I am surprised that I have not posted all of Rosner's music already; I was listening to one of my favorite vocal works by Rosner earlier, and indeed again right now as I cannot ever get enough - his "Songs of Lightness and Angels" for Soprano, Horn and Piano. Texts from Finnish poetry are used and the work is sung in Finnish. It was such a sheer delight for me when Albany released this two disc set; I already had all but one of the pieces recorded here on private cassette recordings, and the performances here are equally as fine, more so as they benefit from a crisp digital recording. But back then Rosner was doubtful that these works would reach the public; as a composer writing gorgeous and accessible music in the late 20th century it was just something that he became sadly used to-I think all of us know how trendy and over emphasized minimalist and neo-minimalist types of music were at the time (this was a time for instance, when I had every Hovhaness recording-all FIVE of them on cd...of course there were many LPs but only one had been transferred to cd at the time!). Rosner's sublime song cycle "Nightstone" was recorded on Albany Records in 1995, however it remained (and remains) a hidden gem unless one is a seasoned Rosner enthusiast.
Another gem, among dozens and dozens (I'd confidently call it a masterpiece) which I hope sees the light of day, is Arnold's Chamber Opera "Bontsche Schweig" for Two Sopranos, Alto, Two Tenors, Baritone, Bass, and Chamber Orchestra. It is based on a poignant Jewish folk-tale about a man who has had the hardest life, with many tragedies and tribulations, yet remained a mensch (from Yiddish for a selfless, wise and noble individual, of the highest honor etc.) til the very end. When I first met Rosner, it was an invitation to sit in on a performance of Bontsche Schweig at Kingsborough Community College, one of the schools that Arnold had been professor of composition and music theory for many years. It was a "reduction" (oh how I wish it had been included in this collection) of the Chamber Opera, performance by two sopranos, alto, two tenors, baritone, bass and piano. It was one of the finest experiences of my life. I would have enjoyed it even more had I not been nervous the entire time (first meeting with the composer after a year-long correspondence solely via email). My hands were as clammy as the nearby Sheepshead Bay! Anyhow I have been worried for a long time that the recording I have, also a cassette, will degrade and I'm desperate to transfer and preserve it. -If anyone out there has the appropriate equipment, or better yet a studio within 100,000 miles of the Eastern U.S....let me know.
Here's Arnold's personal and illuminating booklet notes:
This recording essentially completes my entire “oeuvre” to this date of songs (“art songs,” or “lieder”) on compact disc, given the presence already of two song-cycles. In addition we have included in this program only those examples from opera that have beginnings, endings and structures which enable them to stand as integral pieces without the remainder of the theatrical work.
The texts range widely and their sources range from the gospel according to St. Luke and the Jewish Aramaic liturgy to friends writing occasional poems, as early as at age five. The predominant language is English, but in addition to the aforementioned Aramaic, there are songs in French, German and Finnish.
I wrote my setting of the 23rd Psalm in three or four days some months before my 18th birthday. One learns the words only too well at funerals, and at that early stage I was suffering from the usual youthful “crush” directed to a certain mezzo-soprano, for whose voice the piece was intended.
In high school I met and became good friends with one Michael Sussholtz. He was something of a mystic, played flute, and while we got along very well our musical tastes largely diverged—with the notable exception of agreeing on a very warm feeling about Renaissance music. Mike later sang in various small non-professional choirs devoting their time largely to that repertoire, and indeed many of the choir colleagues attended his funeral in 1989 to sing motets (in Hebrew) of Salamone da Rossi. (Mike died of AIDS at the age of 45.) He was a poet, but I must confess I generally found his pieces heavy in both words and meaning. He often asked me to consider setting one of them—and I finally decided to read them one at a time—not as a collection, and determined that one untitled two-stanza poem did indeed suit me. The ending, especially, struck me as a “coup”—where one verse concludes with “the brilliance of the night” and the second with “the brilliance of the light.” I reached into my harmonic bag of tricks, found the passage I wanted, and, of course, marked “night” fortissimo, and “light” subito pianissimo. This was written in 1972, and I went on to use the piano introduction as a passacaglia pattern in my extremely tragic 4th String Quartet (recorded on Opus One, no. 150)
In the 60s and 70s the films of Ingmar Bergman were all the rage, at least among my friends. And the piece de resistance among them was The Seventh Seal, where Max van Sydow stars as Antonius Block, a knight, who, when confronted by death, challenges him to a chess game, for his life. All this is among sub-plots and other characters, and wonderful if fatalistic visual cinema. The film has music, by Erik Nordgren, but I found it severe, which I suppose was intended and in agreement with Bergman’s direction but to my ears it seemed understated. I decided to obtain the printed screenplay and use it as a libretto for an opera. I was in my 20s and arrogant enough to believe that the director would be pleased with such a project.
