This #artsongfix is dedicated to Fourth Coast Ensemble's Sarah van der Ploeg and her fiancée Kevin Harrison as they gather with their families to exchange vows of marriage today.
One of the greatest pleasures of my life as a classical mezzo-soprano is to share the stage with my soprano counterparts. It's an even greater pleasure if the soprano standing beside me is Fourth Coast Ensemble's Sarah van der Ploeg. Sarah and I first met during our time as young artists at Pittsburgh Festival Opera; our friendship followed us back to Chicago and, ultimately, to singing a lot of vocal chamber music together in the years since!
Certainly one of the most well-loved soprano/mezzo duets from the classical canon is the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes' 1883 opera Lakmé. (Whether you know the name or not, you would probably recognize this tune from the mega popular British Airways' 1989 advertising campaign.) Today's #artsongfix is another divine, if less widely quoted, treble duet from composer Léo Delibes: Les trois oiseaux.
Art song was a new art form in the 1800's, filling the space between popular music and opera. Also at this time, music was being integrated into the educational system more broadly, and there was demand for secular solo and ensemble music to be sung at school and in the home. Perhaps due in part to the separation of genders in most formal educational institutions at the time, there was a large outpouring of vocal chamber music written for "two sopranos," "soprano and contralto," "two equal voices," or "two female voices" during this era, as is the case here.
The text of Les trois oiseaux is a poem by François Coppée. Coppée was referred to as "the poet of the humble" during his lifetime due to the simple, plainspoken nature of his verses. It is perhaps this essence of simplicity that made his poetry so well suited to art song composers of the 19th century. Among the other composers to chose Coppée's texts for song are Charles Gounod, Henri Duparc, Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, and (in Russian translation) Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov.
Delibes organizes the music in musical strophes, mirroring the three poetic stanzas. The narrator asks for help to win over their lover from three different birds ("les trois oiseaux"): a dove, an eagle, and a vulture. The three birds respond to the young lover's overtures in turn, with each reply more disappointing than the one before.
By the end of the song the young lover begs for mercy from the vulture: "Tear out my dear one's love from my heart, leave only what she has left untouched!"
The vulture replies: "It's too late."
As a listener, we can interpret the ending of the song to mean that the young lover is too far gone in their love, nothing can help them now. If the vulture were to rip out the parts of the lover's heart that were touched by love, it would have to rip out the whole thing! As many of us know, young love is powerful, all consuming, and can be totally devastating.
This song is typical of Delibes in its charm and unabashed sweetness. The free flowing piano accompaniment draws to my mind the shapes of a bird in flight; darting up and down, alternately flapping its wings and soaring on an air current. Pianist Kuang-Hao Huang's performance highlights these qualities beautifully, and the vocal writing provides ample opportunity for me to enjoy harmonizing with my soprano sister in song, Sarah van der Ploeg. I hope you enjoy!
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!