Margaret Ruthven LANG (1867-1972)
Love is everywhere, Selected Songs of Margaret Ruthven Lang – Volume 1
Songs of Love Gained and Lost: Love is Everywhere, Ojalá, A Poet Gazes on the Moon, Irish Love Song, Deserted, Betrayed
Songs for Lovers of Children: Morning, The Sky Ship, The Jade Flute, Ghosts, The Sandman, Evening
Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures, Opp. 42 and 43, (Edward Lear): There was an old man with a beard, There was a young lady of Lucca, There once was a person of Skye, There was an old man with a gong, There was an old lady of France, There was an old man in a tree, There was an old person of Cassel
Parting Words and Songs: Snowflakes, A Song of the Spanish Gypsies, Summer Noon, My Lady Jacqueminot, A Song of the Lilac, Chimes
Donald George (tenor)
Lucy Mauro (piano)
rec. Bloch Hall, West Virginia University, USA, 19-20 September 2009, DDD
Booklet notes with composer’s and artists’ biographies in English only, companion data disc with printable scores and printable song texts for all songs in vols. 1 & 2, printable list of all songs ordered by degree of difficulty and PDFs of selected original manuscripts
DELOS DE 3407 [48.26]
Margaret Ruthven Lang was a name completely unknown to me until I received this CD. Although, she was a distinguished American composer and a pioneer in her day; at present, she and her work are largely forgotten. She was born on 17 November 1867 in Boston, Massachusetts, as the eldest child of an amateur singer mother and a father who spread himself across many areas: He was a conductor, pianist, organist, composer, and accompanist (later director) of several choral groups. In such an environment is hardly surprising that Margaret Lang took to music herself. She composed well over one hundred songs, which were well received and often sung in concert halls throughout Boston. She was the first female composer to have her work performed by a major orchestra in America, namely with her Dramatic Overture, in 1893, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Nikisch. She wrote many large works for voice and orchestra, apart from her songs, but she stopped composing in 1919 and then, dedicated herself to religious work. She lived an exceptionally long life and only died in May 1972, a few months short of her 105th birthday! Margaret Lang was extremely critical of her creations and was known to have destroyed many pieces, which she probably did not believe to be good enough. This may explain why most of her compositions did not survive; however and luckily for us music lovers, her songs did.
Love is everywhere is the title of this CD with Lang’s songs and also the name of the first piece in the album, which is part of Songs of Love Gained and Lost. The songs in the present CD (volume 1) are organised by themes. Besides the one already mentioned, the others are: Songs for Lovers of Children, Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures, and finally, Parting Words and Songs. Though for me personally, the Songs of Love Gained and Lost are the most charming, I must say that I found them all not only extremely accomplished but also possessed of an incredible freshness that both touched and moved me. Love is everywhere, Irish Love Song (which are part of the first theme) and Snowflakes (which is part of the last group) are exquisitely beautiful pieces, with appealing melodies, where text and music merge in perfect harmony; always a sign, I think, of an exceptionally good song. Some of Ms Lang’s other songs, as for example Deserted, Ghosts or The Sandman reminded me of German Lieder, which is perhaps not surprising, as she knew Wagner and other German musicians, and also studied violin and counterpoint in Munich when she was nineteen years old. Lang’s music is witty, full of a fine, subtle sense of humour, wonderfully demonstrated in the amusing though refined lines of the Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures Songs. Moreover, I was amazed at her extraordinary talent to illustrate the poems in music. In this CD the texts are from American poets but, as far as I am aware, they were not created as lyrics for a song, yet, Lang almost gives us the impression that they were. This is a tremendous achievement and a difficult skill that even some of the greatest composers were not always able to master; however, Ms Lang did and with great accomplishment.
Throughout the disc, I had the impression that this recording was a labour of love for tenor Donald George and pianist Lucy Mauro; a fact that also comes across in the brief interview they gave me via e-mail, which you can read at the end of this review. George’s and Mauro’s care and dedication in performing and bringing these songs to the general public is patent in every single track of the CD. Undoubtedly, there is a great musical rapport between the two, creating a harmonious partnership between voice and piano, which effectively enhances the songs. Donald George is in great form here and Lang’s pieces suit his voice. He sings them with obvious enjoyment and great expression, as if narrating a story in song. His tone is very warm and his diction crystal clear, which enriches the whole experience, as one can distinctly perceive each sound, each vowel, each word and its meaning within the context of the full lyrics. Lucy Mauro’s piano accompaniment serves George’s vocals perfectly. The piano never overpowers the voice; it highlights and completes it. Mauro performs the pieces with apparent delight and marvellous clarity, displaying not only an excellent technique but also a detailed understanding of Lang’s scores.
