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Program Notes for My Debut CD---“Chanson de Nuit”
by Amy Yeung, Department of Music
I love music with nocturnal themes---I find it romantic and enjoyable to listen to.
Many of the night-themed songs I know also have themes of love. Whether the love
theme takes place at a specific time of the year, at a particular location, in a special
circumstance, or is associated with a specific character or person, they are all charming to
me. It was my profound fascination with the mysterious and beautiful qualities of the
night that inspired me to sing this album of “Chanson de Nuit.”
In the process of selecting music for my compact disc, I revisited some of the
songs that I have heard or learnt in the past, and discovered new rarely-performed
repertoire. As I dug into the song literature in great depth, I was amazed by the vast
selection of songs that were inspired by poems of the night. In order to narrow down my
selections, I concentrated on literature from the nineteenth century.
I am privileged to have had my friend and colleague Jung-Won Shin collaborate
on this project. I have grown so much as a musician during the time we spent working on
the songs, our first-time joint effort. It has been a joy to share and conceive the music
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote about seventy-nine songs in his lifetime.
All of his songs demonstrate his love of melodic writing. His charming melodies and
craftsmanship in handling the piano led me to work on this collection of five songs.
Although his accompaniment of the songs essentially provides supportive harmonic
background to the melody, rather than work in interactive partnership with the vocal part,
it vividly captures the spirit and the atmosphere of the poems. Bei der Wiege (Op. 47,
no. 6) is a lullaby whose carefreeness is established by the lively rhythmic pattern and the
repeated staccato figure in the piano. Set to the text of Heinrich Heine, in Auf Flügeln
des Gesanges (Op. 34, no. 2) Mendelssohn conveys the image of flying through the use
of a swaying melodic pattern and a recurring upward-arpeggiated figure in the piano. In
Pagenlied (1832), Mendelssohn employs a staccato pattern in 6/8 in the piano to render
the scene of a page serenading his love with his mandolin in a beautiful night. A
recurrent syncopated rhythmic pattern in the piano and the repeated “B-flat” in the bass
suggest quietness of the evening in Nachtlied (Op. 71, no. 6). Another setting of Heine,
Neue Liebe (Op. 19a, no. 4) has the most exciting accompaniment that resembles the
movement of the elves riding through the woods, horns sounding and bells ringing. The
fast-paced accompaniment drastically contrasts with the slowly moving chordal
progression in the final phrase, when the text wonders if a queen riding past is a sign of
his new love, or a sign of death.
The song writing of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was immensely influenced by
his orchestral compositions. His songs are generally richly textured, have expansive and
disjunct vocal lines and soaring phrases, and his colorful harmonic language and tonal
schemes enhance passionate lyricism. One of my favorite Strauss songs, Cäcilie (Op. 27,
no. 2), was composed in September 1894, shortly before his wedding. The
accompaniment has an orchestral feeling and the full-blown upward-moving piano figure
is featured throughout the song. In fact, Strauss orchestrated the song three years after its
publication. Characteristically of his melodic writing, a long-lined phrase in soaring
motion on the words “du lebtest mit mir” (you would live with me) ends the song. The
second of the six Brentano settings, Ich wollt ein Sträusslein binden (Op. 68, no. 2), is
another example of broad, flowing, melodic writing serving lyrical purposes. Ständchen
(Op. 17, no. 2) is probably Strauss’ most famous song. He employs light fluttery piano
movement to capture the peaceful surroundings of a lover, serenading in a blissful night.
Compared to the other three songs, Die Nacht (Op. 10, no. 3) is the slowest of the group.
Perhaps due to the fact it is one of Strauss’ earliest songs, the overall texture in the song
is relatively light. The chromatic voice leading in the accompaniment creates a
wonderful effect as it portrays the charm and calmness of the night, which the poet fears
might steal his beloved, just as it steals the light from the woods and the silver from the
My favorite French composer, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), writes music in most
imaginative and colorful ways. Mandoline (Op. 58, no. 1), taken from Cinq Mélodies de
Venise (1891) is one of the most charming songs of the composer. The poem was
inspired by Watteau’s painting The Mandolin, which depicted a mandolin player filled
with tenderness, passion and sadness. Fauré’s fluid melodic writing and a light-textured
piano part vividly capture these emotions. Soir (1894, Op. 83, no. 2), one of the most
exquisite settings by the composer, beautifully captures the image of a garden fading at
dusk. Nell (1878, Op. 18, no. 1), probably the most popular song by the composer, was
dedicated to Madame Camille Saint-Saëns. For this love poem, Fauré wrote the most
beautiful melody, flawlessly supported by arpeggios in the accompaniment.
