The Web-U-lous World of Dr. Y

Scratches and Scribbles


Like singing, writing is as much a craft as it is an art, and communication is the ultimate goal. Below are samples of some of my articles and lectures.

Online Article: "The Music Educator's Personal/Professional Webpage"

A Brief Lecture-essay: "Brahms and Liszt--Life in the shadow of Beethoven."

Lecture-Recital Notes: Accompanying Remarks Exploring Cabaret and its Influence on Song.


"The Music Educator's Personal/Professional Webpage"

Article Cover

The April/May '99 edition of the NATS "Inter Nos" featured Yvonne's article, "The Music Educator's Personal/Professional Webpage." Now you can read the Online Version of her introduction to creating effective, professional homepages, including links to a sample website online.



"Brahms and Liszt--life in the shadow of Beethoven"
Copyright 1997 by
Dr. Yvonne R. Dechance

What if your next musical assignment was to write a better symphony than any of Beethoven's? How would you feel? How do you think the composers that followed Beethoven felt?

By the time Beethoven died in1827, the Romantic Movement was giving composers much to think about. Suddenly the focus shifted to the artist as an individual, and to the composer as Poet--not in the sense of writing words, but of expressing the emotions of poetry through sound. The composer could, through his music, lift the audience into another level of Experience, up to the Sublime.

The romantic movement in music was a response to the romantic movement in Literature: Romantic composers became fascinated with the concept of Natural world, of the Supernatural world, the Exotic world, and the world of Desires and Dreams. And they started to ask questions: If music can express meaning beyond words, is there any reason to write music that Has words? Is it possible to write music that suggests Ideas, without actually using words? How do you write music that depicts individuality and emotion and realms beyond words and still compose in the established Classical forms? Do you even try?

At the center of this controversy were the composer/pianists Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. Brahms believed strongly in traditional forms and styles, and said music was Absolute, it was art unto itself. Music didn't have to tell a story or paint a picture to be Art. Liszt looked to the future, and said that music could become a higher art by expressing emotions and themes, thoughts and pictures. Other composers gathered into two strongly opposing camps, supporting either Absolute (Pure) Music, or what Liszt called The Music of the Future. Both men were convinced that they were right, and proceeded down what appear to be completely different paths. But was it that simple?

Both Brahms and Liszt were pianists, showing talent even as young children, and both touring extensively as young men. Both heard the stunning violin performances of Paganini, and were clearly influenced by the experience--Liszt was so inspired that he determined to create the same kinds of sounds on the piano, and began both his quest for new tone colors and brilliance on the keyboard, and a career as the most famous virtuoso pianist of his century.

Most importantly, both men were keenly aware of the great composers and musical works of the past, and of the additional pressure this placed on them as modern composers. The 19th century had experienced a revival in the works of Bach, Purcell, Palestrina, and Handel--Bach in particular caused a wave of new interest, and fugues, counterpoint and chromaticism became popular as "le style ancien." Ever the more conservative, Brahms borrowed the most heavily from the structures, Liszt from the chromatic colors. Brahms collected works from the Baroque onward, studied and wrote treatises on them, then used what he'd learned from the old masters in his compositions; Liszt collected works from the Baroque onward, and played them in concerts, in groupings that created what we now think of as a modern piano recital.

The classic composers including Mozart and Haydn were generally dismissed by Liszt and his supporters as being too rigid and emotionally unexpressive, but Brahms and Liszt were both utterly convinced of the genius of Beethoven. Neither composer felt equal to trying to compete with Beethoven's legacy, particularly his symphonies, which is why Brahms only wrote 4 symphonies, and these not until the last 10 years of his life. His goal when he wrote them was to try to carry on the tradition of the great composer. Liszt, ever arguing for a Music of the Future, decided that the best way to write a symphony was to write a new Kind of symphony, breaking with the traditions and forms of the past altogether. The result? He invented and named the only new large musical form of the 19th century--the Symphonic Poem. Like the other programmatic forms, the symphonic or tone poem was linked to an idea or picture from literature. Compared to classical forms the symphonic poem was almost free-form, and Liszt developed the entire work by creating and endlessly developing a musical theme--Thematic transformation, which became a new kind of compositional structure.