The sound quality of the recording is excellent. It is clear that remarkable care went into each detail and the CD is well presented in a stylish, subtle package with sunny colours. It includes a leaflet with detailed information in English about the composer, as well as artists’ biographies. Intelligently, instead of just having the usual booklet notes, we are offered an excellent companion disc, which contains a wealth of interesting items: Copies of original selected manuscripts, the cover of Lang’s songbook, the texts to the songs in volumes 1 and 2, and finally, a real treat for anyone who can play the piano: The complete scores of the songs in volumes 1 and 2. Volume 2, entitled New Love Must Rise, is due to be launched in January 2012.
For me, this CD was an immensely enjoyable journey of discovery and I took great pleasure in listening to the work of a composer whom I knew nothing about. Lang’s music is positively delightful and any initiative, which brings such gems to the public knowledge, deserves to be highly applauded. I can hardly wait for volume 2 to appear!
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/)
Donald George (tenor) and Lucy Mauro (pianist) interviewed by Margarida Mota-Bull for MusicWeb International
Donald George and Lucy Mauro are the two musicians who brought Margaret Lang’s delightful songs to life in this CD. Both Mr George and Ms Mauro were very kind and forthcoming in answering my questions, which I sent them on impulse, after listening to the CD, as I was deeply touched by the songs and intrigued with their composer. The interview was conducted via e-mail on 4th October 2011.
MMB: Why did you want to record a CD of Ms Lang's songs and why bring it out now?
DG: I must say that I had no idea of the richness of the musical life in Boston at that time. Margaret Lang was not the only woman composer in Boston; the group around the most famous American, Edward MacDowell, was quite large too. I was intrigued by the fact that Margaret Lang received such a rounded education in the most illustrious circles, not only in Boston, but also in Munich where (not allowed as a woman to study at the Royal Conservatory) her father, with his connections to the elite of German musical society (Wagner, Liszt, von Bülow), enrolled her in private lessons with the likes of Franz Dreschsler and Ludwig Abel and for counterpoint and fugue with Victor Gluth, who were all in the Wagnerian circle. Ms Lang’s music is well constructed and in the German Lied style, i.e. with its prominence on the importance and illustration of the text; yet, done with a wonderful emphasis on melodic invention and beauty. The songs are simple, eminently singable and enjoyable. They work in the singing voice. I found that here was an important voice in American music, and a voice that had for some reason stilled itself. The 40th anniversary of her death, which happened in 1972, is in 2012 and I wish to make a re-birth possible. In fact, I am arranging for a recording of all her choral works at The Crane School of Music, in Potsdam, New York, with Delos distributing it. Lucy Mauro will do all of Lang’s piano works; and in addition, a Volume II of her songs, which we recorded, is appearing in January 2012 entitled New Love Must Rise.
LM: Donald and I both felt, as we looked at her songs (some 140 were published) that these are really an American treasure and that this music deserved to be heard and performed again. We’ve been working on this project for about four years, researching her music and her fascinating life. Donald discovered her from an article he read online by Laurie Blunsom called “Margaret Ruthven Lang; Boston’s Other Famous Woman Composer” when he was researching American female composers. It started this exciting project.
MMB: Do you think that she is an important composer? Why?
DG: She is an important composer; yet, because of her decision to stop composing and in fact destroying most of everything she could get her hands on, she has little influence. This mantel of importance was passed on to Amy Beach, who is studied as the important American female composer. Yet Lang, with her melodic gift, her philosophical directness and her startling harmony, is a much more interesting composer. This period is often called by musicologists as the “Black Hole” of American music because nothing worthwhile was produced. This CD shows how wrong they are.
LM: Yes, I think she is an important composer because of the quality of her music but not only. She had a prominent position in the musical life of turn of the century Boston: Her works were performed by some of the great artists of the time, and she associated with many of the exceptional musicians of the period, both from America and Europe.
MMB: Mr George, why did you want to sing and record her songs, bearing in mind your operatic repertoire?
DG: I have always loved singing concert repertoire. Finding a trove of American songs, which have an international appeal, was intriguing to me. I played these songs for various people and all were interested, which convinced me that I was on to something important.
MMB: Ms Mauro, as a pianist, why did you want to play and record these particular songs?
LM: Margaret Lang was a gifted pianist and this shows in her writing. The songs are very pianistic; she makes great use of the piano in depicting the texts – colourful registers, interesting voicing of chords, varied textures and uses of the pedal. She was meticulous in her performance directions and notations. I also liked the variety of expression and the importance the piano plays in each of her songs – they are truly collaborative works for singer and pianist. I am looking forward to recording all of her solo piano works for Delos, which, like her songs, show a wide variety of expression.
MMB: What are your personal feelings regarding these songs?
DG: I enjoy singing these songs and, as an American, I find the appeal is also that I understand them quickly and easily. I do not have to research and study the background of the song as I would, let us say, Schubert or Debussy or even Britten. I “know where she is coming from” even if one considers the Boston “reserve” one finds in the expression. Yet that dampening of the emotional expression is something I find interesting.
