Very Warm for May--Chorale goes rogue

Our working title for Chorale’s upcoming concert has been, from the beginning, “Chorale Goes Rogue.”  The theme preceded both the repertoire and the venue;  one of our board members half-seriously suggested that we surprise our audience by singing some secular music, and the title was born.  I have to say, we have not strayed far from our canonic center; our composers—Brahms, Grieg, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc—are hardly unfamiliar names to either our singers or our audience; and even Jerome Kern, whose music we also will sing, would not feel out of place with our frequent offerings by German Romantic composers.  Kern has more in common with Schoenberg and Bruckner, than he has with most of today’s popular music… Most of the music we are preparing for our May 18 concert is composed by Johannes Brahms—the Liebeslieder (Opus 52) and Neue Liebeslieder (Opus 65) Waltzes.  Serious, melancholy, elegiac Brahms, in a playful mood, bent his considerable talent and skill toward the composition of popular waltzes in the style of Johann Strauss, for the bourgeois, educated public to perform in their own homes. The results sold well and made him some money.  I read that Brahms explored two such popular genres, the other being the “Hungarian,” or “gypsy” style piano and vocal works, which similarly endeared him to his public, paid his bills, and made the composition of his larger, more serious works feasible.  In no respect are these works simple to perform, flippant or “tossed off”—Brahms’ craft and technique, as well as the originality and genius of his personal voice, are always present, and he pulls every trick, subverts his chosen genre at every turn, expressing sheer enjoyment and mastery with every phrase.  Singers and pianists alike are challenged to give all they have, in bringing this music to life; yet one senses, throughout, the beer, cigars, and brandy that have come to represent the composer’s daily life in Vienna, his adopted home.

Our Francis Poulenc offering, Les chemins de l’amour, exemplifies the second half of the phrase with which critic Claude Rostand, in a July 1950 Paris-Presse article, described the composer: “half monk, half guttersnipe” ("le moine et le voyou"), a tag that has been attached to his name ever since. Originally composed as part of the incidental music to Léocadia (1940), a play by Jean Anouilh, the song took on a life of its own after being performed by its dedicatee, popular cabaret singer Yvonne Printemps, and became one of Poulenc’s most successful compositions.  It does with French cabaret song, what the Liebeslieder do with the Viennese waltz:  it simultaneously embraces popular expression, and ups its game. Poulenc’s original is a solo song, with piano accompaniment; Chorale will sing an arrangement which utilizes both soloist and chorus.

Edvard Grieg’s song Våren represents an entirely different genre.  The words, by poet Åamund Olofsson Vinje, present an idealized picture of the natural world, as seen through the eyes of an elderly person who has survived the harsh Norwegian winter to see another springtime.  The poetry is written in Nynorsk, which is essentially an invented language, dating from nineteenth century Norway, combining elements of many regional dialects, an expression of nationalistic solidarity at the time Norway was moving toward independence from Denmark.  Grieg bought whole-heartedly into Norwegian nationalism, and devoted much of his compositional career to mining the riches of regional folk music and poetry; he set many of Vinje’s poems, and helped to popularize the new language.  Grieg’s original version is a song accompanied by piano; Thomas Beck has arranged the song for a cappella choir with soprano solo.

Ca’ the Yowes is a beloved Scottish folksong setting of a poem by Robert Burns.  One finds many versions of it on Youtube, sung by popular folk singers and accompanied by a wide variety of instruments.  English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams spent much of his career collecting and writing down the folk songs and hymns of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; some of them he published “as is,” and some he arranged for a variety of choral and instrumental ensembles.  Ca’ the Yowes, a shepherd’s love song for tenor solo and a cappella choir, is undoubtedly one of his finest arrangements, and one of the most beautiful folk song arrangements in the choral literature.  Not only is it living proof of Vaughan Williams’ contention that the folk music of the British Isles was one of the great musical treasures of the world; it also demonstrates his personal affection for this music, and his genius in giving it just the right opportunity to shine.

All the Things You Are, one of the most popular and enduring pieces in the “the American songbook,” first came to life as an extended production number in the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musical Very Warm for May, presented on Broadway in 1939.  The play ran for only two months, but the song itself has endured as a standard concert vehicle for many singers.  Music for the original Broadway show, including the production number built around this song, disappeared, to be rediscovered in the early 1980’s.  The show has since been revived and presented on both coasts, with this production number intact.  I sang it in a concert presentation at Grant Park back in the early 1980’s, as a member of the chorus, and am overjoyed to finally have concert circumstances which allow me to present it, myself.  Jerome Kern really knew how to write music.