Sunday, 24 April 2011

Peter Lieberson, Lorraine and Neruda

Peter Lieberson died on April 23 2011, aged only 64. He had an eventful life, but perhaps some of his best years were those spent with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, second of his three wives, for whom he wrote the Neruda songs. Lorraine seemed haunted by cancer. The Liebersons downplayed her own illness at the time, but as her condition deteriorated, he, too was diagnosed. Lorraine died in 2006, and the Neruda Songs were issued on CD almost immediately in her memory. The booklet was stark and unadorned by anything but essentials. On the front was a photograph of her beaming defiantly. Inside, a photo snapped moments later, still smiling, but her eyes closed. And then, on the back cover, only black.

Our response to these songs is of course coloured by what we know about their background. But why not?  Art is a medium through which people can work through their feelings and hopefully create something that can help and benefit others. When her mother and sister died from cancer, Lorraine created a mise-en-scène interpretation based on  Bach's Ich habe genug. Dressed in a hospital gown, she sang poignantly and with dignity. It was an act of protest against the disease which stirred many. It raised public awareness and  helped many people, directly and indirectly.

Although the background to these songs can't, and shouldn't be, forgotten, Lieberson's Neruda Songs are haunting as pure music. The voice jumps straight in with an unsentimental, matter-of-fact directness. Life is celebrated here, not death, and love affirms life. "Everything is alive so that I can be alive, ….. in your life I see everything that lives". She sings that last phrase with delicious fire. The accompaniment is spare, but sensual. High strings are balanced by the deeper notes of a harp.

In the second song, the mood is of spaciousness, the strings shimmering as if to capture the stars and open air in the poem. "There’s nothing here but light, quantities, clusters, space opened by the graces of the wind". The voice part isn’t adorned, but floats above the accompaniment. In contrast, the third song confronts fear and loss. It’s eerily quiet, anxiety rising despite the poet’s attempt to suppress it. The last word, "moriendo" (dying) is repeated several times over as if the singer is contemplating what will happen. Yet, again, it’s more dignified and firm than sentimental. The imagery in the fourth song is restful and almost dreamlike, the words "Amor!" repeated lovingly. Yet the strings tell a different story: they are starker, entering with greater force, though a simple little figure pushes the movement ahead. It ends abruptly. Then, comes the magnificent final song, where the poet confronts death and separation. Chill strings shimmer, like the "vague wind swept on us, like sailing seeds". But it’s the final strophe that’s most moving. "Love doesn’t end, goes the poem, because it has no birth, it has no death. … It is like a long river, only changing hands, and changing lips". As if the composer cannot bear to end the song, he repeats the verse again, and then the last line, and then, simply "Amor … amor …. amor".

Peter Lieberson's obituary in the NY Times is HERE. I've heard great things about the Buddhist commmunity in Nova Scotia.  Long may they continue helping those in need.

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