to younger singers and pianists.

Beginning with local artists: I believe that Quebec holds a unique place in the world when it comes to great singers. Over the years, so many great voices have started international careers and gained worldwide renown. Several singers are frequently performing art song recitals in the province and across the country, as well as throughout the USA and Europe. Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Philippe Sly, Marc Boucher, Michèle Losier, Lyne Fortin, Donna Brown, Aline Kutan, Dominique Labelle, and Karina Gauvin, to name a few, always have recitals planned in their calendar.

As for pianists, I feel very lucky and privileged to work around fabulous colleagues such as Michael McMahon, Esther Gonthier, Marie-Ève Scarfone, Pierre McLean, Francis Perron, Martin Dubé, and other fantastic collaborators who are essential to and inspiring for all the singers they work with.

When it comes to venues and festivals, we have so many art-song allies that it would be impossible to be exhaustive, but around the province, I can think of the Arte Musica Foundation/Salle Bourgie in Montreal, which always presents high-calibre recitals (including Sylvia Schwartz, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Thomas Dolié, and Donna Brown), the Société d’Art Vocal de Montréal, which is presenting one of the best annual art-song series (Gerald Finley, Susan Platts, Michèle Losier, Mariane Fiset), Domaine Forget, which invited Jose Van Dam and Sophie Koch this past summer, the Lachine Festival and Richard Turp, its director, who is one of the reasons why art song is still so alive in Montreal, the Club Musical de Québec, which will be presenting a recital by Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau in November, and the Musique à Ste-Pétronille Festival, which also offers at least one beautiful art-song recital every summer.

To conclude this short report, I need to mention education, which is the key to the future of art song. Of course, voice faculties of the key establishments all have teachers and coaches who care deeply about art song: Schulich School of Music of McGill University, Université de Montreal, les Conservatoires du Québec, and Université Laval). But we also have many summer programs offering art song as a main discipline for both young singers and pianists. Among them, the new Lachine International Academy, which had its first session last summer with guest teachers François Le Roux, Liz Upchurch, Lena Hellström Färnlöf, and Marie-Ève Scarfone comes to mind. There is also Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, which holds a leading place in the training of young singers and pianists during their summer program, with guest artists such as Jose Van Dam, Sophie Koch, and Wolfgang Hozmair, and Orford Musique, with Francis Perron, Nathalie Paulin, David Lutz, and others.

I cannot end this report without mentioning three Quebec-based record labels that have done wonderful art song projects over the last couple of years: ATMA Classique, Analekta, and Disques XXI-21. These three labels released many recordings featuring recitals by high-level Quebec artists and also recordings of complete songs by various composers (Fauré, Poulenc, Duparc, to name a few). Many of these recordings have won prizes and gained international recognition in specialized publications.

Back To Top
×Close search
Search