There will always be arguments about whether Brahms should be considered a classic or a romantic composer. He wrote all of his works staying clearly and deliberately within the established forms of Classic music. But his passion for the masters of the Baroque was shared by Romantic composers who regarded them as heroes. Brahms steadfastly held that text could only enhance Art, not diminish it, and as a result produced choral and vocal masterpieces. Yet after writing symphonies and large-form vocal works, he maintained his Ideal was the folksong--a sentiment the Romantics, equating folkmusic with National Identity, would have soundly approved. Brahms straddled the worlds of the classic and romantic, and throughout his life was hailed as the successor of Beethoven.

While Brahms was preserving the old German music, Liszt was promoting the New German Music. He risked his musical reputation by endlessly writing articles, premiering new works, and championing composers like Berlioz and Wagner, so that they and musical form itself could begin to step out of the shadow of Beethoven.


Cabaret and its Influence on Song: accompanying remarks to "La Chanteuse au Gant"
©1994 Yvonne R. Dechance, All Rights Reserved.

This is the first-person, informal version that I use in conjunction with my cabaret-inspired "Gloved Singer" concert. Picture yours truly in a long red gown with a long black lace train and gloves, looking a bit like Miss Kitty as I sweep onto the stage...

Yes, tonight you've indeed come to the cabaret. Welcome -- my name is Yvonne and I'll be your chanteuse au gant for the evening. Tonight I've elected to share a particular interest of mine, the cabaret and its influence on artsong.

We begin in France, at the turn of the century. The fin de siecle was a time of turbulence and anarchy, of increased mechanization and fascination with technology, of interest in both international community and national identity, and of experimentation into the workings of the human mind. In other words, a time remarkably similar to the time we live in.

In the background of all this frenetic activity new modes of entertainment were developing. Many taverns featured public singalongs: when the laws regarding liquor licenses changed, many of these taverns became professional music halls. Likewise, cafés featured café-concerts. And the variety theater, which later included vaudeville, became the most popular form of its time.

The styles of music used in these events varied, depending greatly on the talents of the performers, and what would appeal to the clientele. Most of the musical forms were familiar, like the march, the strophic song, and the grand waltz, but as international influences and performers arrived on the scene, new elements began to be incorporated into some of the music. Elements such as ragtime, blues, the cakewalk, and jazz.

Erik Satie was one of the first composers to use café and music hall elements in art song composition. He was a pianist at "Le Chat Noir" (The Black Cat), the first and perhaps most influential of the French artistic cabarets. Satie visibly represented the new bohemianism, in which artists began to merge their public and private personas. While Satie was regarded as equally eccentric and avant-garde in his musical taste, it should be noted that Chausson and in particular Chabrier had opened the door by adding elements of humor to the developing French mélodie form. For above all, Satie's works display an undeniable sense of humor.

The Bronze Statue "La Statue de Bronze" is one of Satie's Three Melodies of 1916. The song describes the world from a frog's point of view, the kind of frog used in the French lawn game of tonneau, in which metal discs are pitched into a figurine, and scored according to the numbered compartments they fall into. In the song, the frog is bored with her life as an immovable statue. She feels her life is fruitless, and longs for the life others lead over by the lavatory. But in the end, there's really nothing she can do about her lot in life.

In the accompaniment, you can hear the vamping, offbeat figures borrowed from American jazz and ragtime influences, and from the popular Parisian music halls. These repetitive figures change only twice, first to express the frog's longing, and towards the end of the piece to express the inevitability that nothing will change for the frog. Satie further departed from music hall form by adding unusual harmonic sequences and some modal references in the melody. And, similar to his piano manuscripts, Satie has included some descriptive editorial markings in the score.

The Bronze Frog reflects the concept of the world as a microcosm, filled with dreams and fantasy, viewed from an unusual perspective.

***

As the 20th century began to take form, so did the artistic or literary cabaret. Throughout Paris groups of artists from all fields met in cafés and private homes to discuss and learn from each other's art. This "café- society" encouraged the development of many experimental movements in literature, art, and music. The literary cabaret started with a group of artists performing for each other; there was no other audience. The Black Cat became the regular meeting place for one such group, the Hydropathes: when a select audience began to attend, the artistic cabaret was born.

