Samuel Barber's Chamber Music songs
Composed between 1935 and 1937, these six songs are settings of poems from Joyce's Chamber Music, scored for voice and piano.
The poems of Chamber Music have often been criticized for their simplicity, and it's certainly true that as poetry, they possess an awkward naïveté. But Joyce wrote them with the voice of a tenor in mind, and indeed, many critics and musicians have noted that their lyricism cries out for musical settings -- which has been done by a variety of musicians ranging from Syd Barrett to Karol Szymanowski.
But of all these musical settings, I think that Samuel Barber's are the best, and probably the versions that would make Joyce himself the happiest. Barber's seem truest to the poems themselves, and his music gives them a vitality and emotional depth that is less apparent when they are approached as pure poetry. Like light falling upon a dark jewel, his musical settings cause each poem to glow and sparkle, highlighting different emotional facets and unveiling a hidden depth. And Barber's music, as always, is masterly, filled with wit, restraint, and élan. Each element seems perfectly balanced, with the voice and piano coming off as partners in a dance -- sometimes supportive, sometimes placed against each other to produce tension, sometimes one yielding the foreground to the other; but both are equal and quite necessary. At times the piano music reminds me of Debussy -- there are a few strangely haunting moments, and Barber knows how to render a beautiful melody perfectly bittersweet with a touch of dissonance. The voice, too, is beautiful, and I can't recommend Cheryl Studer more highly as an interpreter, for the Chamber Music songs as well as "Nuvoletta." Where some operatic sopranos might be tempted into showing off, Studer lets the song dictate her delivery, and she touches each word with an appropriate amount of grace, irony, impishness or sadness. Although his baritone is perhaps darker than the tenor voice Joyce had in mind, Thomas Hampson is also quite fine, particularly with "I Hear an Army," the most sophisticated and bleak work in the collection.
THREE SONGS op. 10 (1935-1936)
1. "Rain has Fallen"
(Moderato; From Chamber Music XXXI)
Rain has fallen all the day.
O come along the laden trees:
The leaves lie thick upon the way
Staying a little by the way
Of memories shall we depart.
Come, my beloved, where I may
Speak to your heart.
2. "Sleep Now"
(Andante Tranquilo; From Chamber Music XXXIV)
Sleep now, O sleep now,
O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying "Sleep now"
Is heard in my heart.
The voice of the winter
Is heard in the door.
O sleep, for the winter
Is crying "Sleep no more."
My kiss will give you peace now
And quiet to your heart--
Sleep on in peace now,
O you unquiet heart!
3. "I Hear an Army"
(Allegro con fuoco; From Chamber Music 36)
I hear an army charging upon the land,
And hear the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the
They cry unto the night their battle name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.
They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me
"Of That So Sweet Imprisonment"
(1935; Con moto; From Chamber Music XXII)
Of that so sweet imprisonment
My soul, dearest, is fain --
Soft arms that woo me to relent
And woo me to detain.
Ah, could they ever hold me there
Gladly were I prisoner!
Dearest, through interwoven arms
By love made tremulous,
That night allures me where alarms
Nowise may trouble us;
But sleep to dreamier sleep be wed
Where soul with soul lies prisoned.
"Strings in the Earth and Air"
(1935; Moderato; From Chamber Music I)
Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.
There's music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.
All softly playing,
With head to music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.
"In the Dark Pinewood"
(1937; Moderato; From Chamber Music XX)
In the dark pinewood
I would we lay,
In deep cool shadows
At noon of day.
How sweet it is to lie there,
Sweet to kiss,
Where the great pine-forest
Thy kiss descending
With the soft tumult
Of thy hair.
O, unto the pinewood
At noon of day
Come with me now,
Sweet love, away.
To obtain all of these songs there is really only one choice -- Secrets of the Old, a 2-disc set of Samuel Barber's complete songs. (It used to just be called "The Songs Complete.") The songs are sung by Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson, with John Browning on piano. It is put out by Deutsche Grammophon and has the serial number 435 867-2.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Samuel Barber CDs online from Amazon.com below:
Barber: Secrets of the Old --The Complete Songs (2 CD set)
$26.67; Samuel Barber / Audio CD / Released 1994
(Complete -- contains all nine Joycean songs!)
Barber: Songs / Roberta Alexander
$15.49; Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1992
(Three Songs, op. 10; "Nuvoletta")
Leontyne Price sings Barber: Knoxville, etc / Barber
$10.49; Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1994
(Three Songs, op. 10, No. 2 -- "Sleep Now," "Nuvoletta")
Nuvoletta -- A beautiful song with lyrics adapted from Finnegans Wake.
Solitary Hotel -- A song with lyrics adapted from Ulysses.
Now I Have Eaten Up the Rose -- This song is based on a James Joyce translation of a German poem by Gottfried Keller.
Fadograph of a Yestern Scene -- A short instrumental inspired from a line in Finnegans Wake.