I tried to reach him—my letters were unanswered (this was years before e-mail, of course). In the summer of 1972 I went to Europe—celebrating the completion of my doctorate, and during a few days in Sweden, got as far as meeting Bergman’s attorney and speaking briefly via telephone with the great man himself. I volunteered at my own expense to make my way to his little private island and play and sing what I had already written. But I met with cold stone. He claimed he did not like ANY interaction of cinema and opera (although soon after he produced a movie version of Die Zauberflöte), and that he did not even like the Seventh Seal anymore and wanted to discour-age its proliferation. It was made clear that I would be sued, and anybody performing the project would be sued—if I went ahead with this idea.
I was youthful, but not entirely irrational, so the idea had to be scrubbed. However, there was some good music already. One aria described young people eating strawberries and drinking milk; and there was a duet for male voices describing the chess/life struggle and match between the hero and death. So I did what composers generally do in reverse, and searched extensively for words that would both emotionally and spiritually fit the music I had. Of course, the usual procedure is to find the text and then write the music to fit. The first piece did indeed fit Francois Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis, and the second, now using just one voice, fit Gottfried Benn’s Ein Wort, ein Satz. These became two movements of what developed into a 10 movement Requiem, consisting of vocal, choral and instrumental sections from many ethnic traditions and spiritual viewpoints. Only one other movement turned out to be a one-singer aria, and that is the setting of the Mourner’s Kaddish in the Jewish tradition.
Anticipating a “slow-go” in ever getting the Requiem performed, I gave a separate title and opus number to the three arias—thus constituting the Three Elegiac Songs here recorded.
My next venture into art songs was written in 1979 and is a setting of three extracts from the Song of Songs. The title is Nightstone and it is recorded on Albany (TROY163).
Having been defeated by Ingmar Bergman in my first attempt to write an opera, it took me a while to consider the idea again, but in 1980 my friend and bridge partner Jack Millstein, an attorney who also dabbled in theatrical production, told me of a drama by one Florence Stevenson, which read very well but did not seem to play effectively on stage. It was called The Chronicle of Nine and was something of a history of Lady Jane Grey. I contacted the author who was more than happy to give me permission to write an operatic version. The complete work has never been per- formed, but piano/vocal recitals of some 50 minutes of excerpts have been successful, and the four main orchestral excerpts are available on CD (Albany TROY548). That suite is substantial enough that I have now somewhat belatedly re-titled it “Symphony No. 7 in A Minor, The Tragedy of Queen Jane, Opus 78.”
The structure Ms. Stevenson used, and that I carried through, includes a minstrel introducing each act in the drama. This was not uncommon in English opera and drama—we know it best these days in Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (set in England, despite its German words and style). While my three minstrel ballads are fairly similar in design and dynamic, I strove for a really mellow and vocally tender, yet deep sadness, and I felt they would work as a separate piece, so again assigned a separate title and opus number, thus constituting Minstrel to an Unquiet Lady. In the main action of the opera there is only one really clear self-standing aria, although a lot of the style is “arioso” or “recitativo appassionato.” The aria is scene 2 of Act I and young Lady Jane has just learned that a marriage has been arranged for her, by virtue of which she will likely become queen. Having no desire for either the crown or the marriage bed, she opens her bible and sings the passion as described in the gospel according to Luke.
In the late 80s, I tried at first to find texts in the Judeo-Hispanic language “Ladino,” spoken by the Sephardic community in Spain before being scattered by decree of Queen Isabella in 1492. However what texts I found in that language were still extant largely because they had been set to music during that period. These settings were beautiful and I saw no reason to compete with them.
Thus I reverted to non-Judeo Spanish and wrote Besos sin Cuento, for contralto, flute, viola and harp, available on Albany (TROY553). In this program of some 23 songs it seems opportune to provide a break from verbal content and vocal sonority, and thus it was decided to include A Plaintive Harmony, for unaccompanied French horn. Fortuitously, in the chronology of these pieces, that work precedes a three-movement work of which much of the “ethos” involves a horn obbligato. The Israeli horn player Meir Rimon had heard my Sonata for Horn and Piano, Opus 71 (available on Albany TROY163) and wanted me to write a horn concerto for him. Somehow nothing seemed to “flow” for me in that genre—so I went the other way and composed the unaccompa- nied piece. In European languages “harmony” has two meanings. One, of course, is the simultane- ous combination of pitches—chords, as we know them. The lesser-known meaning associates the word with any wind instrument. So—for example, the French call the concert band “l’Orchestre d’harmonie.” Thus it seemed an interesting play on words to title the unaccompanied work as I did considering that the work has no actual acoustical “chords” at all. The horn is the most difficult of orchestral instruments, and the demands on breath and lip created by a fairly long unaccompanied composition are arduously physically and artistically. Meir Rimon died prematurely of cancer so never had the chance to play it. On this recording, Daniel Grabois is more than equal to the challenge.
I was approached in 1989 by a student both of Slavic and Nordic languages AND of the French horn. He had heard my horn sonata and asked me to write songs for medium female voice, horn and piano, to help fill out a concert including Schubert’s Auf dem Strom, for the same combination. As his companion as singer and language teacher was Finnish, that was the language he requested. Of course I said words to the effect that I was very good indeed at writing pieces that never got performed, but such a project would “take the cake” and likely lie on the shelf perpetually. I wrote it anyway, and sure enough, the horn player and singer had parted ways by the time the work was completed, although they had helped me find good texts amongst Finnish poets, and to coach me as to phonetics and rhythm with full translations.
