Britten's Mother Comfort
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.
In the Bleak Midwinter (Darke)
by Ace Gangoso
Here we are at the end of 2020. Good riddance, as many say, alongside high hopes for the year ahead. Today’s musical offering is perhaps not the first Christmas tune that comes to mind. You probably won’t hear it playing over the loudspeakers inside department stores. There are no bells, no fa la las, Glorias or Hallelujahs, nor are there any descants and melismatic vocal fireworks—appropriately so, given the year we have had, full of the unusual and unexpected, to put it mildly. And if “In the Bleak Midwinter” does happen to be one of your go-to carols, I would be willing to bet that you are most familiar with the choral setting by Gustav Holst.
Our setting of choice is by another English composer, Harold Darke. There are striking similarities between the two settings, both rhythmically and melodically, particularly in the opening phrases. Both are simple, strophic, and beautifully capture the somber and pensive mood of the poem by Christina Rossetti. Using words like bleak, cold, and hard to describe the nativity scene, she highlights the ironic nature of the savior of the world being born into such humble conditions.
This is not “Joy to the World,” but to be clear, this is not a sad song, either. For me, the key word is “enough.” If I have learned anything this year, it is that I can afford to restructure my own concept of “enough” and how it relates to basic necessities, finances, health, relationships, and more. I love songs that challenge, and the challenge presented here is for us to redirect our foci: away from that which we currently lack to that which we have and take for granted, away from where we aren’t in order to be fully present where we are—and in spite of hardship, to find ways to give and show love.
So please accept this gift from Sarah, Bridget, Dave, and me in the form of a brand new virtual performance from the comfort and safety of our own homes. Thank you for your continued support and loyalty to us, and for helping us to get through this year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to you and yours!
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!