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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Three song cycles

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Related Threads:
Your Favorite 20th/21st Century Composers

En français

In a thread started a couple of weeks ago, we were asked to identify our "favourite" contemporary composers in a number of categories. In the Lieder/Song category, I hastily answered George Gershwin. After all, the question specifically asked to identify one favoourite, and didn’t ask for favourite song cycles, to which I could have listed a long list of favourites, including the song cycles by Mahler (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Ruckert-Lieder, Tottenkinderlieder and – depending if you call it a symphony or not, Das Lied von der Erde), as well as the three sets of songs we will be sampling today.

Blogging about the song cycles featured today has been in my hamper for quite awhile – preceeding by a few weeks the above thread – but the thread does bring the discussion about the “art song” in contenmporary music through a different angle. Can we draw a parallel between the art soings of the 19th century (notably those of Schubert) and the “contemporary” art songs, or should we really compare them to the ballads of the trobadours of the 1960’s. Are Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney true heirs of that tradition, or is that really limited to Richard Strauss, or Igor Stravinsky?

Think about that one while we sample the works of three composers who were contemporaries of each other: the above-mentioned Strauss, Maurice Ravel anmd Sir Edwartd Elgar.

A few words about each song cycle:

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, for contralto and orchestra, Op. 37
Gladys Ripley, contralto, with the London Symphony Orchestra under George Weldon

  1. "Sea Slumber Song" by Roden Noel
  2. "In Haven (Capri)" by Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife
  3. "Sabbath Morning at Sea" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  4. "Where Corals Lie" by Richard Garnett
  5. "The Swimmer" by Adam Lindsay Gordon


The oldest of the three sets is Elgar’s “Sea Pictures”, The songs were composed in July 1899 (apart from "In Haven", which was a reworking of his 1897 "Love alone will stay"). The premiere was on 5 October 1899 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival with Elgar himself conducting and Clara Butt singing, dressed as a mermaid.

Chronologically, these songs are contemporary to Elgar’s seminal Enigma Variations, and the orchestration and general colour of the music is very reminescent of the lush, and at times playful, variations. The performance I chose is a vintage recording by contralto Gladys Ripley (1908-1955), with the London Symphony Orchestra dating 26 February 1954. Her projection and diction are so well suited for these songs, and it makes me sad to think that such a great voice was to die so young.. .

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Schéhérazade, poèmes pour soprano (ou ténor) avec orchestre, MR 41
Marilyn Horne, soprano, and l'Orchestre National de France under Leonard Bernstein

(Texts by Tristan Klingsor)
  1. Asie
  2. La flûte enchantée
  3. L'indifférent


Ravel’s works catalog has two entries for Schéhérazade: an 1898 “ouverture de féerie” and this song cycle, dated 1903. It is hard to find a literal translation for féerie; in french, the word means more than fairy tale, it evokes things that are fantastic and magical (all of which the Ravel overture does in this such an early work). Ravel’s song cycle, and especially the first song (Asie), aren’t féerique at all. It is all about the exotic, the mysterious, the far away lands. The tone of the music finally gets to more of he Arabian Nights flavour in the secoind siong, with its magical flute passages.

The performance I chose ios a solid one featuring American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, accompanied by American conductor Leonard Bernstein, leading l'Orchestre National de France.

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) for soprano and orchestra (1948)
Lucia Popp,soprano and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti

  1. "Frühling" ("Spring") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
  2. "September" (Text: Hermann Hesse)
  3. "Beim Schlafengehen" ("Going to sleep") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
  4. "Im Abendrot" ("At sunset") (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)


The final set is Strauss’ ultimate composition, the Four Last Songs. Written when Strauss was over 90 years old, the songs approach the theme of aging and mortality with a deft combination of serenity, sincerity and power. The songs speak for themselves, and despite their vintage (post WW II) they are a throw-back to the late Romantic era, where Strauss (as a young maverick) contributed some of his most memorable orchestral works.

The performance is a rare video featuring Lucia Popp and the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti.

November 25 2011, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "Haitink/Beethoven" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read our English and French commentary November 25th on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.
Likes Sid James liked this post

Updated Nov-22-2011 at 11:35 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Singers , Recorded Music


  1. Art Rock's Avatar
    The Ravel and Strauss song cycles you picked are among my favourites of all time. Never got that much into the Elgar one though.
  2. Sid James's Avatar
    I like the R. Strauss work. gundula janowitz's rendition is a favourite.

    I have listened to the Ravel one, I have it on disc with Dame Kiri, but I haven't listened to it very much, so it's as if I haven't really. It is more a wash of sound than about tunes, so it needs repeat listening, I guess.

    I like the Elgar but I find it too dark. It is quite depressing for me until the end where he gives you a bit of a boost. I have the seminal account under Maestro Barbirolli with Dame Janet Baker singing, but it's on tape and I need to upgrade to cd. but i do have it on cd with another singer, i forget.

    another seminal song-cycle of c20th is schoenberg's pierrot lunaire. heard it live this yr, incl. with lighting, dancing, dramatisation and it was great. his cabaret songs (brettl-lieder) are also worth checking out, more kind of tonal.

    others i like are -

    lutoslawski - paroles tisses, & espaces du sommeil

    barber - i heard a song-cycle by him in french earlier in the year, superb (for male voice & pno), forget the title

    copland - emily dickinson poems & also two sets of old american songs

    george crumb - he's done some things as well, quite dark

    britten - he did too many to mention, one is serenade for tenor, horn & strings

    de falla - 7 popular spanish songs - a favourite, there are many transcriptions of this, it's popularity is deserved imo...
    Likes itywltmt liked this post
    Updated Nov-25-2011 at 12:53 by Sid James
  3. flylooper's Avatar
    I'm surprised no one mentioned Gustav Mahler, who wrote three specular song cycles:

    Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen - Text by the composer
    Totenlieder - Text by Friedrich Rückert
    Rückerlieder -Text by Friedrich Rückert

    Written for mezzo or baritone voice.

    Though I think Strauss was a wonderful composer for the voice and his songs (including "Four Last Songs") are wonderful to listen to, I consider that Mahler was the far more interesting.
  4. itywltmt's Avatar
    Notice I mention all three of the Mahler cycles you listed in the first few paragraphs of my blog...

    There was some malice behid my choices - I wanted to use three song cycles composed by three different people, with songs in different languages. I could have used the Wayfarer cycle (my favoiurite of the three) for German rather than the Strauss, but I am particular when it comes to that song cycle - only Maureen Forrester will do - whereas I got Lucia Popp right away without even looking too long...