From its conception, the cabaret was a theatre of ideas, performed by an extremely intellectual group of people. Although its art and artists were never afraid to speak plainly, the cabaret aspired to the highest artistic ideals, and was aimed at an educated, often upper class audience. It was also a theatre of miniatures, embracing the smaller artistic forms. The one-act play flourished here, as did the skit, and the short song. Shadow plays were originated here, in which fantastic visual effects such as rainbows and erupting volcanoes illustrated a story or song. And the parody form achieved new artistic heights.

Satie's "Le Chapelier" is an example of parody song. The music is marked "Genre Gounod", and may be viewed as both homage to and parody of Gounod, who was himself known to frequent the cafés. The musical theme is borrowed from the "Chanson de Magali" in the opera Mireille. The piano acts mainly as a Gounod orchestra, but both piano and voice alternate fragments of the melody.

The subject of the song is Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. It is truly a miniature form, a vignette in which the hatter tries in vain to make his watch tell the correct time, sung in the manner of French grand opera.

***

No café-cabaret concert would be complete without Satie's café-concert song, "The Diva of the Empire." It was written for Paulette Darty, the queen of the Empire music hall, and the standard verse-and- refrain format reflects this music hall influence. The piece is marked marchtime, but was originally subtitled An American Intermezzo, and takes some of its inspiration from the rhythms of the cakewalk. The American influence is also heard in the use of American phrases in the text.

The playful song tells of the lovely dancer in the Kate Greenaway hat, who captured the attention of all of the men who saw her. The pronunciation of the English phrases was suggested to me by Gérard Souzay, who says he likes to hear the entire song sung with a French accent.

***

The influence of the café and cabaret on French music did not reach its height until Jean Cocteau wrote his literary manifesto Le Coq et L'Harlequin. Truly France's equivalent to P. T. Barnum, Cocteau declared that a new French art music had been born, fathered by none other than Erik Satie. Cocteau argued for the further development of an art for all people and all occasions, or what he referred to as "musical bread." And he decided that there were six composers who would accomplish this task -- Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Arthur Honegger, and Louis Durey. Les Six as they became known, did not last long as a cohesive group, but all of its composers were helped greatly by the media attention.

Cocteau wanted the new French art music to embrace the spirit of Paris -- its people, its machines, the music hall, jazz, even the circus. This was a kind of serious music that did not always have to take itself seriously. The sights and sounds and flavor of Paris were reflected in both the poetry and music of these pieces. International influences on Paris were also reflected in this new music, although Georges Auric in particular struggled with its appropriateness to nationalist song.

Of all of the composers of Les Six, Poulenc was the least popular in his own country, and the most popular in America. It has been suggested by the American Roger Shattuck that Poulenc may have best captured the spirit of Paris, but "the French are insulated against themselves."

The song, "Voyage a Paris" comes from the Banalités, Poulenc's settings of the Poems by Apollinaire. The work is dedicated to the poet Paul Eluard, and suggests the close relationships between artists at the time. The song is composed as a fast waltz, 1 beat to the measure, to be performed with gaiety. In this and other songs Poulenc always insisted that the performer believe in the words and the character singing them -- archness or tongue-in-cheek interpretation would destroy the serious nature of the art form. Of the song, Poulenc wrote: "To anyone who knows me it will seem quite natural that I should open my mouth like a carp to snap up the deliciously stupid lines of 'Voyage a Paris.'"

The topic is Paris, the style is music-hall waltz, and the fragmentation and energy of the work reflect the time and society in which it was written.

***

The fame of the French cabarets soon spread throughout Europe. The artistic cabaret began to be joined by the political cabaret and the amusement cabaret. The amusement cabaret was originally frowned upon by serious artists, but it slowly gained respect as its own genre.

Cabaret in its various forms found limited success throughout Europe, but it was Austria and Germany that most wholeheartedly adopted the cabaret. At first, censorship in these and other governments prevented much of the political commentary common to the French cabaret, but love and life and the workings of the human mind were still explored with vicious abandon. In one of the most famous of the touring German cabarets, a young composer named Arnold Schoenberg worked as choirmaster. While he would later become known as the inventor of the 12-tone system, in 1900 he was far more interested in auditioning a new set of songs he hoped to have performed at the Uberbrettl. Only the song "Nachtwandler" was ever performed by the Uberbrettl company, but the Brettl-Lieder or Cabaret Songs have survived as some of the most beloved examples of cabaret-inspired art song.

