In this post we have a fun romp through the centuries exploring some summer-themed pieces. This is a transcript of the episode, which can be found on Spotify here. (Please note that full music tracks will only be available for Spotify premium subscribers, so I have included YouTube links to full performances in this post.)
Hello and welcome! Or welcome back if you’re coming from the last post. Although this is a continuation of that post’s theme of summer, you don’t have to read to that one first to enjoy this one, the only way the pieces are connected is that they’re all about summer. However, I might refer back to some of the pieces or composers from last time so feel free to give that a look if you’re interested!
First up is another German lied, or song. Last time we listened to one by Schumann, if you remember, and this time we’re going to listen to one by a close friend of Schumann’s. Johannes Brahms was a young, unknown composer when Schumann first met him, and Schumann helped him become established as a composer. Brahms became close friends with Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, who was a virtuoso pianist. That friendship is actually one of my favourite things in music history, but I’ll keep that for another episode.
Today we’re going to listen to a song he wrote in 1878 as the first in a set of songs that collectively make up his opus 85. It’s called ‘Sommerabend‘, or summer evening.
One of the things I love about this particular song is how atmospheric it is. The text of the first verse sets the scene: a hazy summer twilight over the forest and the green meadows, and a golden moon in the sky.
In the second verse, a wanderer walking by hears a cricket chirping, and a stirring, a splashing, by the brook, and a breathing in the stillness. In the third verse we are told that over by the brook, a water-nymph is bathing in the moonlight, her white arms and neck shimmering in the moonlight.
We’re not actually told if the traveller sees the nymph. The traveler, the nymph, the cricket – maybe they’re all just part of this evening scene. Brahms loved walking in nature, and I think what he’s trying to evoke is that magical feeling around twilight, especially when you’re out in the forest, when it definitely feels possible that just out of sight, behind the trees, a nymph or a fairy might be splashing in the brook.
A few years before Brahms wrote ‘Sommerabend’, the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist published one short piano piece by the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky every month. Each piece was named after the month it was published in, and came with a subtitle and a short epigraph.
Tchaikovsky wrote these on commission and so didn’t necessarily pour all of his musical genius into each piece, but there are nevertheless some lovely ones included. Today we’re going to listen to a few of the summer months.
June has the subtitle ‘Barcarolle‘. A barcarolle is traditionally a folk song sung by gondoliers in Venice, but the term became popular in classical music for short pieces in a moderate tempo 6/8 with a rhythm that sounds a bit like a gondolier’s stroke.
Except this one isn’t in 6/8.
It’s the mood that matters, I suppose. The little epigraph, or short poem, comes from the Russian poet Aleksey Peshcheyev and translates to:
Let us go to the shore;
there the waves will kiss our feet.
With mysterious sadness
the stars will shine down on us.
July: Song of the Reaper
Move the shoulders,
Shake the arms!
And the noon wind
breathes in your face.
The harvest has grown,
People in families cut the tall rye down to the root!
Put together the haystacks,
music screeching all night from the hauling carts.
I have to admit in the August I had to think more of the storm in Vivaldi’s summer than about families harvesting rye. But I do think it’s a cool little piece.
Next up we’re going back to something a little bigger and a little longer: the overture from Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummernight’s Dream’.
Felix Mendelssohn is, in my opinion, an underrated composer. I’m sure we’ll be meeting him again in later episodes so I won’t give you his whole life story, but just to make you feel better about your life accomplishments, I’ll let you know that he wrote this piece when he was 17 years old.
Although the overture wasn’t written to go with a particular performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummernight’s Dream’, you can hear a lot of it back in the overture – after the first notes in the woodwinds we hear the dancing fairies, and later on we can hear a braying donkey sound in the violins representing the character Bottom, whose head gets turned into a donkey’s head in the play.
What I love about Mendelssohn, especially in some of his early works, is not only the playful and fantastical different moods he can represent, but also just how genuinely bright and optimistic the happier moods can sound. I’ll let you hear for yourself.
Next we have a short French song from 1894 by Cecile Chaminade called ‘l’ete’, which is French for summer. The lyrics are from a poem by Eduoard Guinand, and they describe the singing birds, the beautiful summer roses, the sun painting the sycamores gold, the breeze that spreads the happy spirit of summer everywhere, and the couple that’s in love. You’ll hear the word ‘chantez’ a lot – that’s the French word for ‘sing’.
A little bit about the composer before we listen to this – Cecile Chaminade was a French composer and pianist who lived from 1857-1944. She dabbled in composition from the age of 8, and the composer Georges Bizet recognized and was impressed by her talent. However, since her father disapproved of her musical education she couldn’t officially go study music at a conservatory or school like male composers and musicians did in those days to get their education. Instead she studied piano, violin, and composition privately, and did go on to make a successful career in performing and composing. In fact she was quite a well-known composer in her day. And although she was married for a few years, to music publisher who was 20 years her senior, he died after six years, and it was almost certainly a platonic marriage of convenience. After his death in 1907, she said: “Marriage must adapt itself to one’s career… If the woman is the artist it upsets the standards, the conventions, the usual arrangements, and usually it ruins the woman’s art… Though I have been married, I feel that it is difficult to reconcile the domestic life with the artistic.”
I think other women composers and performers of Chaminade’s day faced similar dilemmas – Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke, perhaps. The composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth got around the problem by generally falling in love with women instead, though probably that didn’t make her life all that much easier.
But one fun fact before we listen- if you’ve watched the show ‘Anne with an E’, do you remember that gloriously queer soiree that aunt Barry throws in season 2 with all the most colourful people of Charlottetown in attendance? Well, the pianist at the party was Cecile Chaminade, and in that episode her character plays a piece by Georges Bizet, and one of Chaminade’s own works. She was a pretty private person – she had her diary and many of her letters and documents destroyed – but I could totally see how she would have played at an event like this…
Hugo Alfven was a Swedish composer active in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and we’re going to be listening to his best-known pieces: his Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, also known as Midsommarvaka, or midsummer vigil. He wrote it in 1903, and draws on Swedish folk melodies to create the mood of a Swedish Midsummer wake with dancing and games around the may-pole throughout the night.
And lastly we have a short little piece by Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi is a Japanese composer best known for many of his film scores, especially the ones he wrote for almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films.
The piece we’re listening to today is not from a studio Ghibli film, but from another film he scored in I believe the 90s. I haven’t seen the film and can’t remember what it’s called, but this piece has become quite popular on its own, and is simply called ‘Summer.’