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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"
November, 2013

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.

Roger Pines is dramaturg and broadcast commentator at Lyric Opera of Chicago. A writer for opera-company programs nationwide and for numerous major publications internationally (among them The Times/London, Opera, Opera News, and International Record Review), he has also contributed program notes for recordings by many renowned artists, most recently Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and Joyce DiDonato.

Schubert: "Die junge Nonne"

Schubert is by some distance my favorite of the major Lieder composers, but how could he not be a favorite of anyone who appreciates art song? As a source of pure joy in listening, Schubert's output is inexhaustible; there are more than 800 songs, and getting to know them is a lifetime's task. I'm repeatedly stunned by the unerring musical judgment that characterizes them, and by the persuasiveness with which they cover an astonishing variety of emotions. Invariably I find a directness of expression that speaks to my heart, plus an exquisite craftsmanship and a grace - both vocally and pianistically - that never lose their appeal.

Schubert's "Die junge Nonne" is my favorite Lied (Mendelssohn's exhilarating "Suleika I: Was bedeutet die Bewegung?" runs it a close second). Innumerable listeners would nominate Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" as the most profoundly touching Lied ever written for the female voice, but my choice in that regard remains "Die junge Nonne." No doubt its intimidating interpretive challenges make it rather less frequently encountered in performance than many other equally celebrated Schubert songs. When a singer and pianist have everything needed to do full justice to "Die junge Nonne," it never fails to rivet my attention. In 1825 - three years before Schubert's death at the tragically early age of 31 - the song was published as one half of the composer's Opus 43 (the other half is the spellbindingly intimate "Nacht und Träume," which also ranks high in my personal "top ten" of Schubert songs). The text is by Jakob Nikolaus (1797-1855), whose poetry the composer set on just a few other occasions.

The first of four stanzas begins with the young nun of the title describing the wind howling loudly in the trees, and a house shaking and rattling. There's thunder, lightning, and a grave-like darkness. She compares that scene to the turmoil her own heart had experienced not so long ago. Clearly the throes of love had made her own life a storm in itself; her body trembled as the house does, and her heart was indeed as dark as the grave. She exhorts the storm to continue to rage in all its wildness and power, but she is now at peace herself. As a loving bride, she awaits her celestial groom - her Savior - and longs for Him to claim her soul. Hearing the sweet, peaceful ring of a bell that is inviting her spirit to soar, she ends by twice intoning a quiet "Alleluia."

The song is written in F minor, which eminently suits its emotional content. I've always admired its perfect structure, and the way the constant repeated sextuplet 16-note groups in the right hand create an exciting tension in the first two stanzas. I love the contrast of the somber ascending phrases in the left hand, each phrase ending with repeated notes patterned in a manner that seems to represent the tolling of a bell.

What I value most of all is Schubert's total connection to the natural accent of the word. "Die junge Nonne" is a notably straightforward song in that respect; one never questions the direction of a phrase, or what word deserves the most significant emphasis. Although I certainly relish narrative-style Lieder, I don't necessarily need an actual story within the Lied's lyric to appreciate it. What I care about more are a beauty in the language and a truthfulness in the emotions being presented; both qualities are definitely present in "Die junge Nonne." I'm not a Christian, but I can nevertheless be moved by this text and Schubert's matchless sensitivity in the musical setting he gives it.

Although attracted to Schubert's sunny side, I generally find his serious bent making a more vivid and enduring impression on me. I listen to "Die junge Nonne" when I'm in a quiet mood and crave inward-looking music. I'll also turn to it when I want to be uplifted by the artistry required to perform this song well. I first heard of the song well before actually hearing it performed. In my mid-teens, I read an Opera News interview with Martina Arroyo in which she spoke of wanting to make her recitals as dramatic as her operatic appearances. She mentioned the colors that a singer must bring to Schubert's song about a young nun comparing her life to a storm that is calmed by her marriage to Jesus.

A few years later, in my college's music library, I happened upon a two-LP set recorded in 1971 by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore, devoted exclusively to Schubert Lieder for the female voice. Reading through the list of repertoire on those LPs, my eye was drawn to a particular title - the song Arroyo had cited, which at that point I still had never heard. When I sat down for the first time with Baker's Schubert album, I think I listened to "Die junge Nonne" three or four times. I was astonished by the music itself, and by Baker's singing.

Supported by the flawless blend of delicacy and incisiveness in Moore's playing, Baker presents a definitive performance. She begins with the inestimable asset of an immediately recognizable, utterly personal vocal timbre, and the glowing warmth and womanliness that distinguish it. The song takes her from G-flat at the top of the staff down to middle C - not nearly the maximum span that Baker could encompass, but certainly her sound through that range is technically immaculate. She brings incomparably fastidious musicianship to every phrase, to which she adds unfailingly clear, authentic, meaningful projection of the text. Of course, all of those qualities should be required for a singer intent on achieving a memorable performance of any art song. What is it, then, makes Baker so exceptional in "Die junge Nonne"?

Schubert gives the performers a good deal of freedom in this song. The only tempo indication comes at the very start - "Mäßig" ("Moderate"). Dynamics and other expressive markings are only very occasionally in evidence. Any singer in this song is thus compelled to make her own expressive choices. If she possesses true interpretive imagination, the door is open to her bringing real individuality to the song. Such is the case with Baker, who makes "Die junge Nonne" her own through the sheer honesty of her singing.

All of Baker's vocal and musical strengths give her the foundation on which she can build a complete involvement in the drama of "Die junge Nonne." She creates the necessary intensity initially by giving a telling (but never exaggerated) bite to the most crucial words in the opening lines of the first two verses. The passion is totally palpable, in marked contrast with the blanched, virtually vibrato-less color Baker gives to "und finster die Nacht wie das Grab" ("and the night is as dark as the grave"). The start of the second verse communicates an urgency to match the first. Baker's full voice has a unique radiance at the top of the staff, and it's generally in that area that the third verse "sits." The way the singer tapers her final ascending phrase in that verse is elegance itself.

The final verse sets the seal on the performance. First we sense the ache of yearning at "Ich harre, mein Heiland" ("I await you, my Saviour"). Then comes a moment that, to my ear, does most to set Baker apart in this song: her voicing of "Horch, friedlich ertönet das Glöcklein vom Turm" ("Listen, the bell peacefully sounds from the tower"). With Schubert giving her no dynamic marking at this point in the music, Baker chooses to take the jump of a fourth to the F at the top of the staff very softly, bringing to that moment an unearthly, heartstopping loveliness. Ending the song are two "Alleluia"'s that should be sustained with a pristine, unfettered legato, and here Schubert does ask for a specific dynamic (ppp). Baker sings those concluding phrases with a serenity that is beyond words to describe. It simply must be heard - and cherished.

"Die junge Nonne"
Dame Janet Baker and Murray Perahia
From a recital at Covent Garden (year is unidentified)

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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections