By Ace Gangoso
May is a month worth celebrating! This month is Chamber Music Month AND Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month here in the United States. During this past season’s Origin Stories concerts, I was thrilled to explore and share my heritage through some of the music of the Philippines. One of the most fascinating and treasured musical genres of the country is called kundiman. On the surface, kundiman present as songs of longing, courtship, and love, but they have double meaning: the beloved represents not just one person as a love interest, but the Philippines itself and the pride and resilience of its native people. These creations were a means of coping with and challenging the oppressive Spanish colonial rule beginning in 1565 and lasting three centuries.
There was an interesting dynamic of resistance, a phenomenon some refer to as “Filipinization”---in a way, a form of “reverse colonization”. Filipinos learned to embrace the educational, social, and cultural practices forced upon them, but utilized them for their own benefit, recreating their own native identity through these foreign mediums. Kundiman songs illustrate this perfectly, adopting the musical idioms of Spanish dances, and scored music in the formal western classical tradition that university-trained musicians know well today.
The earliest known iterations of kundiman date back to about 1800, evolving through the century to more broadly resemble art song compositions of Europe. The composer Francisco Santiago (1889-1947) is often hailed as the “father of Kundiman Art Song,” and his 1917 song, simply titled “Kundiman” (sometimes subtitled “Cancion Filipina” or “Anak-Dalita”) is one of the most widely performed of the genre. The poem by Deogracias A. Rosario (1894-1936) is a serenade of one beckoning a love interest to come to the window to accept one’s pleas of love. It carries the characteristics most typical of kundiman: plaintive melodies, abundant tenuto and rubato, ascending tessitura, lush accompaniment, and modulation from minor to parallel major---a simple but effective way of symbolizing the journey from despair to hope.
This is the story of my ancestors, but I am sure that the feelings of loss and captivity have been ever-present to all of us this past year. May this music be a beacon of light in the darkness for you as it has been to many.
Many of you commented on how much you enjoyed my valentine serenade of ‘Plaisir d’amour’ on guitar. I thoroughly enjoyed putting that together, so I have been cooking up a few other similar projects. A number of Schubert songs came to mind that might be possible to adapt for guitar, and with spring upon us I thought ‘Heidenröslein’, a song about a little rose, might be the perfect choice.
Composed on August 19, 1815 (a day on which Schubert also set four other poems of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to music), ‘Heidenröslein’ tells the story of a boy who encounters a beautiful rose which he decides to pick, despite the little rose’s warning that she will prick him if he does so. The metaphor is difficult to miss; the little rose that the boy spies represents a young girl, and the boy feels the sting of thorns as he attempts to court her. In fact Goethe’s poem has inspired numerous illustrations over the years, and nearly all of them feature an eager young man inquiring after a demure young woman, with a field of roses essentially incidental to the scene.
Perhaps the thing that I most enjoy about ‘Heidenröslein’ is that it offers the singer a chance to portray multiple characters in the space of just a few lines of text and music. The narrator sets the scene, the boy makes his move, the rose strikes back, and the refrain seems to comment on the action after each verse: ‘Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot, Röslein auf der Heiden.’ Of course the music ties it all together, and Schubert in his usual way has managed to create a song that is simple like a folksong and yet full of variety and color. Although the musical material is identical each time, the instrumental coda that follows each strophe is somehow able to capture three different moods; from the excitement of seeing the rose in the beginning, to the admonishing tone of the rose in the middle, to the inevitable moral of the story at the end.
The alternating bass line and chord structure of this song seemed a natural fit for the guitar idiom, and my fingers got a bit of a workout on the instrumental interludes after each verse. I hope you enjoy my six-stringed version of this classic Schubert song!
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!