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"My Favorite Song"

Guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Archive of Past Selections

"My Favorite Song"
March, 2014

Welcome to the monthly feature of the Vocal Arts DC web site in which guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Richard Stilwell

Maurice Ravel: "Don Quichotte a Dulcinée"

A native of the Basque region of France, and a stone's throw from the Spanish border, it seemed only fitting Maurice Ravel should pick up the guantlet of Spain's most famous literary character, Don Quixote, and for his very last composition create a cycle of songs depicting moods of the mad knight. With the permission of Peter Russell, I've chosen this short group of three chansons, as "My Favorite Song".

Ravel wrote "Don Quichotte a Dulciné" in 1932 as a competition entry, with hopes it might be used in a movie starring the Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin. Because of serious health issues, however, he missed the deadline, and instead, Jacques Ibert's music won the prize. Nonetheless, these 3 gems were born from his sick bed. In order of presentation they are: Chanson Romanesque, Chanson Épique, and Chanson a Boire. The texts are by Paul Morand. Of all the songs I've sung, heard, and taught during my 45 year singing career, why this particular cycle? What makes it so special? Let me explain.

I've always been excited by "connections". That is, the common denominator which binds friends and colleagues via music and the arts. Don Quixote has played an important part in my artistic life for many years, with several of these personal connections along the way. Having first read the book by Miguel de Cervantes, I was introduced and entranced by this marvelous character. Considered by most the greatest literary masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Era, I searched for more about Quixote. There is a wonderful opera by Massenet, as well as the excellent Ibert cycle mentioned above. But the Ravel songs were embraced early, and soon found their way into my own recital repertoire. In 1981 I was privileged to perform the cycle in DC at the Kennedy Center in a special concert honoring the great George London, my mentor and advisor, who had years earlier sufferred a paralizing stroke. In addition, I had taken up sword and breastplate to portray Quixote/Cervantes in the classic American musical "Man of La Mancha". By now, he had gotten under my skin! Then came the discovery of the exquisite Gustave Doré illustrations, where his enchantment, pathos, and humor are so vividly captured.

Some might question my choice of Cesare Siepi, an Italian bass, for this music instead of say, Gerard Sousay, a Frenchman, or José van Dam, a Belgian, both excellent artists to be sure. A few liberties are taken in this live 1956 Salzburg presentation, but Siepi's French is exemplary, the vocal nuances utterly delectable, and the dramatic panache perfect for this larger than life character. I've also had the thrill of performing with Siepi on the opera stage in Verdi's DON CARLO, another connection, and the 2nd song, "Chanson épique", was dedicated by Ravel to Martial Singher, one of the most famous emerging French artists of that era. I had coached opera with his son, Michel Singer, when a student at Indiana University!

Chanson Romanesque: Quixote proclaims his lady's wish would be his command, from stopping the turning of the world to swiping stars from the skies, and at last, if need be, sacrificing his own life. The accompaniment is a guitar-like strumming, rocking between alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time in a Basque 'zortzico' rhythm. It ends with a sighing, "O, Dulcinée."

Chanson épique: (My favorite of the three) 'molto moderato'... Quixote, in a solemn, fervent prayer, asks Saint Michael (with the aid of Saint George) to stand beside him in defense of his Lady. With "D'un rayon du ciel, bénissez ma lame..." (with a beam from heaven, bless my sword), a great upward sweeping line of deep compassion and expression is wrought. A softly uttered "Amen" completes the prayer.

Chanson a boire: The flamboyant finish says, "To hell with the bastard who will bring to grief my heart and soul!" "I drink to joy!...the sole aim I pursue, when I've drunk!"

To Vocal Arts DC I can only add, "A Vôtre Santé!"

Cesare Siepi, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections