This afternoon in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Faculty Artist Series began with an imaginative song recital entitled I’ll Change Your Tune: One-Upmanship in 19th Century Song. This was apparently the brain child of soprano Rebecca Plack, Professor of both Music History and Vocal Pedagogy (as well as an SFCM graduate). Plack was assisted in her project by her piano accompanist Curt Pajer, currently Interim Director and Music Director of the Opera Program.
Plack assembled her selections to examine the practice of appropriation over the course of the nineteenth century. Of course appropriation was hardly a nineteenth-century invention. One can probably make the case that the practice sustained music as an oral art before the earliest efforts at notation. Nevertheless, this particular recital was interesting for the specific composers Plack chose to examine. In chronological order these were Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and Claude Debussy.
The Schumann songs were selected from his Opus 25 collection Myrthen. The 26 songs in this collection were composed in 1840, shortly before his marriage to Clara Wieck; and the set is dedicated “To his beloved bride.” Schumann drew upon a diverse collection of poets for his texts, but Plack focused her attention on texts that Robert Burns contributed to The Scots Musical Museum, the first collection of Scottish folk songs and music, published in six volumes, each containing 100 songs, between 1787 and 1803.
Schumann set eight of these Scottish songs in his Opus 25, using German translations by Wilhelm Gerhard. Plack sang three of these, each preceded by her singing Burns’ text to the originally published melody with Pajer improvising an accompaniment to that melody. However, only one of those three, the fourteenth song, “Hochländisches Wiegenlied” (Highland lullaby), seemed to show any signs that Schumann was aware of the source melody. This did not make a strong case that Schumann was stealing from Burns, which appeared to be the point that Plack wished to make. (She told the audience that this portion of the recital could be called CSI: Musicology.) Knowing Schumann’s interests, he could just as easily have picked up the melody from one of the arrangements that either Joseph Haydn or Ludwig van Beethoven had composed for George Thomson’s collection, A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, which was published in several volumes between 1793 and 1818. More important to this afternoon’s recital was that these songs captured the passionate spirit of Schumann on the brink of marriage, and Plack’s performance was thoroughly true to that spirit.
Wolf, on the other hand, had a rather more contentious personality. He was represented by his settings of two poems that had been previously set by illustrious predecessors. One of those predecessors was Schumann, through his setting of Eduard Mörike’s “Das verlassene Mägdlein” (the forsaken maiden) the second of his Opus 64 set of songs and ballads. The other was Franz Schubert’s setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Ganymede.” In each case Wolf’s version was performed after the earlier version.
In this case Plack demonstrated that Wolf had taken a single motif from Schumann, representing sparks from a burning ember, and transformed it into the primary melodic element. Plack suggested that Wolf intended his setting as a tribute to Schumann. On the other hand she cited Wolf claiming that the dramatism of Goethe’s text was so intense that no musical rhetoric prior to Wagner could possibly do justice to it. In this case Wolf’s setting was definitely the more expressive. However, whether Wolf composed that song as an attack on Schubert is more debatable. Wolf seemed to believe in strong opinions strongly held. From a distance of more than a century, however, we can accept that a single text can sustain the expressiveness of widely different aesthetic approaches to rhetoric.
Most fascinating, however, was Plack’s study of Debussy’s act of appropriating from himself. This concerned his settings of three poems by Paul Verlaine, “En sourdine” (muted), “Clair de lune” (moonlight), and “Fantoches” (marionettes). These were originally composed separately in 1882 and then reconceived in 1891 and collected as the first set of Fëtes galantes (gallant festivals). Of the three, only “Fantoches” strongly resembled its original version. On the other hand Verlaine’s texts allow for enough diversity of visual impressions that one could appreciate Debussy’s decision to change his musical perspective, so to speak.
The program concluded with three recent compositions. The first of these was Igor Stravinsky’s twelve-tone setting of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” demonstrating that pure whimsy could be expressed without a tonal center as readily as any other literary style. This was followed by David Garner’s recent setting of “Danny Boy,” in which Plack sang the original tune for the song against the accompaniment of an Irish lament played by Pajer. The program then concluded with Aaron Copland’s setting of “At the River,” which played up the grandeur of Americana a bit more aggressively than Charles Ives had done in his own setting of that hymn.
Plack then returned to Schumann for her encore. She took another Burns poem that had been translated by Gerhard, “Dem roten Röslein gleicht mein Lieb” (my love is like a red, red rose), the second song in Schumann’s Opus 27 collection, also composed in 1840. However, she sang Schumann’s setting to Burns original words, rather than Gerhard’s German. This worked impressively well, making it clear that Schumann had captured the spirit of the original poem, even if he grasped that spirit only through Gerhard’s translation.