Learning new songs, discovering great poetry


There are many things we like about singing and songs … discovering great poetry is one of them.  And you really have to love poetry to do lieder well, as the sentiments you are conveying is very much what lieder is about.

In two forthcoming concerts (stay tuned), we will be introducing the songs (mélodies, lieder, romances) of Pauline Viardot, a 19th century singing sensation who later focused on composing and whose works are beginning to be rediscovered, deservedly so.  (The New York Times has a recent piece on her.)

Why sing Viardot’s songs apart from the wonderful poetry?  Well, first and foremost, they are delightful gems, and indeed Pauline’s compositional works were highly regarded during her time, with Franz Liszt, himself a virtuoso who later focused on composing, lauding them for their harmonic subtleties and calling them “sparks of genius”.

One of the most interesting things about Viardot’s compositional output is her “Russian songs” and especially her “Pushkin songs”.  As far as we know today, Pauline wrote 16 songs on the poetry of the great Alexander Pushkin.  In fact, her “Russian songs” – mostly published to be sung in French or German – excel in setting to music some of the greatest in Russian literature, including Pushkin yes but also Afanasy Fet, Mikhail Lermontov and Ivan Turgenev.

Indeed, Pushkin is the poet on whose text Viardot set the most number of songs; not even Victor Hugo in the city, Paris, that Pauline resided for much of her life and whom she knew well could compete!

Here is one of our favourite Viardot songs, about finding a dried flower inside a book and bringing up many thoughts and memories, Fleur desséchée (“A flower, dried up and withered”), quoting the first stanza here (in English translation) too (here’s a sung version we quite like):

A flower, dried up and withered,
I find, forgotten within a book,
And suddenly with curious thoughts
My mind begins to fill.

Another of her more known songs is Die Sterne (“Stars”), this time on the lyrical poetry of Afanasy Fet, and again, we quote the first stanza in English translation here (this is the best version we’ve come across so far):

I stood a long time motionless
Peering at the distant stars
between those stars and me
The unwitting connection was born.


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