GRAHAM JOHNSON the Songmakers' Almanac returns

GRAHAM JOHNSON the Songmakers' Almanac returns

The Songmakers' Almanac 1976-2011

Thirty-five years ago, four singers and I came together to present concerts under the banner of The Songmakers’ Almanac. ‘Makers’ of songs were taken to be composers and their poets, and further down the production line, singers and their pianists. The leaflet advertising the first series promised “a song-anthology come-to-life, a flexible singing repertory group which aims to celebrate anniversaries, outstanding events, and special subjects in unusual programmes which will depart from the long-established song-recital format.” Gerald Moore, Eric Sams and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were patrons. Felicity Lott and Richard Jackson, soprano and baritone of the new group, gave the inaugural recital, Our Pleasant Vices, at the Purcell Room, South Bank, on 4 October 1976. This included a new commission, Cocaine Lil, from Judith Bingham. The closing group of risqué songs by Noel Coward and Cole Porter prompted astounded comment from several national critics; today such cross-over has become common recital practice, and critical comment for debutant recitals is found on line, if at all, rather than in newspapers. All four singers (the addition of mezzo and tenor – Ann Murray and the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson) appeared in The Trade of Kings, on 11 November 1976, a war programme on Armistice Day. The group’s first programme at Wigmore Hall, in March 1977, marked the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death.

We had started out at the South Bank, but from September 1981 Wigmore Hall was our permanent home with seven concerts per season. The Songmakers’ Almanac, unlike a string quartet or vocal group, was a consortium of soloists as opposed to an ensemble, and it was not easily exported from its London base. The founder singers, even as they grew older and more famous, were happy to collaborate at the Wigmore, but were usually too busy to sing together on tour; as always, opera took precedence in their diaries. The appearance of all four founder members together was a rarity; later on Hyperion issued a double-album Schubertiade and five recital discs (Voices of the Night, Souvenirs de Venise, España, Voyage à Paris and Le Bestiaire) featuring Lott, Murray, Rolfe Johnson and Jackson in a combination of solos, duets, trios and quartets. These four, and scores of guest artists (pianists, instrumentalists, and actors as well as singers) went on to perform over two hundred devised programmes. Sarah Walker, with us for the first time in 1978, had such a success with the critics that a marvellous career in song was instantly launched. 

After sixteen years or so these programmes ceased to be regularly heard at the Wigmore. As always money was the problem. The lowest ebb of our fortunes had been the loss of a full-time Administrator in the late 1980s, combined with ongoing funding crises at a time of cutbacks. Wigmore Hall was less willing and able than it is today to undertake its own promotions. The celebrated duet recitals given by Felicity Lott and Ann Murray, and the subsequent EMI recordings, were the offshoot of many shared Songmakers evenings, but these singers, and others of my generation, were now masters of their own individual success. After all, the best of all themes to bind recitals together is the solitary singer, aided by the accompanist, whose charisma and strength of personality will unite disparate strands of song into an unforgettable evening.

The enormously time-consuming task of devising complicated programmes, often with readings – all for a single performance – had been gradually overtaken by my recordings and a welter of Schubert research. Only a few (The Ladies Almanac – a woman’s magazine conceived in song terms, If Fiordiligi and Dorabella had been Lieder singers – a reinvention of the plot of Mozart’s opera, as well as celebrations of Shakespeare, Goethe and Heine) made repeat appearances. A handful of programmes were toured in America, Australia and New Zealand (without the founder members); a few were translated into French and German. But the vast majority of them, including some of the best (in my view at least) were given one evening’s outing, and then disappeared into my filing cabinet. This was hardly cost effective, although the months of research for each programme became a kind of endless university course on song and its literature, a doctorate at Wigmore University under Chancellor William Lyne.  

The Songmakers’ Almanac was rescued from total extinction twenty years ago by those remarkable friends of song, Judy and Mike Hildesley who now have musical soirées in their own home for young artists, a recently burgeoning aspect of London music life. In the 1990s there were some seasons of a temporarily re-branded International Songmakers, but the main thrust of the Hildesleys’ work has been successfully to harness the organisation’s educational aspect: Young Songmakers, supported substantially by the Tillett Trust and many other benefactors, has been a thriving biennial event for the last twenty years or so. Auditions are held for singers and pianists from all the music colleges followed by an intensive weekend of master classes in London. From these I select a number of piano and voice teams – usually about ten young artists in all – to take part in a concert on a specially devised theme. The latest concert in this series will take place on October 9th at St John’s, Smith Square and the strength of the ongoing talent is wonderfully heartening.