LM: Performing and recording these songs has been a very special experience – connecting with Lang’s expression and musical creativity and her fascinating life and personality. Donald and I are both so enthusiastic about the music! It’s a real joy to perform it.
MMB: How do you think that Margaret Ruthven Lang ranks amidst other American composers in general and female composers in particular (American or any other nationality)?
DG: Lang was compared to Cecile Chaminade in her day as one of the most important women composers in the US. Unfortunately, we cannot judge her for her major works, as she destroyed them all (as did Nadia Boulanger). Why? Lucy and I wrote an article about this for the Society of American Music. With what is in existence, I find her in the top ranks of song composers and better than Beach.
LM: So many writers during her time described Lang’s songs not only as her best works, but also the best produced by an American female composer. I certainly agree with that, and feel that her best songs can stand with those of our prominent American song composers. Unfortunately, we don’t have her orchestral and chamber works, as she destroyed them.
MMB: If you had to compare Ms Lang's songs with some of Schubert's Lieder or for example, Fauré's typical Mélodies Françaises, would you say that there are parallels or that Ms Lang's songs are different? Why?
DG: We do not have writings of Lang as to the songs and why she wrote them in this way, as she destroyed her letters, and the many notebooks and diaries are also “edited”. So, one must assume she did the destruction. Why? Again, who knows? One must assume that she, like Brahms, wanted to control what people thought. I feel her songs have definite parallels because she, like Schubert and Fauré, chose national poets, American poets (and quite a few women) and many of her songs have a distinct “American” directness and philosophical thought. Many have also a clear folk song quality and Lang, as most Americans of the day, wrote many Scottish and Irish ballads, which appealed to the taste of the period. There is one French song (on Volume II), which is stunningly beautiful in the elegiac setting of the poem, and also a German one (she wrote a few but they are lost), which is also charming in its melancholy. She spoke French and German. I am not sure of other languages.
LM: These two composers each represent music influenced by a certain culture: Schubert’s Lieder are imbued with Viennese folk tunes and Fauré’s are in a quintessentially French style. There is a parallel to Lang’s music, as it is a typically turn of the century American style, and like Schubert and Fauré, represents really some of the finest.
MMB: You have mentioned above that Ms Lang's songs are quintessential American. Would you please elaborate?
DG: Yes, I really think they are. Lang often chose American poets who expressed clear ideas on typical subjects around her and the ideas of the day. One cannot say that she composes like a Wolf; however, she does use psychological underpinnings to the songs. She does not use symbolist poets, as did the French of the day, yet songs like Snowflakes or Chimes use impressionistic compositional ideas. This clarity of thought, in both poem and form, as well as the attention to melody are for me quintessentially American. Copeland, of course, did it later and had a great success with his twelve songs. Lang had a considerable success with her 140 (!).
LM: Lang’s music is very American in its simplicity, directness and outlook. The poets that she used were often American as well. Her music also has a certain reserve to it, which might be considered part of her American style.
MMB: Historically, in America, she was a pioneer. How important do you think she was (is?) for American female musicians of the past and present?
DG: I do not think she had much influence as she felt her “place” was to take care of her father and her mother, as was customary for a woman in the Boston of her day. She did little to promote her music and, after her decision to stop composing and the destruction of her music, she was forgotten. At the end of the premiere of her overture, in Boston, she hid and did not take a bow. This is not the attitude of a person who, like others, worked at pushing her music. I feel however that, with this renaissance of her works, she will have her rightful place in the history books. I have discovered some handwritten orchestral parts of her last work, The Heavenly Noel and of her most popular piece Irish Love Song both of which we recorded. However, this can only give us a “taste” of what she could do and not what she actually did in her major orchestral works.
LM: Lang is very important as an inspiration for American musicians today and as a significant composer of her time. I think, once more people hear her music and the craftsmanship of her compositions, that they will recognise her contribution. Rupert Hughes in his book Contemporary American Composers, from 1900, said there was such depth and sincerity in her music that he felt it would become more appreciated with the years.
MMB: Why do you think that her work has largely been forgotten and is seldom (if at all) performed in the concert hall today?
DG: The only music left is music that happens to be in libraries and which the libraries (thanks to the internet and Inter Library Loan) have made available. I should hope that through this activity and publicity, we might discover more of her music and that an orchestral score might turn up. I came across the handwritten parts in the New England Conservatory and I found an aria for baritone and piano in the New York public library. All by pure chance!
LM: After she stopped composing in 1919, she lived another 50 years devoting her life to religious work and essentially doing nothing to promote her music. Unfortunately, culture and music had changed so much that it seems it was easy for her to “disappear”. We’re hoping that this CD and the 2nd volume of songs, New Love Must Rise, coming out in January 2012 as well as other upcoming CDs of her music will start to change that situation.
MMB: Mr George and Ms Mauro, thank you both very much for making time to answer my questions and for giving such detailed, interesting answers.