One hears that there is a certain mysticism to the Finnish soul. I never quite heard that to any great extent in Sibelius—but it is there in Rautavaara and in Kokkonen and others, and there they are in the far north, with a language that does not relate to neighboring Sweden and Norway at all, but rather to the Finno-Ugric family including Hungarian and Turkish—none of which countries border one another. I wrote my piece double-texting for performance either in Finnish or English (Lauluja Kevedeista ja Enkeleista; Songs of Lightness and Angels) and trying to evoke this spirit and Nordic atmosphere in various technical ways—never having visited Finland myself. There is not one single bar in rhythm of 3, 4 or 6 or 9 throughout. The songs are in 5/4, 11/8 and 7/8 respectively. In the particularly spiritual third poem, the music moves fairly fast and I have attempted a textural/harmonic scheme that I do not believe has ever been used before. Each 7/8 bar has one main “tonic” pitch, throughout the bar, with no particular rules about how one connects to the next bar. Within each bar, however, there is plenty of texture for the pianist. The scheme is that any bar with a tonic “G” will have EXACTLY the same piano figuration. If the tonic is “B” the figuration is identical for each bar, but distinct from the one on “G.” Thus for each of the 12 possible pitches (and each one comes in at least once), there is one precise textural filling out of the 7/8 measure. I did not, of course, mean this as a technical game. Rather the idea was to give each harmony, even pitch, a certain color and fantasy-attitude of its own. Both horn and voice parts are not under similar restraint, so there is plenty of room for melody and variety, but one hopes the general texture will be atmospheric and hypnotic.
I was composer in residence at a community orchestra in San Diego in 1992-1994 and an ancillary event to this would include a performance of the Three Elegiac Songs. The singer first engaged took a good look at the Kaddish and changed her mind. Not only was it vocally demand- ing, but she was Jewish and had recently lost close family members, and it was simply nothing she wanted to handle. She recommended a certain very talented young singer, with all the vocal stamina on earth, named Barbara Post. All this worked out and Barbara and I became friends. She showed me certain poems she had written, including Poseidon, about a woman and a male God-like figure. She included musical settings attempted by a friend or two, which did not fully satisfy her. Well—that was challenge enough to me, and my setting was written forthwith. Barbara, by the way, is now in full mid-career singing in opera and concerts and living in Milan.
Around the turn of the century—or millennium—I was commissioned by the foundation The Lark Ascending to write settings of such poets as John Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The three-movement Milton example, Of Songs and Sonnets, is for either medium female voice or counter-tenor, with harpsichord accompaniment. I have used the lute stop in the first movement more than I usually do—tried for some musical tricks in the second (such as setting the word “AC-cent” with a syncopated moment) and attempted for the graceful parental feelings of the third to lie comfortably in a 7-rhythm. In the Shelley (To the Keen Stars; his title was “to Jane”) we are back to the piano again, and the text tries to bring together earthly romance with music of the spheres and the stars. Quintuplet subdivisions of bars already in five beats spin around the ear, requiring not only virtuosity but a lightness of hand and voice on the part of the performers.
I had often wondered whether my head is in the clouds too much, and perhaps my music does not address how we feel right here and right now. During such a period of contemplation I attended a performance of a work about the poet Allen Ginsburg by the composer Elodie Lauten. This was enough to start me writing Strictly Personals—a song-cycle consisting essentially of texts one might actually find in “personals” ads in print or on-line. These are, of course, humorous and needy at the same time, and bespeak various individual viewpoints on the loneliness and vulnerability of the human condition. I wrote the texts entirely myself, though they may well resemble real examples of such advertisements. The work is for soprano, baritone and either piano (as recorded here) or string quartet. The soprano sings in nos. 1 and 3, the baritone in 2 and 4, and no. 5 is a duet. Yes, I have considered Strictly Personals “too” and may yet write it. Despite the variety of the characters in the present piece, there are considerably more personas out there.
The violinist Paul Vanderwerf has been instrumental (no pun intended) in the performance and recording of my string chamber music (see Albany TROY210 and TROY553). He and his wife Sarah have two children as of current count, and the older one is Mattias. Apparently one day, when he was five years old, mom and dad were out, he was in the care of a baby-sitter, and he made up a song—about the state of BEING five years old—too old for this, not old ENOUGH for that—at odds with life, either way. The baby-sitter managed to get the words of the song written down, and proud Papa sent them via e-mail to all his friends. Getting words but not music meant I was not going to engage with a five-year old in an unfair musical competition, so I was “in the clear,” and Five, Opus 120 is the result.
"Songs of Lightness and Angels" and the humorous, touching and witty "Strictly Personals" were among the works performed at Rosner's memorial concert last year. Once again it was as if the great maestro was with us in the hall, lifting the audience up and out, albeit briefly, from any earthly problems or discomfort. It was like a long, radiant (and musical) hug goodbye.
-I have included the booklet (pdf) which has the same notes by the composer that I typed out here-I felt it important to include them on the blog. Also included are the texts to the works.