Metaphorically Misty

As the cobbler-together of this program, let me be the first to admit: “Misty” was probably not the best choice of name, if only because the opening words, to be sung by our soloist, Dashon Burton, will be:

     The sea is calm tonight, 
     The tide is full, the moon lies fair
     Upon the straits […]

… in other words, not a cloud in sight. I’m pretty sure I assumed that, because “Dover Beach” is set in England, it must be foggy. I was not paying close attention.

And no better for the song cycle that closes the concert, Hanns Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge, which I only knew from the fabulous recording made by Ensemble Resonanz (a release that includes none other than our very own Erik Higgins, back in his formative European days). Having purchased the album online, I was deprived of the essential liner notes and translations that I might know what exactly was being sung about; all I knew was that it was downright lovely music.

Intuitively, though, I think I had a sense that the two pieces might have something in common, and there I may have lucked into some truth. First that the texts of both works deal with despairing at the state of the world. In the Barber:

     Sophocles long ago
     Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
     Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
     Of human misery; we
     Find also in the sound a thought,
     Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

Then in the Eisler:

     There is nothing that would be worthy of your efforts,
     And the earth does not deserve a sigh.
     Pain and boredom are our lot
     And the world is filth, nothing else. Be calm.

At the same time the texts are hopeful at their core, believing that humankind can do better, and that there is happiness to found in this world. Dover Beach’s final stanza begins:

     Ah, love, let us be true
     To one another! for the world […] seems
      To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
     So various, so beautiful, so new,

And the Eisler songs include this stanza, in the final poem:

     To him too the image of brighter times is announced,
     And what was long a glorious promise
     Wafts through the silence
     And makes it beautiful.

The musical settings employed by Barber and Eisler, drawing on these similar outlooks, make for an interesting contrast. Both treatments are notable for their restraint, only going full heart-on-sleeve in a few moments. Where they differ might stem from a factor outside the music, namely age: that Barber wrote his piece as a young man, as a student, whereas Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge were completed in the year of his death, his last complete work. Based on that, one senses Barber looking ahead to a life in this imperfect world, filled with a sense of trepidation and anxiety. Eisler, on the other hand, inhabits more of a philosophical and ruminative place, perhaps becoming more bitter at times, but ultimately ends truly hopeful and at peace.

Going back to the idea of “Misty,” then, the concept might be best thought of as a kind of metaphorical fog of melancholy thoughts. In assembling the program, then, I began to think about what might come out of, or result from, that place. Sometimes a walk in the fog can be invigorating, leading to youthful excitement (Dag Wiren’s Serenade) verging on ecstasy (Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa); at others, a misty day can lead us down a more introverted path, to a zen-like state (Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon), or the opposite, to feelings of sadness and anguish (Josef Suk’s Meditation).

In that sense, the program is meant to be a miniature drama in two acts, with a bit of a Citizen Kane-like arc; beginning and ending in the mists, emerging from the first cloud drawing on Barber’s youthful energy, then returning, drawing back towards Eisler’s acceptance and wistfulness. 

To what degree this narrative will come across is anyone’s guess; lucky then that all six works are phenomenal in their own right, and not performed nearly often enough!

- Michael Unterman

Listen to recordings of Dover Beach and Ernste Gesänge