Great Poets in Song
Chamber Music
(1995-98; 54.24 min.) For tenor and piano, based on poems from Joyce's Chamber Music

Alfred Heller's Chamber Music

I think New York composer Alfred Heller's setting of the Chamber Music poems would have delighted their author -- the songs are direct but beautiful, the music wonderfully expressive of its subject, and the entire cycle provides an excellent showcase for the rich tenor voice Joyce so loved. Resisting the temptation to overpower the often fragile poems with a modern idiom, Heller's music shows a lovely sense of restraint, an old-fashioned grace that underlines the simplicity of the lyrics and allows the emotional content of each song to radiate with a guileless purity. The music touches upon an almost delicate sense of nostalgia, with elements of Elizabethan folk music, Irish traditional, music-hall balladry and opera all blended together seamlessly by Heller's melodic gift. Though taking on all 36 poems is quite a daunting task, the entire cycle is skillfully balanced, unfolding with an unhurried pace and a logical clarity. As the mood of the poems shifts from whimsical to conflicted and ultimately to heartbroken, the music follows in perfect step, dramatic without being overdone, which makes the occasional flourish or dissonance all the more potent. For instance, the repeat on the line "Love is unhappy when love is away" is just chilling, and "I hear an army" surges forth with a shattered sense of confusion and disillusionment.
All said, a wonderful accomplishment -- these are songs that one can easily imagine being sung by Bartell D'Arcy at the Morkan Christmas party, or perhaps even Mr. James Joyce himself.

 Excerpts from the liner notes from the Etcetera Compact Disc, Great Poets in Song. Written by Alfred Heller.

After the Auger encouragement, the complete Chamber Music cycle came out quite rapidly. The intent was to deliberately compose it containing influences of old Parlour Ballads as well as Elizabethan songs, but treated with a modern flair. It is the story of a young man who steals his friend's girl. After a great love affair, she leaves him, upon which he goes mad. When composer G. Molyneux Palmer set thirty-two of these poems, Joyce advised him, 'The central song is XIV [My dove, my beautiful one] after which all the movement is downwards until XXXIV [Sleep now, o sleep now, O you unquiet heart] which is vitally the end of the book. XXXV [All day I hear the noise of waters making moan] and XXXVI [I hear an army charging upon the land] are tailpieces just as I [Strings in the earth and air] and III [At that hour when all things have repose] are preludes.' In spite of the author's comments, I feel that XVI [O cool is the valley now] is the mid-point. After that, it moves downwards. The final published order was set by the poet's brother Stanislaus, for the original did not contain XXXV or XXXVI. In keeping with the appropriate performance practice of the composer, the interpretation of all the songs on this CD utilizes classical, folk, old style popular, and operatic verismo; the diction of these songs is presented in a blend of standard American, New England and British Isles. Please note there are short pauses between a number of the Joyce songs, as well as several of them being connected. This is done for dramatic pacing.

--Written by Alfred Heller. Copyright 1998, Etcetera

CD Information

Chamber Music has been recorded on Etcetera Records KTC 1200, Great Poets in Song. Alfred Heller himself plays the piano, and his son Marc Heller brings his considerable tenor voice to the cycle. The CD also contains "For Arleen," a setting of four poems by Emily Dickinson, and "New England Times and Places (1950-90)," based on poems by Robert Frost. In all accounts Marc Heller's voice simply shines; he is a lyrical tenor with a very robust and well-controlled voice, and he is not afraid to explore the emotional range found in the songs. All in all, father and son make a perfect team for these poetic settings.
You may purchase Great Poets in Song online from Songsearch below. Just click on the link, and enter ALFRED HELLER into the Search engine:

Heller, Alfred: Great Poets in Song
Audio CD / Released 1998


--A. Ruch
14 January 2001
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