In our upcoming concerts in Cape Town (Baxter Concert Hall, 3 August, 13h00) and Port Elizabeth on 6 August, American Soprano Judith Kellock and I will be performing a song cycle by South African composer Peter Louis van Dijk. The “Four American Songs”, set to poems by Meggan Moorhead and Sara Teasdale, is a substantial work presenting major challenges to both singer and pianist. In the composer’s list of works are many choral works, but a relatively small body of work for Voice and Piano. “Three Medieval Love Songs”, “Beyond” and “Stardrift: Four Songs” appear to be the only companions of the “Four American Songs”. Other vocal works explore instrumental ensemble or orchestral accompaniments. Van Dijk enjoys using larger performing forces. Some of his choral and orchestral works can be heard HERE. I have encountered his music as performer only in bigger settings. I was rehearsal pianist for his Aficanised realisation of Verdi’s score for Brett Bailey’s “macbEth” with Cape Town Opera – a fascinating rethink of a work. I was struck by way the music conjured up atmosphere and meaning. I was also orchestral pianist for his “Windy City Songs” – a choral symphony set to magnificent poetry about Chicago by Carl Sandburg – and was struck by the use of core thematic material, memorable and well-constructed. Some of the themes were so haunting they stayed with the listener for a long time. Also I was intrigued by the vocal writing, which seemed to indicate a composer willing to stretch traditional approaches to the voice, without detracting from them. Definitely a work that deserves repeated hearing, some of the themes form “Windy City Songs” – in my mind at least – appear in the “Four American Songs”, either by direct quotation, or in its moving reflections on death and dying.
Here is the Composer’s own Note about the work:
Four American Songs: Péter Louis van Dijk (1953 – )
The title, Four American Songs is in no way meant to imply a Whitman- or Coplandesque-type of place-bound cycle. Instead it reflects the origins of the two poets, Sara Teasdale and Meggan Moorhead and particularly the American “feel” of many of Teasdale’s poems. American poet and psychologist, Meggan Moorhead, lives in North Carolina. In mid-2000, during a brief meeting, she gave me a hand-written copy of the two poems, There is where our breathing and Feast. Originally from a group of three poems called Requiem Exercise, I connected readily with these poems. In a letter, Ms. Moorhead explains that “…my aim is to be evocative. The context [in which these poems were conceived] was singing the Pierre de la Rue Requiem in Boston (1991) under the direction of Sarah Cunningham … I loved the sound and the process but my question to myself was – in what words would we – in this day and time – with what words would we sing a requiem… make sacred the transition – what words would we use? And that is where I started from during the week between rehearsal and performance…” The poems are used by kind permission of the author. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she attended a school that was founded by the grandfather of another great poet from St. Louis, T. S. Eliot. She later associated herself more with New York City. Teasdale – regarded as an important lyric poet, committed suicide in 1933. The poems, There will come soft rains and There is no place (original title, Bells) are used by kind permission of the University of Michigan.
Postscript: These songs were composed for my first wife, Susi van Dijk’s final Masters recital at the University of Cape Town; sadly she died before she was able to perform them and they were premiered by Hannah van Niekerk (soprano) and Albie van Schalkwyk (piano) at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein in 2003
…with what words would we sing a requiem… make sacred the transition…
Those words of Moorhead seem to sum up the cycle for me. Dr. Meggan Moorhead is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Much of her work as psychologist has been in the area of suicide, and in particular, providing support for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide. Her accomplishments as a therapist speak for themselves, but unfortunately I could not find out much more about her poetry.
Sarah Teasdale, born in 1884, seems at first to be far removed from the modern pre-occupations of Moorhead. But I find it significant that Teasdale was frail and sickly all her life. Sheltered, homeschooled and over-protected, her marriage failed and she had difficulty maintaining relationships with friends. Pneumonia weakened her body and mind, and she lost the sense of the beauty of things that had inspired her early poetry. She committed suicide at 48. Her poetry reflects thoughts on the frailty of human existence and she herself writes: “Life is a frail moth flying Caught in the web of the years that pass.”
Her complete poems are available HERE and make powerful reading.
Brief discussions of the songs themselves:
The first song “There is where our breathing comes from” (Moorhead) opens with widely spaced chords that remind me of the “Windy City Songs”. The texture is thin and tension is created through obsessively repeated “heart-beat” patterns, creating, to my mind, an observer’s experience of a hospital death-bed. The transparent writing reminds at times of Schoenberg, with thematic material and figures superseding harmony.
The second song “There will come soft rains” (Teasdale) is comparatively light-hearted, musing that awareness of life and living is a particularly human preoccupation. Nature herself is “Life” that continues, and will do so even after human beings disappear physically or metaphorically from the planet. The opening figuration is so beautiful, and it’s irregular meter so catchy and memorable, that I hope this song will be performed often. The two hands have very different articulation and musical “tasks”, combining various textures – as in a proto-orchestration – giving insight perhaps into van Dijk’s compositional thinking. As I am learning the song, different sections suggest different instrumentation: Twittering woodwinds represent the soft raindrops or nature-sounds while drums and tom-toms dance defiantly at the mention of war and man’s disappearance from the planet. A final chord – “brutale”- shuts the door decisively on mankind. A more detailed analysis of the poem can be found HERE
The third song “There is no place” (Teasdale) strongly recalls the “Windy City Songs”. Widely spaced chords with meditative repetitions usher in a reflection on the inevitability of the passing of life. Richard Strauss’ Marchallin went through the house at night stopping the clocks in attempt to halt the passing of time, or at the very least, to avoid being reminded of the ticking. Yet the subject of the poem can find nowhere in this crowded life where there are not bells that remind of the coming of the end. While the middle section of the song seems to be more defiant, using more deliberately “pianistic” figuration than in the outer sections to suggest the elation of bells, the return to sparse textures at the end reflect resignation and sadness.
The fourth and largest song “Feast” (Moorhead) makes extreme technical demands on both performers. Rhythmic complexity and virtuosic writing create a delirious affirmation of life. In figurations marked “fantastico” I hear snippets of Shostakovich dancing in the wings – perhaps the “Fantastic Dances”? Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel” occasionally makes an appearance as well. I do not yet make the connections in this poem between the literal images such as dragonflies in the garden, one’s morning cup of coffee, and the concept of Moorhead’s “Requiem Exercise”. The last rush of arpeggios certainly reflects an ecstatic abandonment, perhaps to death? Is the feast possibly an afterlife vision? Perhaps my awareness of Moorhead’s work in the field of death and dying, and my acquaintance with, and affection for Susi van Dijk, who died before she could perform these songs which were written for her, might be contributing to an over-interpretation.
I have found myself profoundly affected by the poems and the strength of the music. Learning the piano parts has been a big task, but I hope to encourage other singers to tackle this work. Juduth Kellock has an impressive discography of contemporary music. I am sure her performance will take the fear out of the “contemporary art-song recital”.
I have grown very deeply attached to these songs, and I hope they will be taken up and performed by more singers.