For the past 4 or 5 months I have been pondering Samuel Barber’s song cycle Despite and Still op. 41. I first heard it listening to the complete songs album with Thomas Hampson singing and John Browning on piano. Through their performances – along with Cheryl Studer’s – I was taken by Despite and Still and the whole corpus of Barber’s songs.
Barber’s songs are extraordinary for their good humor, sensitive emotional rendering, and fascinating texts. The variety is also outstanding. Think of “St. Ita’s Vision” in the same cycle as “Promiscuity” in Hermit Songs.
After listening to these songs several times and singing them, I became more and more drawn to Despite and Still. These songs are wildly mysterious, and the challenges to the singer attempting them are myriad. The melodies are vocally challenging, and the texts are difficult to understand. Three of them – “A Last Song”[originally “A Last Poem”], “In the Wilderness”, and “Despite and Still” – are poems by Robert Graves. One – “My Lizard”- is by Theordore Roethke. And one – “Solitary Hotel” – is an excerpt from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Despite and Still”
The last and title song “Despite and Still” is violent and demanding. If we were to remove the singing, the person speaking might very well be shouting. The piano lays chords underneath the poor singer that make entire scales chordal tones and plays imitative harsh jabbing motives in parallel octaves. The speaker demands of his/her unnamed other that they both put other loves aside to “love despite and still”. Why does Barber set these thoughts to such upsetting music?
Have you not read
The words in my head,
And I made part
Of your own heart?
We have been such as draw
The losing straw —
You of your gentleness,
I of my rashness,
Both of despair —
Yet still might share
This happy will:
To love despite and still.
Never let us deny
The thing’s necessity,
But, O, refuse
When chance may seem to give
Loves in alternative.
(Barber then adds for…emphasis?)
To love despite and still.
The song that is perhaps the “hit” of the bunch is “Solitary Hotel” because of its catchy and – let’s admit it – sexy tango line in the piano. It is by far the most perplexing of the group, though. The piano plays a rubato laced line with a 6/8 feel in the right hand and a tango habanera beat in the left while the singer intones two or three syllable utterances.
The text is describing a scene, but the manner in which it’s described is bleak and certainly “solitary”:
Solitary hotel in mountain pass. Autumn. Twilight. Fire lit. In dark corner young man seated. Young woman enters. Restless. Solitary. She sits. She goes to window. She stands. She sits. Twilight. She thinks. On solitary hotel paper she writes. She thinks. She writes. She sighs. Wheels and hoofs. She hurries out. He comes from his dark corner. He seizes solitary paper. He holds it toward fire. Twilight. He reads. Solitary. What? In sloping, upright and backhand: Queen’s hotel. Queen’s hotel. Queen’s ho-
It’s a Puzzle
I feel like only after digging into them for so many months am I beginning to understand this grouping.
I will have more to say about the other songs over the next few months, but there seems to be some use of what Verdi scholars would call tinta in them that may be the basis for relationship between the songs. I am not prepared to say that they have a clear cut story though.
If anyone who reads this blog over the next couple of months has worked on these songs or heard a performance that struck them, I would love to hear about it.