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Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard

Natalie Dessay posing on a black velvet chair

In Women’s Words, beloved French duo soprano Natalie Dessay and pianist Philippe Cassard give women the spotlight, whether as composers or as heroines of their own stories.

Tonight Natalie Dessay and Philippe Cassard celebrate the female perspective in art song and opera. The first half is devoted to three composers who were overshadowed by their eminent menfolk for far too long.

Despite her father’s (and, regrettably, her brother Felix’s) attempts to discourage her, as a woman, from pursuing music as a profession, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote more than 400 works. Her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel, was supportive, however, and Fanny continued composing, organising concerts and conducting her own choir until the day she died of a stroke, aged 42.

As precociously gifted children, she and Felix had known Johann Wolfgang von Goethe well; when she was about 14, her songs impressed him so much that he wrote a poem for her to set. She seems not to have obliged; but in Dämmrung senkte sich von oben (‘Dusk has fallen from above’) she treats his words with sensitivity, passion and harmonic daring.

After her death, the devastated Felix had several volumes of her songs published. For Op 10, he chose some of her most sophisticated creations, including Vorwurf (‘Reproach’), which offers almost Bachian resonances. ‘Suleika’, with its unpredictable phrase-lengths and subtle twists of harmony, was included in a Christmas album that Fanny created in 1836. The poem is by Marianne von Willemer – long misattributed to Goethe, who based the character Mignon in his West- Eastern Divan on her.

A child prodigy pianist, Clara Wieck was celebrated throughout Europe by her mid-teens. In 1840 she married Robert Schumann; following his tragic death in a mental hospital in 1856, she raised their seven surviving children alone. In her later years she was a revered piano professor and remained a close friend of Johannes Brahms.

Soon after their marriage, the Schumanns jointly created in 1841 a collection of their settings of Friedrich Rückert’s poems, including Clara’s Liebst du um Schönheit (‘If you love for beauty’), Warum willst du and’re fragen (‘Why enquire of others’) and Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen (‘He came in storm and rain’), which reveal her melodic gifts in full bloom. Sie liebten sich beide (‘They loved one another’) sets Heinrich Heine’s bittersweet story of undeclared love. But her Romance in A minor, Op 21, for solo piano, from a group of three composed in 1853, occupies a world of anxiety and anguish that belies the modest title.

Alma Mahler-Werfel, too, was torn between her own creative gifts and a man – her first husband, Gustav Mahler – who preferred her to support his. Just 17 of her songs survive, capturing the fervid, hot-house atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna and also hinting at influences from Wagner and Schumann.

Tonight’s songs appear in a 1910 collection edited, at last, by Gustav, who had realised he was losing her affections.

Bei dir ist es traut (‘I feel warm and close to you’) matches Rainer Maria Rilke’s sentiments with suitably intimate music. In Laue Sommernacht (‘Mild summer night’), hope illuminates the darkness, though the final cadence is left unresolved. In meines Vaters Garten (‘In my father’s garden’), a poem by Otto Erich Hartleben, depicts three sisters dreaming that their beloveds must leave for war; Alma’s atmosphere progresses from innocence to dread.

We turn now to music by French male composers in which female characters take power into their own hands – whether over their lives or that of others.

Ernest Chausson, a friend of Gabriel Fauré and Henri Duparc, inherited serious money and was fearful of being thought a compositional dilettante. He was just beginning to gain confidence and repute when he was killed in a bicycling accident in 1899, aged 44. In Chanson perpétuelle (1898), evoking an abandoned, Ophelia-like woman contemplating suicide by water, the Symbolist poetry of Charles Cros merges ideally with Chausson’s melancholy music.

There’s no romanticisation about the gambling-addict protagonist of Francis Poulenc’s La dame de Monte Carlo. The composer set this Jean Cocteau monologue for his duo partner, the soprano Denise Duval, to sing in 1961. It reminded him, he wrote, of a time in the mid-1920s when he lived in Monte Carlo, observing ‘those old wrecks of women, light-fingered ladies of the gaming tables …’

For most of Claude Debussy’s enigmatic opera, based on Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, the eponymous pair cannot declare their love: she is married to his elder brother. In ‘Mes longs cheveux’, Mélisande leans from a castle window, letting down her hair to envelop Pelléas, standing below, in what is by far the opera’s most sensual scene.

Chimène, heroine of Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid (1885), has a good reason to weep in ‘Pleurez, mes yeux’: her beloved, Rodrigue, has killed her father in a duel. Later, however, Rodrigue will ask her to decide his fate; she forgives and marries him.

Finally the ‘Jewel Song’ brings us full circle to Goethe, on whose Faust Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera is based, if loosely. Faust has sold his soul to Mephistopheles in return for restored youth. Courting Marguerite, he sends her a casket of jewellery. Here she gazes, astonished, at her newfound glamour, culminating in a surge of joy.

© Jessica Duchen

Programme and performers

Fanny Mendelssohn Dämmrung senkte sich von oben

Clara Schumann Liebst du um Schönheit
Sie liebten sich beide
Warum willst du and’re fragen
Er ist gekommen

Romance for piano in A minor, Op 21
Alma Mahler Bei dir ist es traut
Laue Sommernacht
In meines Vaters Garten

Ernest Chausson Chanson perpétuelle
Francis Poulenc La dame de Monte-Carlo
Claude Debussy ‘Mes longs cheveux’ from Pelléas et Mélisande
Jules Massenet Mélodie, Op 10 No 5
‘Pleurez mes yeux’ from Le Cid
Charles Gounod ‘Ah, je ris de me voir si belle’ from Faust

Natalie Dessay soprano
Philippe Cassard piano


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