Songs Before Sleep
“Come sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving lock me in delight a while.” Ivor Gurney
When Susannah Lawergren and I first discussed the idea of us launching a SongCo Solo Series in 2019 and knowing she was to tackle Schubert’sWinterreiseas a stand-alone concert, I knew I wanted to construct a more eclectic and internally contrasting recital program – though it’s now also become a touching way to farewell The Song Company.
As humans, depending on where we are in the world, we spend roughly half our lives living in the ‘darkness’ of night. If we’re sensible, we spend most of this time sleeping – but we also know it’s a time of great natural beauty and mystery – and a time of contemplation, love, and dreaming.
At the heart of this eclectic recital program are the six nursery rhyme settings of Sir Richard Rodney Bennet – Songs Before Sleep. I first studied these works at university, and its been a delight to explore them again with Anna Rutkowska-Schock (Hourglass Ensemble) as well as seeing where the artistic ‘kernel’ of the nursery rhyme has lead in terms of the wider program.
The early leap was to the German repertoire and the famous lullaby settings including the famous lullaby by Brahms (I decided against that) but there were also many other moments of stillness and reflection that explore the sense of wonder and expectancy we probably all experience at night time. Mondnacht(Schumann) and Nacht und Träume (Schubert) are exquisite miniatures that explore the serene quiet of night landscapes and the idea of dreaming.
Sitting alongside these dream-like miniatures is Der Zwerg(Schubert) one of the darkest and almost nightmarish settings in his catalogue. In a recent German workshop for Pacific Opera I introduced it as the most ‘Game of Thrones’ of Schubert lieder – and I think it almost reads like a screenplay! In the dark of night a boat sits on a flat waveless sea. The dark blue streaks of the Milky Way twinkle above. The Queen reads the stars to know her fate. Her Dwarf, anguished that she has chosen the King as her lover, weeps as he strangles her with a red silk scarf. He releases her into the sea with his own hands and vows to never land upon any coast again.
The ‘fable’ element of the nursery rhyme also proved productive in the German repertoire. In 1840 Robert Schumann set four translations (from the original Danish) of Hans Christian Andersen in his Fünf Lieder Op. 40 and in 1842 the author met Clara Schumann when she was on tour in Copenhagen. In 1844 the Dane was invited to Clara and Robert’s home in Leipzig where he heard the songs in the flesh presumably with Clara at the piano. In his memoirs Andersen described the evening as being ‘poetic’ and that he and Robert began discussing whether his fairytale Die Glücksblume(The Flower of Happiness) could be the basis of an opera – which sadly never eventuated due to the composers failing health.
Balancing the more traditional repertoire in the program –and leading towards the settings of Richard Rodney Bennett – are two contemporary works by living composers. Eric Whitacre’s the moon is hiding in her hair(poetry by E.E Cummings) and Iain Grandage’s Nocturnes(poetry by Barbara Templeton & Kevin Gillam) explore sensuality and the tension between the expanse of landscape (particularly in Australia) and the human being within it.
I’m particularly thankful to the composers of these works that I have been able to program them. Eric’s the moon is hiding in her hairis part of an as yet unpublished song cycle for baritone by the composer. Iain’s Nocturnes(now reworked for baritone) were first written for Taryn Fiebig and also form part of a larger song cycle Blackwoodwhich tracks the course of the Blackwood River in the South-West corner of Western Australia, a part of this country that is very special to me. There are other West Australian connections in the Nocturnestoo – Kevin Gillam was my boss when I was teaching at Christ Church Grammar School, and Alex McCracken (Clarinet) is a colleague of mine from the University of Western Australia.
This all leads to the beauty and nonsense of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s Songs Before Sleep. I think these are fantastic works, and should be on the radar of many young singers – and really require a commitment to diction and storytelling! We close the program with Eric Whitacre’s setting of Goodnight Moonby Margaret Wise Brown – with its beautiful images of childhood and family.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to write something here of a more personal nature, as after five years and hundreds of performances with The Song Company, I am choosing to step away from the Core Ensemble after this recital tour. I am profoundly and deeply thankful to all the artists I have had the privilege to share the stage with, our hard working office team, and our audiences who continue to both support and challenge us to deliver outstanding and meaningful vocal music.
Andrew O’Connor is a celebrated Bass-Baritone hailing from Perth, Western Australia.