art song

Graham Johnson Masterclass: What I Learned


Ashley Danyew | Graham Johnson Masterclass Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a masterclass presented by Graham Johnson at Eastman. What a privilege to learn from someone so wise and with so much experience! Eastman students performed eight songs of Schumann and Brahms (one by Schubert). Graham Johnson's perspective on music and performance was inspiring and enlightening.

Here are a few things I took away:

- The original key of a song has a certain color and quality - be wary of alternate keys and transpositions that change the mood and character of a song. - All ritardandi in Schumann's music are "local" or temporary, though often, a return to tempo is not indicated in the score. - The joy of performing is in the challenge, risk, and danger of the musical performance. "Go for the challenge and let it be an enriching experience." - Choose a tempo that leaves room for communicating the text and character of the song. Make it sound as if the thoughts or actions of the character are occurring in the moment, for the first time. - Do not play (or sing) "off the voice." A crooning, whispery sound does not travel expressively - it must be supported. - To the singer: listen to the piano and harmonize with it. - "Cultivate [your] tone." - "All lieder requires time for the notes to be sung, not barked or spoken." - Never allow yourself to go on automatic pilot. "Don't ever find yourself going through the motions. How can that engage your heart?" - Music of the nineteenth century reflects a period that had more time. Consider this when choosing tempi for performance (versus the fast-paced "broadband" culture of the world today). - "We've got to get this sense of communing [between singer and pianist]. . .it's an important part of what we do." - Accompany what is there in the moment, rather than the ideal in your head. - Pianists often sit in the composer's [Schubert] hot seat, playing music he wrote for himself to play. - "What's the message?" What are you trying to convey? - Brahms "treated his songs like a private diary of emotions." - The secret is: more time. - "Intimacy is part of what lieder is about. . . .Less sound, more feeling."

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a masterclass with a world-class musician, I hope you take advantage! It will change the way you think about, hear, and create music.

Musical Pairs: Mondnacht


Today, I'm excited to share with you two video recordings from our recent program, The Art of Song: Musical Pairs! Just to recap, Steve and I chose to perform two settings of "Mondnacht"–one by Schumann and one by Brahms.  There are several common musical features that suggest Brahms used Schumann's setting as a model:

1. Meter + perpetual motion. Both composers used 3/8 meter and sustained a sense of perpetual motion (suggested by the text) with constant sixteenth notes in the piano accompaniment.

2. Plagal "Amen" cadence. Both settings include a plagal or "Amen" cadence near the end, underscoring the last two words of the text - "nach Haus" (to home). This implies not only a sense of arrival and resolution but also a sense of rest (perhaps eternal rest, as suggested in the text).

3. Introductions. The introductions in both song settings are the same length (six measures), include a fragmented melody (stated twice), and end on a dominant, unresolved chord. This sense of suspension at the end of the introduction leaves the listener waiting for the vocal line.

Here is our performance of Schumann's setting:

And, for comparison, here is the Brahms setting (minus the final two chords because our camera died–so sorry!)

What do you think?  Do you hear the similarities between these two songs?  Did Brahms set this text as a tribute to the Schumanns or was he trying to compete with Robert?

Read more about this concert here, here, and here.

The Art of Song: Musical Pairs Recap


IMG_1696 The Art of Song: Musical Pairs was part of a community concert series at the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford and we had a great time sharing this program with an enthusiastic audience of over 50 people this past Sunday afternoon.

Our inspiration for this program was the idea of musical pairs, specifically between art songs.  An art song is a musical setting of a poem, written for voice and accompaniment, which usually appears as part of a collection of songs. Finding connections between art songs–connections of composer, text, musical features, historical context, among other possibilities–provides insight into the compositional process of how these songs came to be.  These songs have stories to tell: stories that help us appreciate the wealth that this genre has to offer.


The concert program included the following:

"There's nae lark" and "The Daisies" (Samuel Barber) Christiana Reader, viola and Derek Remeš, piano

"Mondnacht" (Robert Schumann) and "Mondnacht" (Johannes Brahms) Steve Danyew, saxophone and Ashley Danyew, piano

"Bei dir ist es traut" (Alma Mahler) and "O ihr Zärtlichen" (Peter Lieberson) Caroline O'Dwyer, mezzo-soprano and Heather McEwen Goldman, piano

"Sure On This Shining Night" and "Nocturne" (Samuel Barber) Dr. Jared Chase, trumpet and Dr. James Douthit, piano


In between each duo, Steve and I led the audience in an interactive game of "Musical Memory"* using the board pictured above.  This was a fun way for everyone present to discover musical pairs, even across genres!  Thanks so much to the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford for inviting us to share this concert program, to all of our friends who performed, and to all who attended and shared in the experience!