The song "Gigerlette" reflects much of the French influence on German cabaret. The song not only has a French title, a French subject, and French words sprinkled throughout the text, but the repetitive three verse structure and postlude shows music hall and café style as well. While the structure and subject are French, the musical style demonstrates some of Schoenberg's interest in experimentation, alternating triadic and sweeping melodic gestures, and showing his love of chromaticism as well.

The poetry by Otto Julius Bierbaum tells the story of a man remembering the relationship he had with a French girl. Typical of the outspoken Bierbaum, the text is filled with slice-of-life flavor, and complex metaphors for sexual acts. The piece ends with the image of Cupid himself holding the reins of love.

***

Love, especially in its more explicit or illicit forms, was a favorite topic of the cabaret. Aside from government restrictions on naming names, few topics were left unexplored. The life of the lower classes, homosexuality, pedophilia, extramarital affairs, and the unfulfilled sexual fantasies of the mind were the subjects of poems, plays, and songs alike. "Galathea" is my favorite of Schoenberg's Brettl-Lieder, because it captures the longing and passion that cabaret so boldly explored.

Structurally the song is based on the standard strophic form, mixed with some of the fragmentation typical of German cabaret songs. But there's nothing typical about the song that Schoenberg created: he alternated extremely chromatic passages with leaping melodic escape sequences to express the passionate outpourings of a man's desire for a young girl.

***

Despite continued threats of censorship, during the 1920's political commentary became an important part of German cabaret, and soon spead beyond. Just as Cocteau had sought to extend music hall influences into serious theatrical productions such as Parade, in Germany Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht were introducing the world to a new form of political opera. One of these productions, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, examines life and love against a backdrop of absolute anarchy. Arnold Weinstein observes that "the lessons preached by Brecht of the preacher's family and the cantorial Weill were the doctrines of Einstein, Freud and Marx decked out in the lipstick and mascara of cabaret."

Within the context of a German opera, a surrealistic international reference stands out -- the soprano Jenny is introduced with the "Alabama-Song," in an original English text.

The "Alabama-Song" is in verse and refrain style, with the heavy vamp of the music halls, and popular dance rhythms such as the foxtrot carrying the piece along. The sections are fragmented, in a style associated with the German amusement cabaret in general, and with Kurt Weill in particular.

The piece is unusual because it was written in English, but composed in Weill's German style. It has been said that Weill, like Wagner, may have been looking for a kind of singer that didn't exist at the time. The piece was originally written in a style favoring an operatically trained soprano, but was made popular by Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's wife. The style many modern interpreters are choosing lies somewhere between these two styles. The version you will hear next has been reconstructed from the Lenya recordings and the full opera score. So you will hear all three verses, along with the operetta-style passages Weill provided for the final refrain.

***

Cabaret reached its height around the second world war, until 1941, when an edict issued by Goebbels outlawed the presence of the conferencier. Over the years, the conferencier had evolved as a cross between master of ceremonies, stand-up-comedian, and greek chorus: he or she provided much of the topical commentary in a night's entertainment. While not appreciative of cabaret's political stance, Adolph Hitler was one of cabaret music's greatest fans, and performers like Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier had to invent elaborate excuses to avoid Hitler's summons for private Command Performances. Many of cabaret's most gifted creators and interpreters fled Europe to escape the Nazi regime, or died as a result of it.

Soon, other forms of entertainment, especially the movies, provided competition the cabaret could no longer match. Like the music halls and the café concerts before it, the cabaret had developed according to the needs and resources of its audience: but in trying to please a paying audience the cabaret had gradually lost much of the experimental edge that had made it avant-garde.

But the cabaret spirit never died out completely. It lives on in the literature and songs the cabaret inspired, in musicals like La Cage aux Folles, Victor/Victoria, and Cabaret, in live theatre skits and institutions like Saturday Night Live. And serious composers are still moved to create works from the flavor and poetry of the cabaret: William Bolcom's two volumes of Cabaret Songs are testament to cabaret's continued appeal.

There is much I could say about this last song tonight, but I won't. Suffice it to say that this work for me embodies the spirit of the cabaret, and recaptures many of its most flamboyant qualities. International influences, intellectual parody, spoken sections, an unusual heroine, drama, energy, and glamour. This song has it all.

***

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this page last updated February 2, 2003
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