In his lifetime, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote a total of eighty-seven songs.
One of my favorite Debussy songs, Nuit d’etoiles (1876) was the composer’s first
published song. Set to the poem by Théodore de Banville, its melancholy theme is
dedicated to past loves. C’est l’estase, written in 1888, is the first mélodie from Ariettes
Oubliées, the very well-regarded series of settings of Paul Verlaine. In the song,
Debussy’s sonority in the piano subtly describes a sensual and intimate encounter of
lovers in a warm summer evening, surrounded by delicate sounds of nature. Another set
of mélodies composed in 1891-1892, Fêtes galantes, série I, consists of three songs: En
sourdine, Fantoches, and Claire de lune. The middle song, Fantoches, acts as a scherzo
between the two slow movements. In the love song En sourdine, Debussy creates an
atmosphere of profound silence by employing piano and pianissimo in both the voice and
piano parts throughout the song. Fantoches is a fast, witty song about the fanciful
characters of old Italian Comedy. Claire de lune has a tender sound throughout to
describe the calm moonlight, creating a wistful, but at the same time beautiful effect.
Primarily an opera composer, Alfred Bachelet (1864-1944) also wrote several art
songs. Chère nuit is a much-loved song for sopranos, set to a poem of Paul Verlaine.
The composer’s operatic writing style is evident in the use of rich harmonies and broad
flowing melodic phrases with large interval leaps, which contribute to the beauty and the
dramatic quality of the song. The declamatory writing at the beginning section of the
song almost acts like a recitative, standard in an opera aria. Not exactly having a livelier
cabaletta, the song almost feels like a “miniature” cavatina of the eighteenth and
nineteenth century Italian opera.
A contemporary of Bachelet, Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) enjoyed more fame as
a composer of songs; he wrote about ninety-five songs for solo voice of which eighty-
four are mélodies. Hahn was born in Venezuela and his family moved to Paris when he
was three. L’heure exquise from the Chansons grises, is regarded as one of his most
famous mélodies. Set to the poem of Paul Verlaine, the song was composed between
1891 and 1892. The composer uses only p and pp to depict the exquisite hour of early
evening where the moon, the lake, the willow tree, the wind, and the star together create
an absolute stillness of the night. Slow-flowing, broken chords in ascending motion are
used throughout the song to accompany the declamatory vocal part, evoking a feeling of
peacefulness and bliss.
Pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote seven sets of songs, filled with
beautiful melodies and colorful harmonies that express deepest desires, passionate love,
and intense emotion. Many of his songs are rarely performed. V molchanji nochi tajnoj
(In the silence of mysterious night, 1890, Op. 4, no. 3) was written while Rachmaninov
was still studying at the Moscow Conservatoire, and was published in 1893 in a set of six
songs set to various poets. Set to a poem by Afanasy Fet, the poet remembers the
tenderness and the beauty of his beloved in a silent night, and dreams that her cherished
name will awaken the darkness of the night. Ne poj, krasavitsa (Oh, do not sing to me,
1893, Op. 4, no. 4), from the same set, is a setting of Alexander Pushkin. In the song,
Rachmaninov captures the emotional state of a sorrowful lover who asks a young girl not
to sing songs from Georgia, as they recall unhappy memories of a love lost. Heavily
textured, and with an outpouring of emotions, it is one of the most powerful and
expressive songs of the composer. In contrast to this song, Sumerki (Twilight, 1902,
Op. 21, no. 3) and Zdes khorosho (It is beautiful here, 1902, Op. 21, no. 7) have a lighter
piano texture and share the same rhythmic pattern that portrays the calmness of the night.
Set to poems by Jean-Marie Guyot and Glafira Galina, respectively, both songs depict the
poets meditating in the stillness of the night. Otryvok iz A. Mjusse (Fragment from A.
Musset, 1902, Op. 21, no. 6), from the same set, expresses deep emotions of loneliness
and death. Eti letnije nochi (Summer Nights, 1896, Op. 14, no. 5) has one of the most
soaring piano accompaniments, adding life and power to the poet’s yearning, stirred by a
beautiful night.