Inevitably, the attraction of bringing together an art-song collective of singers made an impression elsewhere. Steven Blier heard a Songmakers team doing a programme on Jewish-inspired music in Jerusalem and promptly invented The New York Festival of Song; my friends Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata founded The Aldeburgh Connection in Toronto, both groups still going strong. The Prince Consort is a modern British group of a similar kind. The idea of a collaborative pianist master-minding his own song series with a hand-picked selection of singers is now almost de rigueur. Younger musicians might find it difficult to imagine a time when an accompanist played no part whatever in the planning of a series of song recitals, but I can well remember when this was the case: Geoffrey Parsons told me sternly that it was the pianist’s job simply to answer the phone and take down the list of songs that he was required to play. This remains pertinent advice in many instances, but it surely also makes sense that an accompanist’s overview of the song world, acquired by the very nature of the job, should be looked on by concert promoters as a useful and sometimes valuable resource.

John Gilhooly invited me for tonight’s concert to return to the idea of the original Songmakers – as opposed to the Young Songmakers – by devising a programme for prize-winning singers who are now no longer students and who are more or less the same age as were the original team of founder members in 1976. The original Almanac idea now seems less about specific personalities, more about a kind of song programme and the interaction it prompts on stage between colleagues and their different allotted repertoires. A devised recital of this nature is possible with a single singer or with two singers; with three singers, or with an actor, the dynamics are different again. Four singers is a challenge reminiscent of the ebullient old days and the possibilities of ensembles are greater.

Since the Songmakers stopped appearing regularly at this hall I have continued to devise programmes in one way or another – including several for celebratory occasions at the Wigmore (including the hall’s centenary), a number of special thematic solo and duet recitals for Dame Felicity Lott (Night and Day, Fallen Women and Virtuous Wives, Frauenliebe und –leben x 2, the latter with Angelika Kirschschlager), and scores of programmes for student concerts at the Guildhall School. For tonight’s recital it might have been easier to open my bulging filing cabinet in order to recycle an old cycle. But the singers assembled on this occasion are a unique team and they have prompted new programming ideas that are particular to them. And so it should be. The song repertoire is an inexhaustible treasure trove of instruction and entertainment and the possibilities are endless; programme planning, after all, is simply a musical variant of that most ancient of skills, the art of the anthologist. Some anthologies are better than others; finding the title of the collection is easy, the hard work and skill comes in putting it together.

A much younger accompanist colleague has recently planned a programme called The End of the Affair, a collage of love songs that charts the death of a relationship. In threading together a fancifully-assembled story, a game of consequences, the trick is to enhance the audience’s attention and engagement while performing each of the songs as seriously as if they were presented in an old-fashioned recital. Only the context is new; the songs are given new life because they are heard in a new light. If The Songmakers Almanac has encouraged a gentle and respectful dramaturgy of song (no fully-staged and costumed lieder recitals, no surtitles, no video back-projections, no singing-and-dancing Müllerins), it is an idea that has honourably served its purpose; it is also a concept as relevant for the future as tomorrow’s ingenious young pianists and their singers will choose to make it.

Eine Nacht in Venedig – A Night in Venice

In 1979 The Songmakers Almanac presented a programme on Italy entitled Kennst du das Land? Venice played it part in this line-up but even then I realized the subject was too vast to be merely a part of a longer programme. Nevertheless the number of actual songs about Venice by serious song composers is relatively small and the early Songmakers’ disc, Souvenirs de Venise, was a fin-de-siècle photograph that failed to capture the city’s elemental vigour (although Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s performance of Hahn’s Venezia songs will probably never be bettered). Gazing and laughing at the Venice Fantasies, astonishing collages of the city, mixing ancient and modern images and cut-outs, by the pop-artist Sir Peter Blake (the designer of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper record sleeve of my teens) encouraged a bolder approach: in the spirit of these deliberately anachronistic and ludicrous concoctions, perhaps I might be permitted to accompany Monteverdi and Vivaldi on the piano? The atypical inclusion of opera and operetta in tonight’s programme stems from the idea of Venice itself as a piece of theatre, with a great opera house nestling at its heart. Arthur Symons’s lines were an inspiration here: “The Doge’s palace looked exactly like beautifully painted canvas, as if it were stretched on frames, and ready to be shunted into the wings for fresh ‘set’ to come forward.” Perhaps the trick was not to take this most beautiful and famous of cities too seriously. William Hazlitt talked of its “caprice, uncertainty and vicissitude” and this is what tonight’s programme seeks to evoke as if this recital were in itself a capriccio – one of those paintings, surreal before their time, where London and Venice are conjoined, as if Canaletto, while painting Eton College, had accidentally included his famous a view of the Piazzetta – just as English song morphs into Italian opera. 

