These are 5 songs that we love very much as we searched through the repertoire of songs about stars (reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Choose something like a star” which also has a lovely choral setting by Randall Thompson…), and the poetry in the English and French words of these songs are at times moving, at times fascinating. In these 5 songs, we hear about the hopes we project onto stars, and we reflect on and are reminded of how we identify stars with so many different things.
First we have stars spurring memories of past loves (or “défunt” in French probably also means “lost”) in Debussy’s Nuit d’étoiles or “Starry night” (here with Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard) that opens Part 2 of the concert. This is the first of Debussy’s published songs, written when he was only 18. The song is distinguished by beautiful lyre-like rising arpeggios in the piano part that returns in a refrain with elegantly falling triplets.
The second song is Gounod’s Le Soir, a song by another French composer, that also sits within the “classical” French tradition, with its qualities of charm, ingenuity, and a concern for the literary text; it speak of rays streaming from afar to softly touch our eyes:
Tout à coup, détaché des cieux,
Un rayon de l’astre nocturne,
Glissant sur mon front taciturne
Vient mollement toucher mes yeux.
(Suddenly, from the heavens,
A ray from the evening star
Glides upon my solemn face
Softly touches my eyes.)”
“Only a composer capable of writing long melodies can match the length of the poet Lamartine’s spacious metres! ‘Classique pour l’expression, romantique dans la pensée’”, wrote accomplished pianist of songs, mélodies and lieder Graham Johnson. None other than fellow composer Ravel saw Gounod as “the true founder of the mélodie in France”.
Our 3rd and 4th songs about stars are both written by composer Kurt Weill, one in French and one in English! “Youkali” is about how we follow stars that cajole us to impossible follies, while “Lost in the stars” speaks of how:
And we’re lost out here in the stars,
Little stars and big stars
Blowing through the night”
So, one is about following a star the other is about being lost out there in the stars; one was written in Paris when Weill briefly lived after fleeing Nazi Germany (he was a German Jew), the other after he then moved to and settled in the US.
There are some unusual histories behind both songs too: Youkali was originally not a song but a “tango habanera” that was written for a music theatre piece and Weill only inserted text into the music more than 10 years later: “the land of our desires, it’s happiness, it’s pleasure”, “where you leave all your troubles behind”, but is only “a dream” and “a folly”. Lost in the stars, in the meantime, is the title song for his late work, the 1949 opera-musical that was adapted from the text by Maxwell Anderson that is based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country set in apartheid South Africa where the protagonist, Stephen, is a black Anglican priest from a small village whose son has been jailed after killing a white man during a robbery, who opined not only about being “lost out here in the stars” but:
Sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away / Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say”
The final song in our choice of 5 is Hahn’s L’heure exquise, a beautiful gem of a song that is very popular with singers and is about “the perfect hour”, when the iridescent stars of the evening bring us a calm that is a perfect moment to dream!