CLAUDE DEBUSSY Les Chansons de Bilitis “The poetry of Bilitis is not unknown to me. For a long time, I have considered her a personal friend,” a professor of Greek archaeology writes to Pierre Louÿs in response to his Les Chansons de Bilitis, a translation of a set of poems discovered in the tomb of sixth century Greek poetess and Sappho-contemporary, Bilitis. The only catch? The original poems along with their supposed author never existed. These 143 poems, grouped into three sections of Bilitis’ life (her childhood and earliest sexual awakening, her time on the island of Lesbos and relationship with a woman, and her life as a courtesan in Cyprus) are perhaps best known for their eroticism and then-controversial exploration of homosexuality. As it turns out, Pierre Louÿs fabricated their entire origin story. And even though he fooled some experts, much of his audience knew, or at least suspected, the dubious nature of his source material.
HECTOR BERLIOZ La Mort d’Ophélie There is perhaps no more famous death in all of literature than that of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a moment a moment of great pathos, one that has captured the imaginations of generations of writers, painters, and musicians. And yet the audience doesn’t see it happen. Ophelia dies offstage. To say that Ophelia is a much-discussed character would be a massive understatement. Much of the analysis of her deals with her relationships with the men in her life, specifically Hamlet and Polonius, her father. Ophelia can seem at times almost a pawn in the deadly game being played by her father and her would-be lover, and in the end, she is driven mad by Hamlet’s murderous actions. Then she exits the stage and simply falls into a river and drowns. French composer Hector Berlioz loved Shakespeare, returning to The Bard time and time again for inspiration during his career. He was especially enamored with Hamlet, once writing, “imagine anybody having lived forty-five or fifty years without knowing Hamlet! One might as well spend one’s life in a coal mine.” In fact, it was Hamlet that first introduced Berlioz to Shakespeare, when in September of 1827 he attended a performance of the play in Paris.
GIOACHINO ROSSINI Giovanna d’Arco Gioachino Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco was first written in 1832 following a bout of sickness. Although Rossini’s title remains in the composer’s native Italian, the figure whom this work is about will be familiar to most audiences: Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, also sometimes referred to as the Maid of Lorraine, was a 15th century French woman who claimed to have received visions from various Christian saints that told her she must help France in their struggle against in the English in the Hundred Years’ War. Although Joan of Arc was extremely successful in her military career, leading French troops in successful military operations, she was eventually captured and burned at the stake when she was only nineteen years old. In 1920, she was canonized as a Catholic saint by Pope Benedict XV.
AARON COPLAND Selections from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson Prior to composing Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1950, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) had not produced any works for voice and piano since 1928 and claimed he did not have any intention of writing a song cycle. In fact, he also admitted to having a certain disdain for poetry, saying that poets “were men who were trying to make music with nothing but words at their command.” But Emily Dickinson was no man, and it seems that her poems deeply resonated with the composer. He made comparisons between her works and those of Gustav Mahler’s, an inspiration of his, particularly in regard to their fascination with death and eternity, topics explored in this song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano.