English composer Benjamin Britten is primarily known amongst vocal music aficionados for his works for tenor, from Peter Grimes to the Canticles. Today, however, we spotlight a beautiful example of his work written for two female singers: “Mother Comfort,” from Two Ballads.
Written in 1936 for Swiss singers Sophie and Colette Wyss, “Mother Comfort” sets a poem by Montagu Slater, later to become Britten’s librettist for the aforementioned Grimes. The text sets the two women in an ambiguous conflict with one another, at first asking whether they should even be talking together at all. It seems their friendship is strained by common interest in the same man, wondering to each other “Will you be Mother Comfort or shall I?”
As the questions alternate between the two women, Britten echoes their back-and-forth with musical lines that intersect. Consonance and dissonance dip in and out, with the soprano and mezzo parts switching lines back and forth at different times. Each woman gets her own chance to express her feelings to the other, then returns to duo lines that weave betwixt and between. The writing requires strength and independence in each singer’s solo abilities, and simultaneously careful matching of timbre, phrasing, and text so that each voice blends and exchanges with the other to leave the listener guessing who is who.
It is fortunate for me, then, that my mezzo duet partner in this work is Bridget - captured here in a recording from our parlor concert with pianist Dana Brown in 2019. One of the greatest joys of my work with Fourth Coast Ensemble has been our work together finding our distinctive blend, and being able to play my soprano lines off Bridget’s rich tone and expressive music-making. And it's an amplified gift as we continue to grow in our independent artistries, simultaneously strengthening our combined musical and vocal powers in partnership.
That being the case, we are so excited to share our first duo concert, performed last Saturday, February 20th, through the power of livestreaming, with the phenomenal Kuang-Hao Huang on piano. We can't wait to share more musical melding - including more Britten! - with you all.
Origin Stories: Soprano | Mezzo Duo is available for streaming access here through midnight CST tonight (2/22/21). Single tickets are $20.
As we pause today to reflect on the legacy and ever-timely challenge presented by the life and words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and his holy impatience with the slowness of progress towards racial equity in the United States. I wonder what letters he would be writing to us today. And I am struck by how relevant Florence Price’s undated song, “Sympathy,” feels in that context, and still to us today perhaps a century after she wrote it.
Price’s setting of this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) is a masterful one, showcasing her technical abilities as a composer and her unique musical voice while expressing the emotional weight of his words in an honest, unforced, and powerful way.
The three sections of the song echo the three stanzas of the poem, beginning with lyrical lines that reflect the “sun … bright on the upland slopes” and the “wind stir[ring] soft through the springing grass” before chromatic descending lines that underscore the bittersweet images of the world beyond the cage. More intense dynamics, rhythms, and pianism mark the second stanza, as Price knows “why the caged bird beats its wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” The music crescendos before a resigned return to the first theme at the start of the third stanza, again acknowledging “why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore.” Finally, at the end, the piece reaches its climax as it lays out the meaning behind the bird’s - and Price’s - song:
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
It was an honor and privilege to lend my voice to Price’s music and Dunbar’s words in this 2018 concert with pianist Mark Bilyeu. May we hear their plea ring in our ears, and may we work towards a world where this plea is less timely.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!