*Musical Memory was first seen at the Westminster Chamber Music Workshop in June 2011

Image Credit: personal

The Art of Song: Musical Pairs

Steve and I were thrilled to be asked to present a recital in our church's concert series this spring.  Some of you may recall our previous "Art of Song" recitals - see an overview here and here.  This time, we decided to invite a few friends to join us. In "The Art of Song: Musical Pairs," you'll hear from 4-5 duos, each performing a pair of art songs that have something in common.  This may be a thematic element, a common text or poet or composer, or something more musical and aesthetic.  The repertoire will be chosen by each duo.  Each art song pairing will include performance and a brief discussion about the songs, providing insight and context for the listener.  Steve and I will be performing and facilitating a fun, interactive activity so that you, too can make musical pairs!  If you're in the area, we'd love to have you join us!

Sunday, April 7, 3:00 p.m. First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford Pittsford, New York Suggested Donation: $5 | $10

Lecture Recital: Mondnacht

Remember my posts from a few months ago titled, “The Art of Song”?  Well, just in case you don’t, you can catch up here, here, and here.  These posts were my initial outline for a lecture recital that Steve and I put together last month.

As a saxophone/piano duo, we enjoy playing transcriptions of art songs (vocal music) as much as anything else.  This program consisted of three vocal pieces – Schumann’s “Mondnacht,” Chausson’s “Sérénade italienne,” and Copland’s “Heart, We Will Forget Him” – all transcribed for tenor saxophone.  We took a few minutes before performing each piece to talk about the composer, the time period, the text, and our considerations when preparing it for the first time.  We even asked the audience for input!

The Art of Song - Part III

Where would this lecture recital sketch be without Robert Schumann's "Mondnacht" with text by Joseph von Eichendorff? In addition to providing language contrast, the title (translated "Moonlit Night") is consistent with the celestial theme (sun, moon, and stars - see?) From the 1840 song cycle, Liederkreis, Op. 39, this piece may be most famous for its embedded code. Schumann used the pitches E-B-E repeatedly. The significance? "Ehe" is the German word for "marriage" and in German music, B-flat=B while B-natural=H. This song cycle is from the year Robert and Clara were married. The text reads as follows: It was as though the sky had softly kissed the earth, so that she, in a gleam of blossom, had now to dream of him.

The breeze ran through the fields, the ears of corn gently swayed, the woods rustled faintly, the night was so starry and clear.

And my soul spread wide its wings, flew over the silent land, as if it were flying home.

Beautiful text yet it leaves us to wonder - who is the girl? Who is he that appears in her dreams? Where does this story take place? What time of day is it? Where is home, as mentioned in the last line? Where is the character who is speaking? Listen to Hans Hotter and Gerald Moore in this stirring rendition.

In conclusion, three composers: Copland, Chausson, and Schumann. Three languages: English, French, and German. A rough celestial theme: sun, moon, and stars (or at least nocturnal with all texts taking place at the end of the day). Three scenes portraying love: love lost, love found, and love eternal.

Previously: The Art of Song - Part I The Art of Song - Part II

The Art of Song - Part II

Another piece Steve and I are considering for our upcoming lecture recital is Ernest Chausson's "Sérénade italienne" with text by Paul Bourget. The title indicates that it is a serenade, the poem indicates that it is a barcarolle, and interpreter Pierre Bernac states that it is neither. "It should be sung con slancio [vigorously, with dash] (half note=63), with pretty vocal effects" (The Interpretation of French Song, p. 94). The text reads: Let us sail in a boat over the sea to pass the night under the stars. See, there is just enough breeze to inflate the canvas of the sails.

The old Italian fisherman and his two sons, who steer us, listen but understand nothing of the words which we speak.

On the sea, calm and dark, see, our souls may commune, and none will understand our voices but the night, the sky and the waves.

Where does this story take place? What time of day is it? How many people are on this boat? Who is the character speaking and who is he/she speaking to? Perhaps we are in Italy but given the last line, it seems as if the two main characters are foreign to the surroundings: "And none will understand our voices but the night, the sky and the waves." There seems to be a feeling of secrecy and delight in this thought, don't you think?

Listen to Gérard Souzay perform with pianist Jacqueline Bonneau here. I love the atmospheric writing for the piano!

Previously: The Art of Song - Part I

The Art of Song - Part I

I am preparing my first lecture recital. Steve and I will be presenting a program of art song transcriptions for saxophone and piano, discussing our interpretation, approach, and the relationship between music and text. One of the pieces we are considering including is Aaron Copland's "Heart, we will forget him" with text by Emily Dickinson: Heart, we will forget him! You and I, tonight! You may forget the warmth he gave, I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me, That I my thoughts may dim; Haste! lest while you're lagging, I may remember him!

What is this text about? Who is the character speaking? Do we assume that it is a woman? What time of day is it? What is the underlying emotion? At first glance, the piece seems dramatic and full of literal longing (rubato) - perhaps the character is broken-hearted, mourning the loss of a lover. Is there an alternative interpretation to consider or is the poetic intent fairly clear?

From a whimsical perspective, could the character simply be lamenting the end of the day? Consider this line in the first stanza: "You may forget the warmth he gave, I will forget the light." Could Dickinson be referring to the sun? Does this give you an idea of how much the interpretation of the text informs our musical decisions?!

What do you think of the text? Listen to Copland's setting in this performance by Dawn Upshaw and the Saint-Paul Chamber Orchestra. How did Copland interpret Dickinson's words? What does the music suggest?