Lift Up Your Voices! – Tales of Loss, Love, and Love Lost for the Age of Pandemic

For Wednesday, June 10, the Classical Challenge presents “Lift Up Your Voices! – Tales of Loss, Love, and Love Lost for the Age of Pandemic.”

We’ve (well, some of us have) declared war on the coronavirus. It’s a metaphor we use frequently, despite the nearly uniform national experience of wars that have not accomplished anything near their ostensible goals: WW I, the Korean War, the Vietnam war, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans. If it weren’t for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the ones Tom Brokaw elided and called the greatest generation, who fought and won WW II, we wouldn’t have a single war we could feel entirely good about (lost lives and loves aside) – and most of the rest of the world can’t share our almost unambiguous enthusiasm for even that war. Then there are our metaphorical wars – the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on crime, the culture wars.  How are we doing there?

Nonetheless, I’m going to start tonight’s program on loss, love, and love lost with a couple of songs from German soprano Anna Prohaska’s concept album, Behind the Lines (Eric Schneider, piano). We’ll hear:

  1. My Luve’s in Germany – Thomas Traill (1600-1671)
  2. In Flanders Fields – Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Carrying forward the banner of love, we’ll hear two songs from the female British vocal quintet Papagena, the first a simple declaration of love to Jack Kerouac with music by Libby Larsen, and the second a song in Yiddish from David Lang in which a young woman waits in the night for her lover’s train until he finally arrives, suggesting that anticipation can be as pleasurable and profound as attainment is problematic.  As an old man I face my own issues today, but I feel for our generation in their late teens to thirties who are at an age in which attachments should be formed but many of whom find themselves social distancing instead. They may have little choice but to focus on the more subtle joys of anticipation.

  1. Jack’s Valentine – Libby Larsen (1950 -)
  2. I Lie – David Lang (1957-) Text available here:

Revisiting the theme of love lost, we’ll hear a song by the young Latvian composer Jekabs Jancevskis on a text from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act III, Scene II):

…when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night…

  1. When – Jekabs Jancevskis (1992-) – Riga Cathedral School Mixed Choir

Next a real treat. We’ll hear David Lang’s Love fail, a reflection on love lost inspired by the Wagnerian version of the Tristan und Isolde legend, but making substantial use of the extremely short stories of the amazing Lydia Davis and other sources. The text can be followed here:

Lang originally wrote this piece for the last performance of the female American vocal quartet Anonymous 4, who specialized in medieval music, and whom we had the privilege of hearing repeatedly in concerts in Kansas City sponsored by The Friends of Chamber Music. They have a recording of the piece available, but as highly as I esteem them in medieval repertoire, I think they’ve been bested in this piece by the young female American treble quartet, the Quince Ensemble, in a recording just released. The Quince Ensemble are Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Kayleigh Butcher, Liz Pearse and Carrie Henneman Shaw. Avid lovers of contemporary music in Kansas City will recognize Liz Pearse as a former member of our New Ear Contemporary Music Ensemble, and her brother J.J. Pearse is still a prominent member of that group which has done so much for this music in the Kansas City area.

  1. Love fail – David Lang (1957-) – The Quince Ensemble

Death would appear to be the ultimate obstacle to a lasting love, and humanity has spent thousands of years wrestling with both the pain of this loss and with explorations of ways in which the survivors may seek comfort. One such example from an earlier era is Claudio Monteverdi’s Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata (Tears of a lover at the tomb of a beloved), to a poem by Scipione Agnelli. You can follow the text and translation here:

  1. Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata – Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) – Voces8

Today we’re struggling with an extraordinary number of these losses, but despite their enormity, the majority of our fellow citizens have as yet faced a different form of absence. We’ll hear another piece by Jekabs Jancevskis called Ar Zvaigznu Kluso Gaismu (Silent Starlight), to a poem by Latvian poet Ojars Vacietis (1933-1983). Here’s the text in English translation:

I’ll go to you with starlight that is so quiet, silent;

without a sound I’ll enter your dear window;

within your life I’ll be in your dear silence, darling;

without a single touch I’ll go and kiss you.

You will not ever see me, darling,

for there is between us such a distance,

where no meeting can ever happen;

there are just those we’ve missed, and they are lost for ever.

I’ll go to you with starlight that is so quiet, silent;

for me white sunlight now is just too noisy.

  1. Ar Zvaigznu Kluso Gaismu – Jekabs Jancevskis (1992-) – Riga Cathedral School Mixed Choir

The unexpectedly last work of the great contemporary French composer Gerard Grisey was also focused on death, although he wasn’t known to be suffering from anything that would kill him at the age of 51-52. (He died of an aneurysm). Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four songs on crossing the threshold) deal with the death of an angel, the death of civilization, the death of the voice, and the death of humanity. These four songs are followed by a lovely Berceuse, or lullaby: “I opened a window, and daylight fell on my cheek.” For a useful description of the piece, and an explanation of why it is in the opinion of the author one of the great works of the 20th century, see Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s brief essay here:

  1. Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil for soprano and ensemble – Gerard Grisey (1946-1998) – Barbara Hannigan and the Ludwig Orchestra, Barbara Hannigan soprano and conducting

We have to stop somewhere, and what better place than with another composition from the young Latvian composer Jekabs Jancevskis – Aeternum (Eternity) to a short poem by Peters Bruveris (1957-2011). Here’s the English translation for assistance:

forget what my name is

recall what my music is

inside we all carry

the Eternal

  1. Aeternum – Jekabs Jancevskis (1992-) – Riga Cathedral School Mixed Choir


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