In this programme every song or aria is related to ‘Serenissima’ in one way or another. Monteverdi and Vivaldi lived and worked in Venice and wrote this music there. Songs, mainly genre pieces, by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Jensen, Gounod, Massenet and Poulenc take a picture post-card Venice as their theme; Fauré, invited to holiday in Venice by Winnaretta Singer, later Princesse de Polignac, conceived his Verlaine settings (A Clymène is also a poem of Venetian inspiration) at a table in the Café Florian in St. Mark’s Square. Tonight’s songs by Wolf are two of the six specifically Venetian poems (Velote) to be found in Paul Heyse’s translations for the Italienisches Liederbuch. The title of the operetta by Johann Strauss, Eine Nacht in Venedig, is self-explanatory, Venice via Vienna. Sullivan’s The Gondoliers (Venice via The Savoy) and Rossini’s opera Otello (a work which Schubert knew and admired) shamelessly exploit the city as an exotic backdrop. To Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice we owe the words for Serenade to Music by Vaughan Williams as well as the ‘Fancy’ songs of Poulenc and Britten. Brief spoken passages from this play, the deliberations on Portia’s suitors, are accompanied by ridiculously famous music from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, also set in Venice. These are the only words spoken in tonight’s programme; many readings about the city were contemplated and eventually put aside in favour of more or less uninterrupted music. Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw are also part of this gallimaufry: both had spectacularly successful first nights at La Fenice in Venice on 11 September 1951, and 14 September 1954, respectively. Britten’s last opera Death in Venice reveals a darker side of ‘La Serenissima’. The Songs of Venice by Michael Head were written in 1977 for a concert given by Dame Janet Baker for the Venice in peril fund, and Venice, the macaronic by Noel Coward, was set to music by the young composer James Lark especially for tonight’s recital.

Schubert never knew Venice itself, but he knew the archbishop and self-glorifying poet Ladislaus Pyrker, who ruled it with a rod of iron as an Austrian possession (an injustice bemoaned by Musset in Gounod’s Venise). Shakespeare certainly never saw the city in the flesh (Venice was named “the best flesh-shambles in Italie” by John Day in 1608) but he immortalized Shylock and Othello, two of its more excitable citizens, while suggesting that the beauties of Desdemona, of Jessica and Portia, and of that sweet moonlight sleeping on yonder bank, were somehow especially Venetian. Thus Vaughan Williams, that most English of composers is tonight Venetian by adoption. Together with Shakespeare he is the guide who begins and ends the evening’s explorations. Once the journey is underway we move from grand open spaces to claustrophobic alley ways, from the grandest canals to the most tiny backwaters, from medieval to modern Venice in a trice, from Venice, idyllic for tourists of many different nationalities (Byron’s “heart, not head-quarters”) to the grim scene of Desdemona’s demise and Shylock’s revenge, all-in-all, a picture book fantasy.

Tonight’s audience might well feel like the eighteenth-century traveller John Moore as he stepped out in St. Mark’s Square in the evening: he found, to his consternation, “a mixed multitude of Jews, Turks, and Christians; lawyers, knaves, and pick-pockets; mountebanks, old women, and physicians, women of quality, with masks; strumpets barefaced; and, in short, such a jumble of senators, citizens, gondoliers, and people of every character and condition, that your ideas are broken, bruised and dislocated in the crowd, in such a manner that you can think, or reflect, on nothing.” Venice in this mood is far from being the “most serene” of cities; indeed, it contains so much that is contradictory that we believe it be an illusion, a city all in the mind. But even this has certain advantages; Henry James was surely correct when he wrote that “of all the cities in the world it is the easiest to visit without going there.”

ELIZABETH McDONALD on connecting to repertoire

ELIZABETH McDONALD on connecting to repertoire

RICHARD TURP in defense of a tradition

RICHARD TURP in defense of a tradition